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Obama and the Haitian earthquake

Daniel P. Erikson

Erikson

Photo: U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/Released
U.S. soldiers and sailors load a helicopter with earthquake relief supplies in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 23, 2010.

When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama quickly absorbed the depth of the tragedy and necessity of a robust U.S. response. The immediate effort rightly focused on meeting urgent humanitarian needs, but this should not eclipse the larger need to strengthen Haiti’s political institutions and lay the groundwork for democratic elections. Unless the U.S. adopts a proactive role, Haiti’s fragmented political landscape threatens to deteriorate into a political vacuum that will compound the current crisis.

The scope of the damage was —and remains— simply astounding by any measure. Port-au-Prince lay in ruins in what is almost certainly the single greatest urban catastrophe in modern history. With the official death toll now at 220,000 and rising, the Haitian quake is already one of the 10 deadliest natural disasters in history and is on track to surpass the 2004 Asian tsunami. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) now estimates that the cost of rebuilding homes, schools and infrastructure could cost as much as US$14 billion —more than double the country’s annual GDP.

The enormity of the challenge has mobilized the Obama administration to mount an unprecedented effort to help provide relief and assistance in the recovery of its badly damaged neighbour. The U.S. government swiftly readied urban rescue units, medical ships and military forces to aid the country in its time of crisis and played a key role in co-ordinating the support of the broader international community. The government initially offered US$100 million to contribute to the relief and recovery effort and by Feb. 17, the amount of money mobilized or pledged by the U.S. government totalled US$636 million according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Some 40 per cent of that amount —totalling US$250 million— represented the expense of the U.S. military support for humanitarian relief supplied by the Pentagon, but USAID also provided more than US$380 million in aid, principally through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The strong initial U.S. response, backed by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and endorsed by members from both parties in the Congress, was one of the few bright spots during an undeniably tragic moment.

But the earthquake and its aftermath have severely jeopardized the slow but steady climb out of the political and economic abyss that Haiti had witnessed prior to Jan. 12. Haiti’s recent stability had been a hard won but fragile achievement. In 2008, widespread riots were prompted by a 40 per cent rise in the costs of basic food commodities, which cut deeply into the standard of living of a majority of the population subsisting on less than two dollars per day. At the time, the Haitian food crisis contributed to the ousting of Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis and led to months of political instability. His successor, Michèle Pierre-Louis, fared little better and was removed from office after a 14-month tenure that was dogged by political infighting and concerns over misspending of hurricane relief funding. Her replacement, Jean-Max Bellerive —a respected technocrat who previously served as Minister for External Co-operation— was appointed two months before the quake struck. During an interview in mid-February, he signalled that the emergence of political divisiveness in Haiti threatens to undermine future progress: “You have the feeling that everyone is trying to do his little part and accuse the other one of not doing his part ... Everyone is trying to create conflict when we have the same enemy right now: it’s misery, it’s disaster.” Bellerive is now sounding the alarm: the earthquake may unleash new political forces that will jeopardize the ability of Haitian leaders to govern.

The perilous state of Haiti will challenge the U.S. government’s efforts to portray it as a modest success story, following a decade of tumult and setbacks. President René Préval, who was elected in February 2006, is kept in power today principally by the 9,000-strong, Brazil-led United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a force that entered the country in summer 2004. Haiti remains a source of regional instability and is a continuing political problem.

The U.S has long been in a quandary about where exactly to place Haiti in the context of its overall foreign policy in the Americas, but there is little question that the country has now planted itself as a central priority on Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Haiti presents itself as an enduring concern for U.S. policy-makers due to the country’s deep levels of poverty and ongoing humanitarian crisis, which sustain the flow of migrants to the U.S., and because of its role as a transit point for the flow of Colombian cocaine through the 
Caribbean. There is also a long-standing desire to establish a functional democracy in Haiti, which has been touted as a principal goal of U.S. policy.

Préval is nearing the end of his presidential term and once the Haitian parliament expires he will be left to rule by decree in a country virtually devoid of institutions. There is no obvious successor to Préval, although Haiti has no shortage of aspirants judging by the 34 candidates who sought the top job in the 2006 elections. One wildcard lurks in South Africa, where controversial former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is undoubtedly weighing whether he retains enough support in Haiti to launch an effort to return.

In 2010, the Haitian government will need to work actively with key partners to prevent the emergence of a political vacuum that would hamper the international community’s ability to address the country’s brutal poverty and gaping inequality. The Obama administration could make a positive contribution to democratic governance and the rule of law in Haiti by using its leverage, both in Haiti and with the broader international community, in order to facilitate timely elections and reinvigorating efforts to create a solid development path for the country. If the Haitian earthquake is followed by the country’s political unravelling, then the damage from this natural disaster will be magnified even further and U.S. interests in Haiti will be even harder to achieve.blue square

Daniel P. Erikson is the Senior Associate for U.S. policy and Director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue.


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