Bill Clinton returns to Haiti on new assignment to speed recovery from devastating earthquake

By Jonathan M. Katz, AP
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bill Clinton returns to Haiti on recovery mission

LEOGANE, Haiti — Bill Clinton returned to Haiti on a new mission Tuesday to invigorate recovery from January’s devastating earthquake and help millions end lives of poverty and danger.

On his first visit since becoming co-chairman of the committee overseeing more than $5.3 billion in international reconstruction aid, the former U.S. president visited the seaside town of Leogane, next to the Jan. 12 epicenter. Less than a fifth of its buildings survived, and thousands of residents are at risk from floods and high winds.

Clinton arrived on the first official day of hurricane season, with experts warning this year’s could be intense because of warm Atlantic waters and a waning the El Nino effect.

Standing under a blazing sun a few yards from dozens of homeless people and their overheated shelters, Clinton said he was not happy with the pace of recovery so far but expressed optimism that conditions could rapidly improve.

“Our attitude is we want to do all this yesterday. But I do think that you will begin to see much, much more rapid activity,” he told reporters, standing beside his co-chairman on the aid committee, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

Probably the biggest outstanding need is shelter. Tarps are pitched in flood zones, aid groups have been slower to build transitional shelters than originally promised, and disagreements with owners over land rights have slowed efforts.

Meanwhile, more people are streaming into homeless camps because they can no longer pay rent or they need food, medical care and other aid. Camp populations are now estimated at 1.5 million, nearly double some of the earliest post-quake counts.

Clinton visited a trio of small, house-shaped shelters built by CHF International with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Aid workers plan to build 125,000 of the shelters at a cost of $1,300 each.

The tarp, steel and wood homes are quake- and hurricane-resistent but residents complained they get too hot inside.

“I’m going to see if there’s any affordable solar-powered fans to put in there,” Clinton said. He also discussed building communal shelters near camps to provide protection in the case of a hurricane or large storm.

Earlier Clinton proposed credit programs for small businesses at a meeting of community leaders and aid officials. The community leaders told him about areas still not receiving aid. Aid workers complained of conflicts over available space for relocation camps. He pledged to help both, by better coordinating the aid effort and negotiating with landowners.

The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission was empowered under an 18-month emergency declaration by Parliament passed shortly before most members’ terms expired and the body essentially dissolved. President Rene Preval has veto power over the commission’s decisions.

During his four-hour visit, Clinton pledged $2 million from his personal foundation for recovery — $1 million for disaster preparedness and the rest to fund the commission’s work. The Haitian government is putting up $1 million for the commission. Its first meeting is Wednesday, at the posh Punta Cana resort in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The panel is viewed as a check on corruption and inefficiency and a guarantor of aid pledges. The funds the commission will oversee could equal Haiti’s $7 billion annual gross domestic product. Many Haitians were pleased to see power taken away from a government that has lost their trust.

But others have doubts. On Tuesday, several hundred people in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, protested the commission as infringing on their sovereignty, hoisting signs that read “Down with Clinton” and “Down with Preval.”

Clinton said the commission is not usurping the power of the state.

“I don’t feel myself at odds with the Haitian government. I see that I’m an advocate for it,” Clinton said.

The prime minister quickly echoed: “We need that help.”

In Leogane the official motorcade zigzagged through the collapsed city center, kicking up dust on the cracked brick roads as U.N. peacekeepers from Sri Lanka guarded the way. Some locals shouted for joy when they spotted Clinton, but others barely gave the passing motorcade a passing glance.

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