Clinton vows to help Haitians chart destiny

Thursday, June 18, 2009 5:19 AM
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“Bob Corbett” <corbetre@webster.edu>

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Posted on Tue, Jun. 16, 2009
Clinton vows to help Haitians chart destiny
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
jcharles@MiamiHerald.com

Haiti’s newest envoy made his first pitch on behalf of the impoverished Carribbean nation Monday, outlining an ambitious list of priorities he plans to tackle on behalf of the United Nations.

”I’ll do my best. It’s a formidable task,” former President Bill Clinton said at a U.N. news conference in New York alongside U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Haitian Foreign Minister Alrich Nicolas. “This is the best chance that Haitians have ever had.”

Clinton did not say when he will make his first visit to Haiti as U.N. special envoy but his focus comes as Haitian President René Préval tries to avert yet another political crisis.

A decision last month by Haiti’s parliament to raise the country’s minimum wage from $1.70 to $4.90 a day has triggered weeks of protests by a group that characterizes itself as state university students.

Last week, as Préval attempted to negotiate a compromise between the country’s leading business owners and lawmakers, protesters erected barricades, burned tires and stoned government and private vehicles around the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. They are demanding that Préval sign the legislation — or face whatever comes.

Protesters even attacked Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis’ student-oriented nongovernmental organization in Port-au-Prince. At least two dozen people have been arrested so far, and police say most are not students.

The issue has become a political football for Préval’s opponents, raising suspicions among foreign diplomats and others that the demonstrations may be less about raising the minimum wage and more an effort to destabilize the government by forcing the resignation of Pierre-Louis, Préval or both.

A study by Haiti’s garment industry argues that the wage increase would immediately cost the country’s ailing assembly industry 14,000 jobs and kill any chances of Haiti benefiting from the U.S. Congress-approved HOPE II legislation that Clinton, Ban and others have been championing as a way to create desperately needed jobs. The legislation, which already has created 11,000 new jobs, gives Haiti duty-free access to the U.S. textile market for woven and knit clothing made in Haiti using fabrics from countries outside the Western Hemisphere.

”This proposal as is would be the death of HOPE,” Georges Sassine, Haiti’s point man on the legislation said Monday soon after leaving another round of negotiations with Préval at the presidential palace.

CLINTON’S AGENDA

Clinton did not address the controversy at his news conference, instead focusing on outlining his goals in the coming months as a special envoy reporting to the U.N. secretary general. He does not intend to personally staff the Haiti office nor involve himself in the U.N.’s or Haiti’s day-to-day operations.

”We will continue to elevate awareness of both the pain and the promise of Haiti in the international community and that there are real genuine economic opportunities there,” he said, dismissing reports in the Haitian media that his $1-a-year job was part of an imperialistic plot to take over Haiti.

“All I want to do is help the Haitians take over control of their own destiny. That’s all I have ever wanted for Haiti. That’s all the secretary general wants.”

To help accomplish this, Clinton said he plans on helping the hurricane-ravaged nation rebuild by attracting private investors and alternative energy sources, encouraging better coordination among thousands of nongovernmental organizations already working on the ground, and getting the international community to ante up the $353 million in pledges it promised at April’s donors conference in Washington.

”We want to encourage the donors to honor the commitments they have already made at the donor’s conference,” Clinton said.
But getting donors to ante up their pledges may be the least of the former president’s or Haiti’s challenges.
”The current upheaval shows how much resentment toward the Préval government still lingers below the surface, driven by the government’s inability to resolve the pressing economic distress facing the country,” said Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean expert with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

”No one can doubt Bill Clinton‘s ability to mobilize the attention and resources of the international community on behalf of Haiti. The question is whether he can somehow help to create an environment where the Haitians themselves can work together to effect positive change in their country,” he added.
“On the basis of the current upheaval, this is a monumental, and perhaps impossible, task.”

WAGE ISSUES

Observers say while Préval believes Haitians need to make a livable wage, he is concerned about how the minimum-wage increase will take away Haiti’s competitive edge as it tries to lure textile companies to its shores.

In hopes of reaching a compromise, Préval has spent the past week leading all-day negotiations. On Monday, some business leaders said he had come up with a plan that would give an immediate boost to garment workers by raising entry level pay to $2.40 a day with room to earn more for top producers. All other industries would get the $4.90 minimum wage.

But two lawmakers pushing the increase — Deputy Steven Benoit of the lower house, and Senate President Kely Bastien — both told The Miami Herald that after three days of meetings with Préval the issue still is not settled. ”There is no compromise. We are still waiting on the president to send his proposal,” Benoit said.

Special correspondent Stewart Stogel contributed to this report from the United Nations.

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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