By DeWayne Wickham
MONTREAL — When Hillary Clinton talks about Haiti, she chooses her words like distance runners set their stride. For the secretary of State, America’s commitment to the rebuilding of the earthquake-ravaged country is not a political sprint. It’s a marathon.
“We’re going to be there for the Haitian people and be very sensitive to their needs — and do the best job we can to help them,” Clinton told me last week, shortly after she and representatives of 13 other nations concluded talks here on a framework for long-term aid to that impoverished country.
To help Haiti recover, the U.S. has to help it rebuild Port-au-Prince, the capital city that was leveled by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The U.S. also has to help rebuild the country’s shattered economy. “In 30 seconds Haiti lost 60% of its GDP,” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said during the day-long meeting. It’s estimated it will take at least 10 years and $3 billion to rebuild Haiti — and probably a lot more time and money to help shed its identity as the American hemisphere’s poorest country.
Long before the Jan. 12 earthquake, Clinton had Haiti on her mind. Soon after her marriage to Bill Clinton in 1975, the couple honeymooned in Haiti. The Clintons made several return trips, each time growing fonder of the island nation.
Within days of taking the State Department job, Clinton got President Obama’s approval to make Haiti a focus of her diplomatic efforts. “They had suffered. . . . They had really been knocked flat,” she said of the four tropical storms and hurricanes that wracked Haiti in 2008. Those natural disasters took about 800 lives and inflicted $1 billion in damage.
So Clinton had been working closely with Haitian President Rene Preval for a year before the earthquake struck and piled the crumbled remains of collapsed buildings atop the damage done by storms and decades of political upheaval and mismanagement.
In a news conference at the close of the Montreal meeting, Clinton said the U.S. and other countries that were rushing emergency aid to Haiti would be more deliberate in determining a long-term fix to the nation’s problems.
“So we’re trying to do this in the correct order. . . . We actually think it’s a novel idea to do the needs assessment first, and then the planning, and then the pledging (of financial aid),” Clinton said.
That makes sense. Haiti may never get another chance like this to remake itself. People around the world have been traumatized by awful scenes of suffering and desperation — and, for now at least, they are queuing up to offer help.
But Clinton knows this rebuilding job — if not Haiti’s very survival — depends on the willingness of wealthy nations to make a long-term financial commitment to a country that seems to have been on life support for generations. She understands that nothing short of a generation of sustained support will resuscitate Haiti. Clinton wants people to be able to look back at this difficult rebuilding work and say of this effort that “they took their time” and “did it right.” That’s the marathoner in her.
But you have to wonder whether even she has enough endurance to give Haiti the attention it needs — for as long as it needs it — to make it a viable state.