He brings star power and loads of contacts in the U.S. administration, along with multilateral donors and investors. But can he fix what really ails the hemisphere’s poorest country—its ineffectual, feckless government?
Since his recent appointment as United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton has been called, half-seriously, “president of Haiti” and “viceroy.” The lofty nicknames reflect Haitians’ belief that they have at last found a figure whose international prominence will open a new window of opportunity for this deeply troubled Caribbean nation of roughly 9 million people, where the vast majority eke out a living on less than $1 a day.

Clinton’s selection was warmly received in Washington DC, in Port-au-Prince and among Haitians living overseas—the key stakeholders in Haiti’s future well-being. But that Clinton was brought to the scene at all was a tacit admission that the UN, which has had a force of 7,000 soldiers and more than 1,000 police personnel in Haiti since 2004, lacked the power to turn things around by itself.

The force, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, has withstood criticism from almost every quarter in Haiti for failing to curb violence and, in some instances, for abusing Haitians. Still, MINUSTAH’s work has been a catalyst for renewed optimism in Haiti and abroad.

It has, for instance, helped to transform the Haitian National Police into an institution that has won respect from the population at large. Around the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, police are ubiquitous, and there is a feeling that people are safer than they have been in a long time. People stay out later, and a semblance of nightlife is returning to the bars and restaurants of Petion Ville—the middle class suburb perched on the hilltops overlooking Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings and other forms of violent crime are down throughout the country.

For his part, Clinton has narrowed his mission to a few basic but deeply important elements: disaster mitigation and prevention; ensuring that donors disburse pledges; supporting recovery programs; and getting more private international investors to Haiti. All of these signal a plan to shake loose more money from donors and investors to shore up Haiti’s crippled economy and devastated infrastructure. In effect, he’ll be spending more time outside Haiti than inside, where Haiti’s dysfunctional political system has been as much, if not more, a cause of the country’s economic woes than donor or investor recalcitrance.

“I’m going to go around the world to hector every last dime from everybody who promised to give money,” Clinton said during a gathering of Haitian-Americans in Miami in August. “I’ve been deluged with emails from people I don’t know and from friends of mine, people I didn’t even know did work in Haiti.”

Bad Government

Haiti’s problems—runaway population growth, acute shortages of food and basic necessities, environmental degradation—seem insurmountable when coupled with a weak and dysfunctional government.

During the Miami gathering of the Haitian diaspora, one common complaint was the lack of transparency in Haiti’s bureaucracy, making it difficult and risky to open businesses there. The lack of a strong judiciary and the rule of law make these potential investors, whom Clinton is particularly counting on for help in his mission, leery of plunking down their hard-earned wealth in a place where it can vanish in a heartbeat. Most remember the case of Franck Cine, a highly successful telecommunication executive with MCI who went on to found the telecommunication company Haitel in 1999. Three years ago, Cine was snared by a mismanagement scandal of Socabank, where he was a major shareholder and board member.

The government arrested Cine and he spent almost three years under arrest before he was recently released without any explanation. He was never officially charged with a crime. “If it can happen to Franck, it can happen to anyone of us,” said a Haitian-American, New York physician who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Just because we’re Haitians doesn’t mean we have to make unwise investments there. We should have some basic guarantees.”

Despite these concerns, there is an air of optimism across this tiny nation -— with good reason. Haiti has had its debt of roughly $1.2 billion wiped out from the international lenders, thus saving the impoverished country about $50 million in annual payments. The U.S. and Canada have modified their earlier travel warnings, which kept many would-be tourists away. A slew of aid programs, including road and market construction projects, are visible signs that Haiti is moving forward. U.S. trade legislation, passed last year, HOPE II, throws open a huge window of opportunity. HOPE II offers Haiti duty-free, quota-free access to U.S. markets for the next nine years. No other nation enjoys a similar advantage. Although HOPE II has only added about 12,000 jobs, some say it is a start of a possible boon at a time of rising protectionism. “For the first time in history, we have a plan to help Haiti,” said Alonzo Fulgham, an official at the United States Agency for International Development in Washington. “The stars are aligned.”

Can Clinton fulfill the hopes that the stakeholders, as well as Haitians themselves, have for him? According to Robert Maguire, a political science professor at Trinity College in Washington DC and a leading expert on Haiti, the ex-president is well-qualified for the job. “I think Clinton will draw tremendously on his approach to his work in Haiti from his two-year experience as Special UN Envoy to post-tsunami recovery (in Asia),” Maguire said. “Also, through the work of his foundation and all his other contacts, he ought to be in good shape to ‘deliver.’ President Clinton’s world-wide network of human, material and financial resources is amazing.” A major challenge: Haitian government ministers will need to come together with the private sector and the myriad NGOs now in the country to agree on common goals that place national well-being above personal or institutional interests. The post-tsunami experience in Asia was a testimony to the effectiveness of collaboration among people of different social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, some of whom had been actually fighting each other before the disaster. Clinton’s success at helping to achieve this in the wreckage of the tsunami offers some grounds for optimism that he can apply the same lessons to Haiti.

Clinton may also be motivated by a private agenda—namely, redressing a key foreign policy failure of his presidency. As a first-term president in 1994, Clinton put the White House behind an effort to return to power President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who had been forced into exile in 1991 following a bloody coup d’etat led by Army General Raoul Cédras. Some 20,000 soldiers and police (most of them American) were sent to Haiti, in what amounted to Clinton’s first foreign policy challenge.

Clinton took these steps despite deep reservations from the Haitian ruling classes, forever suspicious of Aristide’s motives. But under fierce attack from right-wingers in Congress for committing American troops and resources to what they considered a perpetual failed state, Clinton pulled the soldiers out of Haiti and aborted the nation-building steps that were necessary for democracy and economic development to flourish in the hemisphere’s poorest country. At the same time, the failure to effectively pressure President Aristide and his successors to pursue reforms and respect democratic institutions further polarized and paralyzed the country.

A decade later, Haiti found itself plunged into political disarray once again. In 2004, the U.S., France and Canada sent troops to escort Aristide out of the country after the president faced an armed rebellion that was a whisker away from the gates of the National Palace. Many Haitians and liberals in the U.S. believed that Clinton’s subsequent abandonment of Aristide left the Haitian leader with no real allies—and ended up reversing the gains achieved by pushing the army regime from power.

The Haitian diaspora in the U.S. will play a key role in Haiti’s road to recovery. Haitians living and working abroad are actively engaged in various education and health initiatives. They prop up the Haitian economy with $1.2 billion in annual remittances. But for too long, the diaspora lacked coherent leadership.

“In order for the diaspora to come together, we need unity of purpose—a collective agenda,” said Manolia Charlotin, co-founder of Haiti 2015, a U.S.-based initiative for systemic change in Haiti. “For us to get there, we need leadership, selfless leaders who don’t seek glory and inspire others. It’s an enormously difficult challenge.”

A Republic of NGOs

Haiti has come to resemble a “Republic of NGOs,” with some 3,000 organizations—large and small—undertaking what World Bank President Robert Zoellick called “flag-draped, feel-good projects.”

For Haiti to do more than tread water, aid must be coordinated to become more effective. What this means, according to Jocelyn McCalla, president of JMC Strategies in New Jersey, is that Clinton can play a catalytic role in this effort. “[He can] move the ball a bit farther down the line, “ he said, “But he won’t be able to perform miracles, because the Haitians today lack the capacity to properly manage whatever capital is made available to them.”

The U.S. government will also be crucial to Clinton’s success. The widespread optimism in Washington about his appointment may lead to synergy between U.S. policies and programs and those of other international actors. An inter-agency review of Haiti policies and programs, led by the Department of State, is currently underway.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Clinton’s wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, has surrounded herself with people who have long been identified with the goals of democracy, prosperity and human rights in Haiti. These include Harold Koh, State Department General Counsel, who litigated on behalf of Haitian refugees held at Guantánamo in the early 1990s and against the interdiction program; Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff; and Eric Schwartz, head of the refugee bureau, who was a key player on Haitian affairs at the National Security Council during the 1991-1994 period.

Most encouraging of all, the notorious “Haiti fatigue” of the international community following a decade of frustrated hopes for change has apparently disappeared (for the moment anyway). “On this side of the equation the stars are aligned, and that is a good thing,” McCalla said.

Nevertheless, for many in Haiti, particularly the desperately poor, the most significant measure of success for Clinton’s mission will be the restoration of Aristide to power a second time. Haiti’s poverty-stricken majority continue to have a visceral connection with the soft-spoken former priest, whose charisma still looms large even though he has been away for five years. Yet Aristide’s popularity continues to puzzle outsiders. By most measures, his presidency was a failure.

At Aristide’s former home in Tabarre, a banner celebrating the former president’s birthday hangs over the black gate. Graffiti scrawled on the fading walls of the building proclaim, “Aristide has to return soon.” For the moment at least, Bill Clinton, who is no stranger to the art of charismatic leadership, will have to do.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Americas Quarterly Magazine. please visit the magazine @ www.americasquarterly.org

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