First lady makes a surprise stop in Haiti

By Robin Givhan
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 2:46 PM

MEXICO CITY -- First lady Michelle Obama arrived in Haiti on Tuesday morning on an unannounced humanitarian mission.

Accompanied by Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, Obama is making a one-day stop in Port-au-Prince en route to Mexico City, where she is scheduled to launch an international campaign encouraging young people to become actively involved in their communities.

The visit to the Haitian capital, which was virtually destroyed by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in January, will give the first lady an opportunity to extend a caring hand to the Haitian people and to draw attention to their dire circumstances.

The trip is also intended to emphasize "the enduring U.S. commitment to help Haiti recover and rebuild," according to a White House statement. The two high-profile emissaries will also "thank the women and men across the whole of the U.S. government for their extraordinary efforts in Haiti during the past three months. They will also reach out to the UN and international relief communities in recognition of the truly global effort underway to help Haiti."

Obama and Biden toured the Haitian capital by helicopter, getting a bird's-eye view of the battered landscape where more than a million people are homeless -- many living under tarps and in tents. Obama and Biden also met with Haitian President Rene Preval and his wife, Elisabeth Delatour Preval.

Speaking with Elisabeth Preval, Obama described her first impressions: "It's powerful," she said. "The devastation is definitely powerful."

Obama and Biden arrived in Haiti at a time when aid workers and local officials are particularly concerned about how displaced residents will survive as the rainy season begins and hurricanes become more likely.

Obama follows in a long line of previous first ladies -- Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush -- who have served as goodwill ambassadors and voices of solace to those in need.

The stopover in Haiti was organized in conjunction with Obama's Mexico trip -- which is her first time as a solo act on the world stage. The visit to Haiti was not publicly announced until the last minute for security reasons, in particular, crowd control.

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