Quake may provide chance for fresh start in U.S.-Haiti relations

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; A01

For nearly two decades, Democrats and Republicans have tussled over U.S. policy in Haiti, resulting in an inconsistent and troubled relationship despite the delivery of about $3 billion in aid.

The devastating earthquake came just as the Caribbean nation had finally achieved a measure of political stability and even inklings of new investor interest -- and as the Obama administration was preparing to announce new policies that it hoped would win broad consensus on how to build on those tentative achievements.

The star-crossed relationship between the small country and its much larger neighbor to the north dates to Haiti's founding in 1804 as the second independent nation in the Americas. For about half a century, the United States refused to recognize Haiti because it was founded by former slaves -- a snubbing that some analysts say helped form the insular political culture that continues to plague the country to this day.

"We've been very uneasy neighbors for the past 200 years, and so some people regard a very pro-Haitian stance as a bit of a departure," said Paul Farmer, deputy U.N. envoy to the island nation. "The thing that's striking to me is that any historical view of the problems we're seeing in Haiti shows that we don't have a long and distinguished history of good-neighbor policy towards Haiti."

Limited options

More recently, the Clinton administration's intervention in 1994 to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- who had been ousted in a 1991 coup -- resulted in a fierce backlash from congressional Republicans. The GOP takeover of Congress that year, just weeks after President Bill Clinton sent troops to Haiti, limited the administration's options for a sustained presence in the country. Troops left after two years, after the intervention met many of the benchmarks that had been set, such as local and national elections -- but that was too soon, as it turned out.

"It was too short of a period to bring about any thoroughgoing change in its political and economic system," said James Dobbins, former U.S. special envoy to Haiti and a key participant in U.S.-led nation-building operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Dobbins, now with the Rand Corp., said such interventions generally take at least seven or eight years to succeed.

Instead of thriving, Haiti has remained stuck in a cycle of poverty and despair. With 9 million people, it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and has the region's highest rates of HIV/AIDS and child mortality. About 70 percent of the adults are without jobs -- and a "youth tsunami" will bring 1 million more looking for work in the next five years.

The country also has suffered from a history of political dysfunction, especially after the brutal military dictatorship that ruled from the 1950s to the 1980s.

"The Haitians are a wonderful, warm people, but they cannot put together a political system that lasts," said Robert B. Killebrew, a senior fellow at the Center for New American security and a retired Army colonel who helped organize the Clinton-era intervention.

Aristide, a controversial former priest who critics said was linked to the flourishing drug trade, finished out his term in 1996 and then was reelected in 2001. The country slid into increasing turmoil during Aristide's reign, and while George W. Bush's administration said it recognized him as the democratically elected leader, he received little support and was ultimately ousted under disputed circumstances during a violent rebellion in 2004. He left the country on a U.S. plane and later said he had been forced to resign and was kidnapped -- charges Bush administration officials denied at the time.

Roger Noriega, an assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the Bush presidency, said that the administration tried to work with Aristide but that "it was a very difficult relationship." He credited the Clinton administration with having made "valiant effort, almost to a fault," of trying to bolster Aristide because it was "heavily invested" in his success.

Once again, international forces intervened to restore order, though the Bush administration, consumed with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not contribute troops to the U.N.-led mission. Aristide's departure ended some of the tensions between Republicans and Democrats over Haiti, but it also had the perverse effect of reducing the attention paid to Haiti's plight in Washington.

"No sooner had the controversy over Haiti faded, U.S. interest in Haiti faded," Dobbins said.

Clinton presence

Haiti's current president, René Préval, had succeeded in calming the political climate, but then the nation was hit by four hurricanes in 2008 -- and the global recession -- before its latest tragedy.

For the current fiscal year, the Obama administration requested $293 million in aid for Haiti, including $33 million to improve government services and $63 million to bolster economic growth -- roughly equivalent to the amounts requested in the final year of the Bush administration. But the administration strongly suggested the commitment would be boosted once its policy review was completed.

Haitian officials had expressed optimism that the potent combination of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former president Clinton -- who was named special U.N. envoy to the island nation last year -- would finally turn the world's spotlight back to Haiti. The Clintons have deep connections to Haiti, beginning with their honeymoon there in 1975, and the secretary of state canceled a trip to Asia this week and flew back through the night so she could appear on six morning television shows on Thursday promoting relief for Haiti.

In a signal of her interest in the country, Clinton had appointed one of her closest confidantes, her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, to head the policy review.

"I am confident that this government is not looking for the United States to take over. They are looking for a good partner," Mills said Thursday. "We actually see our role as ensuring that the leadership of Haiti is able to provide the leadership that the Haitian people properly expect them to provide."

Analysts said that the scope of this latest devastation provides an opportunity for Haiti to start fresh. "The best news is President Clinton's engagement. He is good-hearted, and he has a significant chance to make a monumental legacy in Haiti," Noriega said. "There is no reason that in 40 years Haiti cannot be the engine of prosperity in the Caribbean."

Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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