Haiti’s President Brings His Concerns To Obama

As Nation It has been two months since a massive earthquake rocked Haiti, killing an estimated 200,000 people. Recovery and rebuilding efforts are still underway to offer relief to nation as it works to serve displaced residents and rebuild. Tuesday, Haiti President Rene Preval will meet with President Obama to discuss what needs to be done next. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jonathan Katz, a Haiti-based correspondent for the Associated Press, for more.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, can music overcome politics? The Venezuelan party band Los Amigos Invisibles certainly hopes so.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. JULIO BRICENO (Vocalist, Los Amigos Invisibles): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: A special in-studio performance is coming up later in this program.

But first, we're going to check in on a couple of important international stories. Almost two months have passed since the deadly earthquake rocked Haiti and flattened its capital Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 200,000 people. Today, the president of Haiti, Rene Preval meets with President Barack Obama to talk about what needs to be done next in the recovery efforts.

To bring us up to date, we called Jonathan Katz, a Haiti-based correspondent for the Associated Press. And he's with us now on the phone from Port-au-Prince, the capital. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JONATHAN KATZ (Correspondent, Associated Press): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, just to set the table, Jonathan, you have been in Haiti for a couple of years now. You were there during the earthquake. What do you think is the biggest change from the immediate aftermath of the earthquake to now?

Mr. KATZ: There's really no comparison. I mean, some rubble has been cleared from the streets, so it's a bit easier to get around. But the biggest thing is that in the days after it was absolute nightmare. There were piles of bodies in the streets, especially starting a couple of days after there was a horrible acrid smell wafting everywhere. It was only a nightmarefor a couple of weeks and more beyond that at this point, but since obviously clearly quite a lot of work is left to be done.

MARTIN: What would you say is the biggest need right now?

Mr. KATZ: I mean, one of the most immediate things that you see when you're riding around is the need for shelter. At this point, the international community has basically embarked on a project to give people plastic tarps.

There is now 1.2 million people who've been displaced, made homeless by the earthquake. As of now, an estimated half of those have received either a tent and, for the most part, these plastic tarps. That's not much of a shelter to begin with, but it's better than nothing. And so you still have, you know, half a million people more who don't have that.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, today President Preval is meeting with President Obama. But he met with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, yesterday. And one of the things he said in that meeting is that reconstruction shouldn't be focused solely on Port-au-Prince, the capital, even though there was significant damage there.

But he said that rebuilding efforts should really spread out around the country. I'll just play a short clip from what he said at a press conference yesterday speaking through an interpreter. Here it is.

President RENE PREVAL (Haiti): (Through translator) In the past, everything had been concentrated and focused on the capital, where the political and economic elite of the country live. And the rest of the country was neglected. So this is an opportunity to not only rebuild Port-au-Prince but, first and foremost, to invest and to rebuild in the provinces.

MARTIN: Is it surprising to hear him say that and is that a view that is widely shared?

Mr. KATZ: No, it's not surprising at all. In fact, as a view, it's very widely held, not just among Haitians but among the international community as well. There has been so much centralization, first of all, on the part of the international community in bringing aid and also on the part of the Haitian government which, of course, for many, many years was a dictatorship and tried to concentrate itself as much as possible in the capital.

And so, unlike many other countries that you might go to, you really can't get very much done outside of the capital. And the international community has responded to that over the years by also focusing its aid here. And what's happened here is first of all you have several towns, Leogane, Carrefour, Petit Goave, other towns like that that have been affected very seriously by the earthquake.

You also have more than half a million people - I think, it's around 600,000 -who have left the capital to go to other parts of the country. And so even though those parts of the country weren't affected directly by earthquake damage, they're now struggling with extreme poverty and trying to feed and house and clothe the people who've come in from the capital. So that's a real problem for them too.

MARTIN: And President Preval said yesterday that Haiti does not need any more food aid, because that would undermine local food growers and producers. But I also heard you say, at the beginning of our conversation, that people are still struggling with basics, like getting adequate food and certainly shelter, as you just told us.

So what is the thinking there now about how basic needs should be addressed? If he doesn't think more aid is needed, are local growers and producers in a position to meet the need?

Mr. KATZ: They're not, but that's the point. It sounds contradictory, but if you look at the past in Haiti, this is a country that has received so much international aid. And beyond international aid, the market has also been flooded, especially over the last 20 years or so by heavily subsidized agricultural products. One of most famous examples, the most prevalent examples is rice from the United States. And that actually sells for cheaper here on the streets of Haiti than Haitian rice does which has, over time, driven Haitian rice growers essentially out of business.

MARTIN: And Jonathan, finally before we let you go, I did want to mention that I think you were the sole American reporter permanently based in Haiti before the earthquake. You'd been there for a number of years before the earthquake hit. You were also affected by the earthquake. Your living quarters or office were damaged like that of so many, many other people. You've had a lot of company since the earthquake. A lot of American reporters have come in and all these sort of people. And now a lot of these people are starting to leave.

And I just wanted to ask what's this experience been like for you?

Mr. KATZ: It's been intense, in a word. The day the earthquake itself was - you know, despite the fact that I've been here through, you know, a number of natural disasters has been rising and waning international attention, both in the media and, you know, from other international, as you said, nothing has compared to this. It was an astounding experience, the earthquake itself. And it's absolutely terrifying in its first moments. And it's been sort of alternatingly terrifying and fascinating since.

MARTIN: Jonathan Katz is a correspondent for the Associated Press. He is based in Haiti, and he was kind enough to join us on the phone from there. Jonathan, I thank you so much.

Mr. KATZ: Thank you.

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