Donald Trump has discovered Haiti.
The Republican presidential nominee has jumped on revelations that Bill and Hillary Clinton played favorites in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that took the lives of 200,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless. ABC News reported that “friends of Bill” and “WJC VIPs” got special access in the scramble for lucrative reconstruction contracts in the country.
On a tour of southern Florida this week, Trump praised the efforts of Haitian immigrants and their contributions to the United States and blasted the Clintons’ favoritism. “Folks, there has never been anything like this, what’s gone on here,” Trump told a crowd in Panama City, Florida. “Today as Haiti’s death toll from Hurricane Matthew is on the rise, we should never forget how Bill and Hillary Clinton handled Haiti the last time out.”
It’s not often that Haiti becomes a topic in a U.S. presidential race. The last time I can remember was the argument between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign about what to do with Haitian boat people. Clinton strongly criticized the Bush administration for intercepting Haitian refugees at sea and returning them to Haiti. Of course, once he won, President Clinton not only continued intercepting the boats, he jailed thousands of the desperate refugees in Guantanamo.
Trump comes late to Haiti. The Clintons have had a special interest in the country ever since they honeymooned there in 1975. President Bill Clinton restored Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994 after he was expelled in a coup. Clinton and former president George W. Bush agreed to head the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, created in 2010 after the devastating earthquake, to raise billions in aid. And Clinton became co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.
Trump is right that many Haitians now loathe the Clintons. There are as many conspiracy theories among Haitians about the Clintons as you would find at a Trump rally. Some resent their heavy-handed role in Haitian politics. Others believe they have somehow found a way to benefit financially or have only helped the wealthy elite. The rumor mill has been fueled by gaffes like Hillary Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham joining the advisory board of VCS Mining, a Delaware-based company that has tried to raise money to mine for gold in Haiti.
Most small countries would bask in the uncommon attention from the American presidential contenders, especially after a humanitarian disaster of the scale of Hurricane Matthew. But Haiti has rarely benefited from being in the spotlight in the past. The post-earthquake reconstruction efforts had little impact on the lives of most Haitians. A U.N. peacekeeping force introduced cholera, which has cost nearly 10,000 lives and sickened almost 800,000. The major powers manipulated the 2010 presidential elections to put an ineffective Michel Martelly in power. Martelly battled legislators during his five years in office and, when he stepped down earlier this year, left behind a depleted legislature and an interim government ill-equipped to manage the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
Now facing a new crisis, interim President Jocelerme Privert has declared he wants his government to manage the reconstruction. His desire is to avoid a repeat of the post-earthquake efforts, which were largely in the hands of foreign “experts” with little understanding of Haiti’s complex social dynamics. But the fear of government corruption, in Haiti and abroad, makes such a scenario unlikely. Trump’s primary interest in Haiti is using it to bash the Clintons and he would likely lose interest once in the White House. But with Hillary Clinton’s election looking increasingly certain, Haiti is unlikely to escape the close — and unrewarding — scrutiny that it has endured for the last two decades.