Former US presidents George W. Bush (2001-2009) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001) visited Haiti for one day on March 22 to call for international aid for the country. The visit helped set the stage for a United Nations (UN) donors’ conference which is to be held in New York on March 31. Current US president Barack Obama appointed Bush and Clinton to head up US relief efforts following a Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people in Port-au-Prince and other parts of southern Haiti. This was Bush’s first visit to Haiti, but the third since the earthquake for Clinton, who is also the UN’s special envoy for Haiti.
During his visit Clinton called for the expansion of the garment assembly sector—the tax-exempt factories, known in Spanish as maquiladoras, that produce mainly for export. To further the expansion, he and Bush called for improved US trade preferences for apparel imports from Haiti. Clinton said South Korean and Brazilian firms were interested in investing if the US strengthened the Haiti Hemispheric Opportunity Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE), which he said he thought “could create more than 100,000 jobs in Haiti in short order.”
Critics have argued that this would take jobs away from workers in the US and the rest of the Caribbean Basin, but Clinton indicated that the main losers would be Chinese workers. “Most of [the proposed increase for Haiti] would be shifted production from Asia to Haiti, so there’d be no greater penetration of American markets and we’d be helping our neighbor, and it could create hundreds of millions of dollars of investment,” he said on March 22.
Several hundred supporters of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide (1991-1995 and 2001-2004) protested Bush’s presence and called for Aristide’s return from his exile in South Africa. Aristide was removed from office in February 2004 while Bush was president. (Agence France Presse March 22 via CyberPresse; Reuters March 22) There were reports that Bush surreptitiously wiped his hand off on Clinton’s shirt after shaking hands with an earthquake victim. (Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, March 24)
Other criticism was directed more at the UN economic proposals associated with Clinton, who as president restored Aristide to power in 1994 with a US-led military intervention; Clinton’s administration also pushed the Haitian government to carry out a drastic reduction of tariffs on imported rice (known in Haiti as “Miami rice”). On March 18 a number of Haitian organizations issued a statement denouncing the UN’s Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment (PDNA) for rebuilding Haiti. The UN document was “produced by a group of 300 international and national functionaries,” excluding Haitian “social actors,” the statement said. The Haitian groups called for a “break with economic dependence” and for the construction of “an economic model that stimulates national production” rather than export-based industries. (“Position des Mouvements sociaux haïtiens sur le processus de ‘reconstruction’ d’Haïti,” March 18)
Earlier in the month Clinton apologized for his role in promoting rice imports for Haiti, which devastated local rice production. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked,” he told the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate on March 10. “It was a mistake. I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.” (Associated Press, March 20 via Huffington Post)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 28
See our last post on Haiti.