It was hardly noticed recently when the White House issued a statement by President Obama commemorating Haitian Flag Day, a holiday not widely noted by Americans.
“The United States and Haiti share a deeply intertwined history and a long-standing friendship,” the statement said, noting the president’s “steadfast commitment to come to the aid of those in Haiti working to ensure that Haiti’s future is stable, sustainable and prosperous.”
Barely anyone else heard, but Haitian Americans were encouraged by the presidential shout-out because it followed other recent and visible signs that the administration intended to put Haiti back on the radar of the United States and the international community.
Shoring up Haiti’s economy is not just about American altruism. It’s also in the best interest of the U.S., diplomatically and financially. U.S. foreign policy in Haiti has had an on-again-off-again approach—including American interference in and manipulation of Haitian political affairs—that has eroded U.S. credibility there and built up resentments.
Additionally, the destitute island nation is geographically in the U.S.’s backyard, and whenever things go wrong there, Haitian refugees take to the high seas and head here, mostly by boat to Florida. Many die in the process while others end up in U.S. detention centers for illegal immigrants where they spend months or years mired in costly immigration court proceedings, or living as undocumented immigrants with friends or family and unable to work legally in the U.S. or support loved ones back home, prompting more desperately poor Haitians to attempt to come here, too. Florida, home to the largest concentration of Haitian and other refugees from the Caribbean, cannot afford to absorb more refugees. The state has been hit hard by the economic recession, and its housing market is in the tank.
For the past five years, the trajectory of the news out of Haiti has gone from bad to worse to terrible to dreadful. Political turmoil and street violence, grinding poverty and brazen kidnappings, deadly hurricanes and floods; environmental degradation, this was the mainstay of news coverage. Foreign investment and tourism were out of the question.
But now words such as “optimism” and “opportunity” are being used in relation to Haiti, and there is a cautious but growing sense of hope that the troubled island nation might actually begin to improve.
Why? Because of the involvement of President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, who was recently named special U.N. envoy to Haiti. There’s nothing like the charismatic and influential presence of the man who ran and won on hope, and the man from a town called Hope, to focus attention on an issue.
Given Haiti’s mammoth challenges, the optimism might be premature and short-lived, but Haiti is already benefiting from an effort by the Obama administration to reengage with Caribbean and Latin American countries after years of waning U.S. interest and influence in the region. Haiti is also benefiting from the presence of 9,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops on the ground. The troops are an investment that U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon hopes will reap dividends of increased political stability that might lead to the economic stability that Haiti needs before it can attract foreign investors. That’s where Clinton, citizen of the world and major money rainmaker, comes in. When Ki-moon named Clinton special U.N. envoy to Haiti last week, the U.N. secretary was banking on Clinton’s popularity, his knowledge about and experience with Haiti, and his success at fundraising to increase donor aid and attract private and government investors to the island.
While Obama has made clear his interest in Latin America and the Caribbean in general, Haiti in particular seems to have grabbed his attention.
“In 1779, freemen from the French colony of Saint Domingue, now the Republic of Haiti, came to the aid of American patriots fighting for freedom at the Siege of Savannah. Today, we remain connected by a Haitian-American community that contributes greatly to the economic, social, cultural, scientific and academic fabric of the United States …,” the president said in his statement. “On this Haitian Flag Day, I am proud to send my warm wishes and those of the American people to the people of Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora as they celebrate during Haitian Heritage Month.”
During the Summit of Americas held in Trinidad in April, Obama asked that Haitian President René Préval be seated next to him at one of the dinners. A few days before the summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Haiti to meet with President Préval and pledged $57 million in additional U.S. aid as part of a $324 million Haiti aid package approved by the Inter-American Development Bank. While she was there, Clinton also hinted that the Obama administration might suspend deportation orders for some 30,000 Haitians living in the United States that Haitian government officials say they cannot reabsorb at this time. Secretary Clinton’s trip followed a visit there by her husband and Ki-moon in March.
(It probably doesn’t hurt that Patrick Gaspard, assistant to President Obama and White House director of political affairs, is Haitian-American—even though U.S. foreign policy in Haiti is not part of his portfolio. Ki-moon’s spokeswoman, Michele Montas, is also Haitian-American.)
These developments follow other recent efforts to help Haiti escape its dire circumstances. Last year, the U.S. Congress granted Haiti access to the American textiles market, allowing the duty-free sale of Haitian textiles here for a decade. These moves make sense given Haiti’s proximity to the U.S., the historical ties between the two countries and American involvement in Haiti’s political affairs over the years. By contributing to Haiti’s economic development and supporting democratic stability, the U.S. might also help blunt the cyclical tides of Haitian “boat people” arriving on Florida shores.
Whether any of this newfound hope and optimism translates into sustained stability is anyone’s guess. After all, many well-intentioned efforts have been made before only to be thwarted by military coups, systemic corruption across government agencies, and mismanagement of donor aid and development projects funded by international aid organizations. And this being the hurricane season, Haiti is just one natural disaster away from further eroding its already weak infrastructure and discouraging potential investors.
Additionally, the U.S. State Department continues to warn Americans not to travel to Haiti because of the risk of violence and kidnappings.
Still, as both Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton, might say, there’s always reason to hope.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.