A Stubborn Savior: Is Bill Clinton Haiti's Hope for Salvation?

By Marc Hujer

Former US President and current UN special envoy Bill Clinton has brought his "Friends of Bill" to Haiti to encourage investment in the country in the aftermath of last year's earthquake, with mixed results. His influence is significant at the highest levels: The country's prime minister is a former top aide.

Photo Gallery: A Visit To Haiti Two Years after the Disaster Photos
Thony Belizaire / AFP

The prime minister is keen to appear statesmanlike. He wants to look good as he represents Haiti, his country, which is about to receive a new hotel; a 173-room Marriott resort. Time and again Garry Conille smoothes his tie and checks the text of his speech. He aims to make a good impression in the conference hall in which the construction plans are being announced.

Next to him stands Bill Clinton in a yellow polo shirt and beige slacks. The former United States president looks like he's come straight off the golf course. It was Clinton who set up the project, bringing together Marriott and the investor DigiCell, a telecommunications company, for an undertaking intended to send a clear message that Haiti is on the road to a better future.

Photo Gallery

11  Photos
Photo Gallery: Two Years On, Clean-Up Effort Still Massive
The event is kicked off by the hotel chain's president, Arne Sorensen, one of the "FoBs": Friends of Bill. As the first speaker, Sorensen speaks enthusiastically about the more than 170 jobs that would be created for Haitians. Then Digicel owner Denis O'Brien, as if talking to small children, adds: "Today is Bob the Builder day in Haiti."

Conille appears irritated, smoothing his tie once again, momentarily unsure of how to react. But then he sees Bill Clinton, who laughs and lays a friendly hand on his shoulder as if Conille were still his assistant in his role as the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti. Now Conille's former boss emphatically refers to him as "Mr. Prime Minister."

When Bill Clinton steps up to the microphone, he announces, that the hotel will help the prime minister to do his job. And Conille nods as if to underline every word, as if no one, not even he, could have put it better.

Seeking Clinton's Blessing

It's the end of November, and Bill Clinton is spending two days in Haiti, announcing the construction of the Marriott hotel, opening an international investors' conference and praising a partnership agreement designed to teach Haitian producers about Colombian coffee-growing methods. It is both a typical voyage for him and a sign of the power he now has in the region.

Two years have passed since he first visited Haiti's quake victims, arriving on Jan. 12, 2010, the sixth day after an earthquake turned this part of the island into an inferno, a pile of dead bodies and 19 million cubic meters (670 million cubic feet) of garbage. Soon thereafter he announced, he was "prepared to spend three years" dedicating his life to rebuilding Haiti.

Clinton's words and predictions now hold more sway than the official announcements by the Haitian government itself. "Bill Clinton is the most powerful advocate that Haiti is ever going to have," Johnny Celestin, a Haitian-American investor told Rolling Stone magazine last year. Few decisions are made without Clinton's blessing. Aside from the official government, the country has long had a Clinton administration -- a network of organizations and commissions operated under the former president's auspices. Esquire magazine calls him "CEO of a leaderless nation," while the Miami Herald has dubbed him the "czar of the recovery effort."

Bill Clinton, the eternal "comeback kid," has now returned, though this time not as a politician, but as the most influential man in Haiti, complete with an armful of official titles. He is the recognizable face of the plethora of aid organizations whose staff go out into the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince in the thousands, distributing food, flashlights, tampons and soap.

A Pattern of Dashed Hopes

Two years ago he was one of many people who visited Haiti in the aftermath of the quake. George W. Bush went there, as did US First Lady Michelle Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. They all visited Haiti, and then disappeared again. They are symbolic of the dashed hopes that have come to the nation, where only a fraction of the almost $15 billion donated from the rest of the world has been invested in reconstruction. More than 600,000 Haitians still live in tent cities.

The state of emergency has become the normal state of affairs. The country has learned to accept its fate. The presidential palace still slumps alongside the Champs de Mars, just as it did the day after the devastating earthquake. Weeds grow unchecked.

Sure, the airport has been given a new corrugated tin roof so that arriving passengers no longer have to walk over to their taxi in the blazing sun. The mobile phone network also works superbly. There's even a 3G network for smartphone users. But what good does that do the average Haitian? Water supplies are still catastrophic. Aid organizations everywhere are warning about the dangers of cholera. They've hung up signs on the ruins, giving tips on how to guard against this deadly disease.

'The First Wireless Nation in the World'

And right in the very heart of the seemingly endless chaos, Clinton is organizing an investors' conference at the Hotel Karibe. The hotel is in another world only a side street and a protective fence away from the dirt, stench and the chaos. It has air-conditioned rooms, tennis courts and serves American cocktails. It's a world that Clinton uses to spread hope.

The Haitian national anthem plays as he takes his place at the podium. Haitian President Michel Martelly, a former comedian and singer, is also in attendance. But the most important guests this day are the investors; some 900 representatives from banks, corporations and organizations around the globe. They are Haiti's hope, and for Clinton, the number of them in attendance is a measure of success -- his success.

"When I agreed to serve as a coordinator for the United Nations in Haiti, I know why they asked me to do it," Clinton says, now sporting a dark, well-tailored suit to match his guests' standard-issue uniform. "They asked me to do it because they thought I could hustle people like you to come and invest in Haiti. And they thought I could guilt peddle the donors to give the money they had promised to give. That's it! Simple job." Clinton can enchant people. He can focus on them for minutes at a time. So now he's giving these investors the impression they are very special, and that only they and he understand what is happening in Haiti. Then he tells them about his vision for the country: Haiti should finally supply its own energy and move forward into the high-tech age. It could become the "the first wireless nation in the world."

Clinton is a relentless savior, coming back to Haiti time and again as a UN special envoy, the co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), as the head of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation, as co-chairman of the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, and as the husband of the incumbent US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who declared Haiti a "top priority" even before the quake struck. As such Clinton has become Haiti's last hope.

Backing Conille

And the icing on the cake is that Haiti's new prime minister is Garry Conille, Clinton's former chief of staff, the man who once wrote his speeches and translated French into English for him. Conille's appointment was the most impressive demonstration of Clinton's influence on the Caribbean nation.

President Martelly had nominated two candidates for the premiership, both of whom parliament had rejected. Then, as the affair threatened to become embarrassing, Martelly nominated Clinton confidant Conille, and the elected representatives eventually approved the 45 year old.

The Haitian government is suspected of corruption and is seen as being incapable of looking after its citizens. According to one IHRC staffer, the general attitude is "just call your friends in Washington and get them to send us another check." As a result, most aid money circumvents the government and goes straight to non-government organizations. This is another reason why Clinton is so powerful: He turns parliamentarians into puppets.

Clinton doesn't deny that he is influential. "I've tried never to have my words outrun my deeds in Haiti," he told Esquire magazine months after the deadly quake, "which is always a huge problem in every poor place on earth, especially in a great lively culture like that one, where people are demonstrative, they love to talk, and they love to sing. ... I wake up every day sick at heart that we aren't doing more."

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