Haiti is one of those countries with a long last name. No one ever refers to the Caribbean country that shares an island with the Dominican Republic as simply "Haiti," but rather Haiti-the-poorest-country-in-the-Western-Hemisphere. In truth, the poverty is hard to miss. When I drove through the capital Port-au-Prince last fall, I was almost undone by the look of it, the smell of it, the sense of it. Poverty is a living, breathing, frightening thing that walks the streets and shadows Haiti's young. And with poverty comes the familiar evils of crime, political instability, slavery, malnutrition, discrimination and a general feeling of hopelessness.
Into this complex quagmire comes Bill Clinton, the recently appointed UN envoy to Haiti. Clinton's specific duties are as yet undefined, but when Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the appointment he said very simply "It is important to help this country." And it is. Is Bill Clinton the right person for the job?
Clinton has had a long history with Haiti. He is popular among Haitians for having aided the democratically-elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide when Aristide was ousted by reactionary forces in 1991. (But some Haitians--and Aristide himself--also blame the United States for the 2004 coup that ousted Aristide for good.) The Clinton Foundation sponsors much-needed projects on AIDS, health care and environmental issues in Haiti. And Clinton has been instrumental in lobbying the international community to provide monetary and other relief to Haiti. Indeed, Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis praised Clinton as "a great friend of Haiti," and claimed he was instrumental in helping the country secure $324 milliion in new aid from international donors.
Clinton comes to his post with a great deal of goodwill from the Haitian people. Let's hope he is able to harness that energy to help Haiti achieve something wonderful -- something beyond its current title as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere."