COLUMN: Why Clinton went to Haiti
By Dan Moffett
Palm Beach Post Columnist
Monday, April 27, 2009
President Obama believes that Americans want an administration that can take on more than one problem at a time. That assertion won't be more evident than it was two weeks ago when Hillary Clinton visited Haiti.
Here was the U.S. secretary of state, during the first months of her tenure, touring Port-au-Prince when a remarkable assortment of urgent assignments appeared to be waiting most everywhere else.
Why take on Haiti, which has been in one form of crisis or another since it became a nation nearly 200 years ago, when Pakistan is deteriorating, Afghanistan is escalating and Iraq awaits life after U.S. occupation?
Why visit Haiti when Somali pirates are on the prowl and Iranian zealots are pursuing nuclear arms? There is no peace in the Middle East, of course, and no economic stability in much of Europe.
The border issues with Mexico aren't getting any better, despite all the wall-building, and who knows what Hugo Chavez is up to in Venezuela?
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There are enough human rights and genocide issues in Africa to keep an army of secretaries of state busy. And now, speaking of Mexico, there's swine flu to worry about.
Mrs. Clinton's trip to Haiti was a policy statement in itself. It said that the Obama administration is as serious about maintaining a broad and ambitious agenda in foreign policy as on the domestic front.
After eight years of letting other countries - notably China - begin to get a foothold in the Caribbean and Latin America, this president and secretary of state actually are going to pay attention to what goes on in their hemisphere.
Mrs. Clinton, in an interview with The Miami Herald
, also signaled a turn toward pragmatism in U.S.-Haiti relations. While she reaffirmed the policy of the Coast Guard interdicting Haitian refugees at sea, she said the White House is considering a change in its approach to deportations - at least, for the short term.
About 30,000 Haitian migrants are in the United States, awaiting deportation, and the administration is considering giving them Temporary Protected Status and allowing them to remain in the country for a specific period of time.
The designation is typically given for humanitarian reasons to immigrants from countries that have suffered natural disasters. El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sudan and Somalia are among the recent TPS designates.
During the last hurricane season, Haiti was hit with back-to-back storms that inflicted an estimated $1 billion in damage. Such estimates, though, are highly theoretical because of the country's deep poverty and dysfunctional government.
In Florida, a storm year with $1 billion in damage might seem relatively insignificant. When it comes to Haiti, a billion in damage might as well be a trillion.
Allowing migrants to remain in the United States temporarily would help keep the pipeline of remittances flowing to the island, and remittances account for about $1.8 billion, or as much as 30 percent of the Haitian economy. Mrs. Clinton said the administration is mindful of these numbers and also of the impact of legions of returning refugees.
"What a tremendous burden it would be on Haiti," she said, "if all of a sudden they were forced to accommodate the thousands of people who were otherwise working in our country."
A bipartisan coalition of Florida lawmakers supports Temporary Protected Status for Haiti, and so do many human rights groups. President Bush ignored repeated overtures to grant the status last fall.
Florida was up for grabs in the presidential election, and the gesture could have stoked the fires of xenophobia and anti-immigrant radicalism. Americans showed what they thought of that base and its ideology on election day.
But for roughly three decades, from the mid-1950s until the mid-1980s, the U.S. government supported the father-and-son Duvalier regime that did much to damage Haiti and make life miserable for Haitians. In 1994, President Clinton sent in American forces to restore Haiti's elected leader.
A coalition of nations and financial groups has pledged $324 million to help Haiti recover from the storms, $57 million of that coming from the U.S. But Mr. Obama doesn't have to dip into the Treasury or wrangle with Congress to bring relief to the poorest country in the hemisphere. With the stroke of a pen, he can let Haitians help Haitians.