A Portrait Of Haiti Before Earthquake Dashed Hopes

Former President Bill Clinton with Haitian officials in 2009 i i

Former President Clinton (right) joins Haiti's then-prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, at a lunch for prospective donors and investors in October 2009. At center is Luis Morena, head of the Inter-American Development Bank, which pledged millions in grants for Haiti. Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images
Former President Bill Clinton with Haitian officials in 2009

Former President Clinton (right) joins Haiti's then-prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, at a lunch for prospective donors and investors in October 2009. At center is Luis Morena, head of the Inter-American Development Bank, which pledged millions in grants for Haiti.

Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images

Before a massive earthquake struck Haiti, fortunes had begun looking brighter for the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Just last October, former President Bill Clinton was hosting a trade mission to Haiti, challenging international donors and investors to think big about the country's potential for manufacturing and tourism.

"There is enormous potential here," Clinton told about 200 interested investors at a session in which he invited them to spend freely on job-creating industries.

But a day after the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the former president found himself pleading for money for the most basic tools of survival. "We need cash to buy water, food and first-aid supplies," he told NPR's Melissa Block.

Clinton spoke from his New York office at the United Nations, where he and his colleagues were trying to assess the casualties among U.N. personnel in the collapse of the hotel that served as headquarters for the organization's mission to Port-au-Prince.

Haiti: At A Glance

-Population: 9,035,536

-Area: 10,714 square miles. Haiti is roughly the size of Maryland but its population is about 60 percent larger.

-Capital: Port-au-Prince

-Official languages: French and Haitian Creole

-95 percent of its people are of African descent

-80 percent of Haitians live in poverty. It's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with GDP estimated at $11.59 billion in 2008.

-President: Rene Preval, served from 1996-2001; re-elected in 2006

-Won its independence from France in 1804, which makes Haiti the second-oldest independent country in the Western Hemisphere, after the U.S.

-Mountainous topography. Haiti comes from an indigenous word that means "mountainous land."

-Haiti comprises the western third of the island of Hispaniola, as well as the islands Gonave, Tortue (Tortuga), Grande Caye and Vache. The remaining two-thirds of Hispaniola is the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola neighbors Cuba and Jamaica to the west and Puerto Rico to the east.

Sources: State Department; Encyclopedia Britannica Online; CIA World Factbook

But even in the wake of a tragedy, the former president said that after the first few weeks of humanitarian rescue and relief work, he plans to go back to implementing a plan that he and others have been working on for more than a year.

A New Focus On Haiti

Last July, when Clinton visited the Caribbean nation after being appointed special envoy to Haiti by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, hopes were high that Haiti was on its way to recovery. Clinton was eager to draw international aid and investment in new, more focused ways.

Haiti's situation was, if anything, more dire than ever: Political instability, environmental degradation and a relentless pounding from natural disasters had left the country unable to survive without international aid.

The United Nations, which maintains a 9,000-member peacekeeping force in Haiti, estimates that 4 out of 5 Haitians live below the poverty line, on less than $2 a day. More than half the population is considered to live in "abject poverty," or on less than a dollar a day.

In 2008, soaring world food prices stripped ordinary Haitians of the ability to buy even basic staples, such as rice and beans. The crisis triggered riots in April of that year and toppled the government of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.

The World Bank and other donors provided emergency funding to get through that crisis, but just a few months later, Haiti was hit by devastating storms. In August and September of 2008, three hurricanes and a tropical storm caused catastrophic flooding and mudslides, leaving at least 800 people dead and thousands more homeless.

But the sheer size of the calamities helped refocus world attention on the island.

International Help

Ban Ki-moon made Haiti a special priority, and in March of last year, he traveled with Clinton to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, to kick off an international recovery effort. Ban told reporters, "There is a growing optimism that Haiti has the assets it needs to break the impasse."

Ban was referring, in part, to U.S. legislation called the HOPE II Act, which allows textile goods made in Haiti to enter the U.S. duty-free. That's a big advantage for garment manufacturers, and it was hoped that it would attract foreign investment for factories in Haiti.

Ban's and Clinton's visit to Haiti helped raise awareness for an international donors' conference in Washington, D.C., in April, at which nations and groups pledged about $324 million for rebuilding Haiti over a two-year period.

One of the stars of that conference was Haiti's new prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, a former top aide to billionaire investor George Soros. Pierre-Louis had a reputation as a calm and competent technocrat, raising the hope that her appointment would inspire the confidence of potential foreign investors in Haiti.

The Inter-American Development Bank promised in June to provide Haiti with $120 million in grants to develop its infrastructure and to improve protection against natural disasters.

In July, the International Monetary Fund and other lenders agreed to forgive about $1.2 billion worth of Haiti's debt. The debt relief saved Haiti's government about $50 million a year in interest payments alone, and freed up the money for development.

Reasons For Hope

Haiti seemed on track for a new beginning. The worldwide recession hurt the country's efforts to build its textile industry, but it also reduced the food and fuel prices that had caused so much pain to ordinary Haitians.

  • Injured people rest in the streets of Port-au-Prince Thursday, two days after the devastating 7.0 quake.
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    Injured people rest in the streets of Port-au-Prince Thursday, two days after the devastating 7.0 quake.
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  • Rescuers carry an injured girl down the street after digging her out of the rubble Thursday.
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    Rescuers carry an injured girl down the street after digging her out of the rubble Thursday.
    Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images
  • Virginia Cary, of Cleveland, Tenn. waits at the Port-au-Prince airport in hopes of a return flight to the U.S.
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    Virginia Cary, of Cleveland, Tenn. waits at the Port-au-Prince airport in hopes of a return flight to the U.S.
    Lynne Sladky/AP
  • Fireman attempt to put out a blaze in Port-au-Prince Thursday.
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    Fireman attempt to put out a blaze in Port-au-Prince Thursday.
    Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images
  • After 50 hours trapped, James Girly, 64, is rescued from the remains of the Montana Hotel by the French military.  (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
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    After 50 hours trapped, James Girly, 64, is rescued from the remains of the Montana Hotel by the French military. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
  • Workers dig for bodies in a fight against time.
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    Workers dig for bodies in a fight against time.
    Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images
  • A woman who lost a hand lies on the ground outside a makeshift recovery ward in Port-au-Prince Friday.
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    A woman who lost a hand lies on the ground outside a makeshift recovery ward in Port-au-Prince Friday.
    Chris Hondros/Getty Images
  • An injured child waits for medical attention near a damaged hospital in Carrefour, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Friday.
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    An injured child waits for medical attention near a damaged hospital in Carrefour, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Friday.
    Ariana Cubillos/AP
  • People line up to for gasoline. Aid organizations are struggling  to get needed resources to survivors.
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    People line up to for gasoline. Aid organizations are struggling to get needed resources to survivors.
    Lynne Sladky/AP
  • People line up to receive water, an in-demand commodity, from a firetruck in Port-au-Prince.
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    People line up to receive water, an in-demand commodity, from a firetruck in Port-au-Prince.
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  • Earthquake survivors use water from a fountain to bathe in the central public garden of Port-au-Prince.
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    Earthquake survivors use water from a fountain to bathe in the central public garden of Port-au-Prince.
    Francois Mori/AP
  • People wave at a helicopter in the center of Port-au-Prince. Aid efforts are slow to reach the Haitian capital.
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    People wave at a helicopter in the center of Port-au-Prince. Aid efforts are slow to reach the Haitian capital.
    Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
  • The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming relief efforts.
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    The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming relief efforts.
    Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  • Bolivian U.N. Blue Helmet soldiers stand guard at an aid center in Port-au-Prince as a group of Haitians carries a victim.
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    Bolivian U.N. Blue Helmet soldiers stand guard at an aid center in Port-au-Prince as a group of Haitians carries a victim.
    Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  • A staff member from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, treats an injured man.
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    A staff member from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, treats an injured man.
    Logan Abassi/UN
  • Men carry an injured relative in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian Red Cross estimates that more than 50,000 people may have been killed in the earthquake.
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    Men carry an injured relative in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian Red Cross estimates that more than 50,000 people may have been killed in the earthquake.
    Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  • A member of the Fairfax Country Urban Search & Rescue Team and her K-9 partner search the U.N. Headquarters for more survivors after freeing a man who was trapped for 40 hours in the rubble.
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    A member of the Fairfax Country Urban Search & Rescue Team and her K-9 partner search the U.N. Headquarters for more survivors after freeing a man who was trapped for 40 hours in the rubble.
    Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
  • Aid trickled in Thursday morning. Here, Maurice Cain, senior airman with the U.S. Air Force, unloads humanitarian supplies from Panama at the Port-au-Prince airport.
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    Aid trickled in Thursday morning. Here, Maurice Cain, senior airman with the U.S. Air Force, unloads humanitarian supplies from Panama at the Port-au-Prince airport.
    Lynne Sladky/AP
  • A U.N. peacekeeper from Chile works in the rubble of the Montana Hotel.
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    A U.N. peacekeeper from Chile works in the rubble of the Montana Hotel.
    Ramon Espinosa/AP
  • With thousands missing and the death toll climbing, dazed survivors wander amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince two days after the devastating earthquake.
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    With thousands missing and the death toll climbing, dazed survivors wander amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince two days after the devastating earthquake.
    Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  • Haitians walk though streets filled with rubble and bodies.
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    Haitians walk though streets filled with rubble and bodies.
    Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  • Displaced people create makeshift shelters out of tarps and sheets.
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    Displaced people create makeshift shelters out of tarps and sheets.
    Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images
  • A woman prepares a bed in the street Tuesday night after the quake.
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    A woman prepares a bed in the street Tuesday night after the quake.
    Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images
  • Many Haitians spent a second night on the streets. Here, people gather on a square in Port-au-Prince's Petionville district.
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    Many Haitians spent a second night on the streets. Here, people gather on a square in Port-au-Prince's Petionville district.
    Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
  • Members of the congregation of First Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn. pray for the earthquake victims Thursday. The pastor's son is believed to have been killed in the quake.
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    Members of the congregation of First Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn. pray for the earthquake victims Thursday. The pastor's son is believed to have been killed in the quake.
    Clint Austin/AP/Duluth News Tribune
  • Members of Canada's Haitian community comfort each other at the Haitian-Canadian Community Center in Montreal.
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    Members of Canada's Haitian community comfort each other at the Haitian-Canadian Community Center in Montreal.
    Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press/AP

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Business leaders such as Georges Sassine, president of the Haitian Association of Industries, saw the coming years as a period for rebuilding the country's infrastructure, especially roads and port facilities, in preparation for steady growth in exports.

During Clinton's trade mission in October, the situation seemed so positive that he told attendees, "Your political risk in Haiti is lower than it has ever been in my lifetime."

The former president's hopes for political stability took a blow just a few weeks later, when Haiti's Senate voted to oust Pierre-Louis, saying that she had failed to promote the economic recovery. President Rene Preval appointed the country's planning minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, as the new prime minister.

As the transition took place, Haiti's ambassador to the U.N., Leslie Voltaire, noted that one reason for the slow pace of development under Pierre-Louis' government was that only about 15 percent of the money promised at the April donors' conference had been delivered.

Now, with Haiti in the throes of a new disaster, pledges of international aid are flowing once again. It remains to be seen whether those pledges will be met, and whether the world's attention to Haiti's development will survive the current fixation on the country's survival.

In his interview on NPR's All Things Considered, Clinton called the earthquake "a terrible economic setback" for the island nation but said he believes it could intensify the determination of Haitians to rebuild their country.

"Every tragedy in life shapes the future," he said, "depending on how you respond to it."

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