How the Clintons’ Haiti development plans succeed – and disappoint
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Deep in the Haitian countryside, peanut farmer Wismith Moricette epitomizes the success of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s charitable work: Through an innovative program backed by the Clintons, the 23-year-old has doubled the yield from his one-acre plot. Along with all those peanuts, Moricette said, have come visions of a brighter future for his wife and young son.
Fifty miles away on Haiti’s Caribbean coast, Anelle Germinal exemplifies another reality of the Clintons’ work here: disappointment. The 33-year-old mother of four has been standing in the baking sun every day for months waiting for work in the struggling Caracol Industrial Park, which the Clintons have touted as a model that would change the economy of this impoverished country.
“They said we would have work,” Germinal said, “but I have nothing.”
Moricette and Germinal are two faces of the Clintons’ increasingly complicated relationship with Haiti, where their high-profile development efforts after a devastating earthquake in 2010 have produced both success and disillusionment.
As Hillary Clinton moves toward a second run for the White House, her family’s global charitable work, mostly through the Clinton Foundation, has come under intense scrutiny. The foundation has accepted large donations from corporations and foreign countries, raising concerns that the Clintons are creating conflicts of interest by blurring the lines between their political, business and charitable interests.
The Washington Post reported last month that the foundation’s donors include seven foreign governments that contributed millions during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Among those donations was a $500,000 contribution for Haiti earthquake relief from the Algerian government that the foundation has acknowledged violated the terms of an ethics agreement with the Obama administration.
The Clintons’ defenders have dismissed concerns about the donations as political sniping, saying the test of the foundation is not where it gets its money but how it spends it. They said their work has created economic opportunity, improved lives for women and girls, raised health standards, and fought the effects of climate change across the developing world.
The work has been especially visible in Haiti, where the Clintons first traveled as young newlyweds in 1975 and where many people credit them with drawing the world’s attention immediately after the earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people.
With former president Clinton assigned by the United Nations to head up the emergency recovery effort and Hillary Clinton guiding official U.S. assistance as secretary of state, the couple helped a vast relief effort that has included some of the world’s richest people, biggest celebrities and most successful businesses. The Clintons also helped mobilize an effort in which international donors pledged $10.4 billion, including $3.9 billion from the United States.
Greg Milne, director of the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti Program, said foundation projects include programs that have helped more than 2,000 small farmers, an artisan-goods company that employs more than 300 people, a fish-farming operation, a cholera treatment center and improvements to schools in some of Haiti’s poorest slums.
Clinton supporters also point out that their successes have come amid Haiti’s chaotic political situation – parliament is not functioning, and President Michel Martelly, dogged by scandal, is ruling with virtually no checks on his power – endemic corruption, weak institutions, poverty, poor public education, terrible roads and other factors that have historically made it extremely difficult for development efforts to succeed.
The country has long had a fraught relationship with foreigners who come to invest and provide aid. Haitians often regard them with gratitude for desperately needed resources, and at the same time with suspicion that their motives are more to make a profit in Haiti than to help it.
Nevertheless, the Clintons are facing a growing backlash that too little has been accomplished in the past five years and that some of the most high-profile projects they have backed – including a just-opened Marriott, another luxury hotel and the industrial park — have helped foreign investors and Haiti’s wealthy elites more than its poor.
“Bill Clinton is a good guy and well-intentioned, but the people here don’t think so — they think he’s here making money,” said Leslie Voltaire, a former government official who worked with Clinton on post-earthquake reconstruction. “There is a lot of resentment about Clinton here. People have not seen results. … They say that Clinton used Haiti.”
In January, Haitian expatriates picketed the Clinton Foundation’s New York headquarters, demanding to know why more progress has not been made with the billions in international aid pledged after the quake.
Said Raymond Joseph, a former Haitian ambassador to the United States: “People are asking, ‘What has Bill Clinton done for us?’ ”
The Clintons’ long influence in Haiti is hard to overstate. As president in 1994, Bill Clinton deployed about 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been ousted in a coup in 1991. Clinton’s trade policies as president, which he later called a “mistake,” were devastating to Haiti’s rice production and made it harder for the Haiti to feed itself.
In 2009, Clinton was named U.N. special envoy for Haiti, and he has visited the country 37 times since then.
After the earthquake, Clinton united with former president George W. Bush to create the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which distributed $54.4 million in the two years after the earthquake. Separately, the Clinton Foundation has spent more than $30 million in Haiti and led efforts through the Clinton Global Initiative to persuade private companies to spend vastly more.
“What I think most people don’t know, even if they’ve been on the ground there, is these people are immensely talented,” Bill Clinton said in a 2010 interview with NPR. “They have suffered from 200 years of outside and inside abuses and neglect and misgovernment. And a lot of the people who’ve gone there even to help them in the best of faith have done so in a way that would never have allowed them to support themselves and to lift themselves up. And now there is a true consensus for and determination for a sustainable, comprehensive, long-term, modern society in Haiti. And they can do it.”
But as the initial emergency response has evolved into efforts to ensure Haiti’s long-term development, Haitians increasingly complain that the Clintons’ most ambitious plans are disconnected from the realities of most people in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
For instance, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund invested more than $2 million in the Royal Oasis hotel, where a sleek suite with hardwood floors costs more than $200 a night and the shops sell $150 designer purses and $120 men’s dress shirts.
One recent afternoon, the hotel appeared largely empty, and with tourism hardly booming five years after the quake, locals fear it may be failing. A spokeswoman for Occidental Hotels, the chain that runs the hotel, said that occupancy is up this year and that the project will “mature in the long run.”
Bill Clinton also introduced Marriott officials to Denis O’Brien, an Irish telecom billionaire who has contributed millions to the Clinton Foundation. The result is a $45 million Marriott Hotel that opened this month in central Port-au-Prince. O’Brien said no Clinton money was invested in the project.
The ultra-modern hotel is adjacent to the headquarters of Digicel, a communications giant owned by O’Brien. When The Post visited recently, many, if not most, of the guests seemed to be foreign businessmen connected to Digicel.
Clinton defenders argue that hotels that cater to well-heeled foreign guests can still buy local products and provide local jobs, and those guests are often involved in businesses investments or aid projects that benefit the neediest Haitians.
O’Brien said his hotel employs 200 Haitians, is filled with locally purchased art and serves food from Haiti. O’Brien leads the Haiti Action Network, a collection of private businesses that have committed through the Clinton Global Initiative to spend $500 million on projects in Haiti. He and his company just built 150 schools and rebuilt Port-au-Prince’s historic Iron Market.
“I don’t know any modern leader that has spent more time helping a country and being so effective,” O’Brien said of Bill Clinton. “He works like a demon in the developing world. Nobody is doing that. Is Tony Blair doing that?”
Other Clinton-backed projects have not delivered on lofty promises: A 2011 housing expo that cost more than $2 million, including $500,000 from the Clinton Foundation, was supposed to be a model for thousands of new units but instead has resulted in little more than a few dozen abandoned model homes occupied by squatters.
Controversy surrounding the Clintons only deepened with the recent revelation, contained in an upcoming book by Peter Schweizer, that Tony Rodham — Hillary Clinton’s younger brother — serves on the advisory board of a U.S.-based company that in 2012 won one of Haiti’s first two gold-mining permits in 50 years. After objection from the Haitian senate, the permits have been placed on hold.
“Neither Bill Clinton nor the brother of Hillary Clinton are individuals who share the interests of the Haitian people,” said Samuel Nesner, an anti-mining activist who thinks mining poses great environmental risks and will mainly benefit foreign investors. “They are part of the elite class who are operating to exploit the Haitian people.”
Clinton Foundation officials said Bill Clinton had been unaware of Rodham’s involvement in the mine project. A spokesman for Hillary Clinton said she does not know the chief executive of the mine.
“I strongly believe the Clintons came to Haiti in good faith and they wanted to have an impact,” said Jean-Max Bellerive, who was Haiti’s prime minister at the time of the earthquake and served as co-chairman with Bill Clinton on the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. (Bellerive is also on the mining company’s advisory board.)
But, Bellerive said, the former president was hampered by a “weak” staff of U.S. aides who were “more interested in supporting Clinton than helping Haiti.” Echoing a common sentiment in Haiti, Bellerive also said Clinton should have listened more carefully to the opinions and needs of ordinary Haitians. “How do you want a guy coming from Davos or Dubai to get the real feeling for what’s happening downstairs?” he said.
Milne, of the Clinton Foundation, said the criticism is wrong and unsurprising.
“President Clinton is one of the most dedicated and highest-profile advocates for Haiti, and he is still engaged while others have moved on,” he said. “So it’s not surprising that for some he is an easy target for natural frustration that the change we all want isn’t happening faster.”
Milne said the country has experienced strong economic growth in recent years, with more Haitians employed and more children in school.
“Is Haiti building back better?” Milne said, using a phrase that the Clintons frequently quote. “In many ways yes, though challenges remain.”
Paul Farmer, a doctor whose Partners in Health has helped provide medical care in rural Haiti since the 1980s and whose health network has received more than $1.8 million from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to establish a medical residency program, also praised the Clintons’ work. He said he forged partnerships at CGI meetings with private businesses and other charities for a variety of projects he said would not have taken place without the Clinton connection.
He said that by any objective measure, Haiti has been improving, in part because of the Clintons’ efforts.
“Is the whole country built back better? I doubt it,” Farmer said. “Water insecurity and food insecurity are very pressing problems. But if you look at the health statistics for Haiti … infant mortality, child mortality — they’re all improving.”
Still, even some who have benefited from Clinton-backed programs have grown disillusioned.
“I read that Bill Clinton is the most popular politician in America, but he couldn’t get elected mayor in Haiti today,” said Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya University, a private school that was largely damaged in the earthquake and received $914,000 from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to create an entrepreneurship center.
Lumarque said the program has helped hundreds of Haitians turn their informal street businesses into formal entities that keep records, pay taxes and have potential for growth.
He said it has been a huge success — but stands apart from the usual strategy of foreign groups, including the Clintons, who tend to favor projects imposed by well-meaning foreigners that are more “about Haiti” than “for Haiti.”
The entrepreneurship center, Lumarque said, “is an example of what Clinton can do, in spite of himself.”
When Bill Clinton came here late last month to help inaugurate the new Marriott, he made a side trip by helicopter to Haiti’s central plateau to have a look at a Clinton-backed program that is revolutionizing the peanut-farming industry.
The Acceso Peanut Enterprise Corp. was started with a $1.25 million grant from the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, which is headed by Bill Clinton and Canadian mining executive and philanthropist Frank Giustra, as well as the charitable foundation of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
Acceso buys feed, fertilizer and fungicide at bulk rates, then sells them to farmers for far less than normal prices. Acceso also hires tractors for farmers who otherwise would be using an ox and plow.
Robert Johnson, an American who runs the program, said the improvements are vastly increasing yields, quality and farmers’ profits.
He said Acceso worked with about 1,000 farmers last year and bought about 120 metric tons of peanuts. This year, it expects to triple the number of farmers and buy almost five times as many nuts.
At least half of Acceso’s sales have gone to two large Haitian factories that produce a peanut-based paste that is given to malnourished children. Most of the rest goes to local peanut-butter producers, he said.
The program’s success, Johnson said, comes from its market-driven approach: It’s not a charity, it’s a business with a charitable purpose.
“We’re building something that is going to be sustainable,” he said. “We talk to the farmers. We’re not going to just bring in something that someone thought up in Davos.”
The program is now branching out into lime production, and Clinton visited a site last month where thousands of lime seedlings are being cultivated by dozens of workers.
Benel Auguste, 32, is one of the small landowners who rented his plot, about a third of an acre, to Acceso to plant limes. “It’s a good idea; it’s going to work,” he said. “We know limes and we need them. We can do this.”
The Clintons also were enthusiastic backers of the Caracol Industrial Park, which was built on 600 acres of farmland just east of the Caribbean port city of Cap-Haitien.
They agreed with economists, particularly Oxford University development specialist Paul Collier, who concluded that Haiti is an ideal place to create mass jobs in garment factories because of its proximity to the United States, favorable trade agreements and cheap labor.
The Clintons helped Haitian officials identify Sae-A Trading Co., which operates factories across the developing world and sews garments for giants such as Target, Gap and Wal-Mart, as a potential major investor.
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, along with top aide Cheryl Mills, lobbied for the project with South Korean officials and hosted Sae-A executives in Washington to press the plan.
Bill Clinton attended the Sae-A contract-signing ceremony in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11, 2011 — a day before the first anniversary of the earthquake. He later laid the first stone of the park’s construction. And then in October 2012, the Clintons, Martelly and other officials attended the ribbon-cutting.
Speaking to a group of investors at the ceremony, officials and celebrities that included actors Sean Penn and Ben Stiller and business moguls Donna Karan and Richard Branson, Hillary Clinton said it represented “a new day for Haiti and a new model for how the international community practices development.”
“Haiti is truly open for business, and we want your help,” she said. “We see this partnership between governments like our own and the private sector as absolutely essential in promoting and supporting long-term prosperity in Haiti. We know very well that long-term prosperity cannot come from just the provision of aid. There must be trade and investment like we have seen here today.”
Today, Sae-A employs about 4,500 people. Company spokesman Lon Garwood said the operation has been steadily growing and will open a new facility next month. Henri-Claude Müller-Poitevien, a Haitian government official who works the apparel industry, said the Caracol project is on schedule and continues to expand.
A power plant was built, but plans for a new port at the industrial park to carry finished goods to the United States have been shelved. Residents of the plant’s housing project say their land floods when it rains, and few said they think the plant will ever create the number of jobs originally promised.
“I believe that the momentum to attract people there in a massive way is past,” said Bellerive, the former prime minister. “You can do interesting things with Caracol, but you have to reinvent the concept. Today, it has failed.”
Each morning, crowds line up outside the park’s big front gate, which is guarded by four men in crisp, khaki uniforms carrying shotguns. They wait in a sliver of shade next to a cinder-block wall, many holding résumés in envelopes. Most said they have been coming every day for months, waiting for jobs that pay about $5 a day.
From his envelope, Jean Mito Palvetus, 27, pulled out a diploma attesting that he had completed 200 hours of USAID training on an industrial sewing machine.
“I have three kids and a wife, and I can’t support them,” he said, sweating in the hot morning sun. “I have a diploma, but I still can’t get a job here. I still have nothing.”
Washington Post staff writer Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2015, The Washington Post
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