Michelle Obama Makes Surprise Trip To Haiti, Mexico

First Lady Michelle Obama made an unannounced visit to Haiti Tuesday, just hours before she was set to land in Mexico for her first official overseas trip. Host Michel Martin talks about the cultural and political significance of the trip with NPR's Jason Beaubien, who is based in Mexico City, and Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of TheRoot.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, ousted "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien has a new home with a show set to debut this fall on TBS. But that means bumping George Lopez's show to midnight. We'll get a breakdown on the latest late night shuffle in just a few minutes.

But first, First Lady Michelle Obama landed in Mexico last evening for an official visit, hours after making an unannounced stop in Haiti. There she met with Haitian President Rene Preval and the first lady toward the quake ravaged capital city Port-au-Prince and was warmly greeted by quake survivors, including many children.

Unidentified Children: Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome.

MARTIN: Joining us now to talk about Michelle Obama's journey to Haiti and her visit to Mexico are NPR's Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien and Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of TheRoot.com. That's a daily online publication with a particular focus on issues of interest to African-Americans. I welcome you both. Thanks for joining us.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Thank you.

Mr. JOEL DREYFUSS (Managing Editor, TheRoot.com): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Jason, let's start with you. You reported from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake when you were just there as recently as March, how do you think the first lady was received there? How do you think people view her in general?

BEAUBIEN: It sounds like she was received extremely well. And I think that this was very significant to just sort of put the spotlight back on Haiti at a time when Haiti is sort of slipping out of the media spotlight. And I think people probably really appreciated that there. In my visits, that's a great concern of people that the outside world is just going to forget about them. So I think people there and I was not there with her, but I think people there were probably - and it looked like from the TV coverage people were really happy that she was coming back and, you know, pushing their cause.

MARTIN: Did you have a sense of how the Obamas are viewed just in general by people in Haiti? I understand that that was not their most pressing concern at the time that you were covering the aftermath of the earthquake, but just overall?

BEAUBIEN: Oh, I mean, people are just absolutely thrilled to have an African-American as president of the United States, you know, obviously. And Haiti looks to the U.S. very much. You know, this is the outside world that Haitians look to the most. And both President Obama and Michelle Obama are really looked up to there and, yes, on that rock star type status.

MARTIN: Joel Dreyfuss, you wrote yesterday on The Root that this visit could, quote, "help blunt criticism of the president for failing to visit the first black republic." Now, I have to say, this always comes up in the wake of a disaster between those who want the president to go, whoever the president is, and those who say, you know, the resources spent to support a presidential visit could actually be better spent doing something else.

So I wanted to ask, first of all, who has been criticizing the president and on what grounds? And do you share that criticism.

Mr. DREYFUSS: I don't share the criticism, but I think it's a natural thing that Haitians feel. I mean, Sarkozy was there, a lot of Latin France was there, a lot of Latin-American presidents have come, heads of state have come to Haiti.

MARTIN: And you noted that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have visited.

Mr. DREYFUSS: Right. So, the sense was, you know, for a small country like Haiti, where I'm from, you know, the feeling is if the president comes and it really makes it make you feel like you're important in his agenda. Now, there's no doubt the U.S. has been the leader in organizing the aid, running the airport, commitment of a billion dollars in funds for the reconstruction. The big fear Haitians have right now is just slipping out of the headlines. There's two things they're afraid of: slipping out of the headlines, which means that countries had made commitments to give money will, you know, fade away. That's happened in other disasters where countries money and then never deliver.

And the second thing that Haitians are worried about terribly right now is whether is how the reconstruction will be done and who will control it. And there's a great fear that corrupt people and powerful people in Haiti will siphon off the money. And they really feel, to a lot of people I've talked to, they're very concerned about having an international scrutiny. And Michelle Obama can play a big role in maintaining that spotlight.

MARTIN: How so?

Mr. DREYFUSS: Well, I think that her charisma, her concerns we had a piece we ran a few months, about a month or so ago saying that, you know, we were hoping she would take Haiti on as one of her issues. I mean, she's taken the obesity issue as her one of her flagship issues. We say, why not Haiti? You know, she has this charm, she's the cameras follow her. You know, occasional visits to Haiti, talking about Haiti, I think would do a great deal for Haiti. And so the hope our take on it was, gee, let's get Michelle to take Haiti on as a cause and maybe this is a step in that direction.

MARTIN: You know, she also, Jill Biden, who's an educator, who prefers to be addressed as Dr. Jill Biden, recognizing her doctorate...

Mr. DREYFUSS: Right.

MARTIN: ...also attended the trip to Haiti and did not go on to the Mexico portion of the trip. Do you think that was significant, Joel?

Mr. DREYFUSS: I think it was. And I think it helps, again. Because, again, you have to see it from the perspective of these small countries. I remember as a little kid in Haiti being taken to the airport to see Richard Nixon, who was then vice president of the United States, you know, come, you know, step off a plane and it was a big deal, you know, that the vice president of the United States came.

And while Bill Clinton has been to Haiti, you know, and is very active in the reconstruction efforts, having the president, of course, would be great. Having the first lady take a personal interest in Haiti I think can also keep the interest on the country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of TheRoot.com and NPR's Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien. We're talking about Michelle Obama's recent trip to Haiti. She's now in Mexico.

So, Jason, how significant is it that Michelle Obama is taking her first solo trip as first lady to Mexico? Is that a big deal?

BEAUBIEN: I think it is, and Mexicans are certainly viewing it that way. It definitely shows the importance that Mexico plays in this administration, that it's on the agenda, that the Obamas personally appear to really care about this. And at the moment, especially for Mexico, the biggest problems facing President Calderon are the economy, the drug war and probably immigration to the United States, and all of those are intertwined with the United States.

The drug war is very much viewed here as a shared problem with the demand for drugs in the U.S. driving this very vicious battle, which is killing thousands of people here. And in the economic downturn, which it appears that things are sort of turning around, also is very much got to do with the United States' relationship with Mexico. So, it's very significant and people here are, seemed quite thrilled to see that Michelle Obama has made this the focus of her first international solo trip.

MARTIN: Now, the White House is describing this visit as an effort to kick off Michelle Obama's international agenda on youth engagement. But as you pointed out, the major challenge for Mexico, and particularly the U.S.-Mexico relationship, the drug violence, the violence along the border, you know, and of course immigration, all of which is connected. Is the first lady really expected to say anything about that?

I mean, it's not first ladies sometimes do make news on very serious sort of policy issues. Of course, people will remember now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for then first lady captured headlines when she visited China's first lady in 1995 and talked about human rights. And then Laura Bush spoke about women's rights in Afghanistan when she was at a conference in Prague. But do people really think Michelle Obama's going to talk about the drug war?

BEAUBIEN: We're not expecting that. We're not expecting that here. I think that obviously it's going to come up in private. I think more than anything, Margarita Zavala is a very interesting woman and very similar to Michelle Obama. She's also a lawyer. The Mexican first lady used to be a member of Congress. They've got children that are about the same age. And I think, more than anything, seeing these two women spending time together, you know, building up a relationship, they've met at other international events before.

Margarita Zavala went with President Calderon to the U.S. in February and met with the Obamas at the White House. So I think there's this sense that this relationship between these two first families is strengthening. And I think that that is the people are expecting more behind the scenes than Michelle Obama to come out with anything really strong on any positions.

MARTIN: Is there a sense that simply affirming the strength of the relationship with Mexico, that Mexico is a priority is significant...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and is helpful?

BEAUBIEN: I think it is. And I think that it's encouraging to Mexicans. Mexicans were incredibly, overall, incredibly disappointed with the Bush administration. They expected that a former governor from a border state from Texas would really engage with Mexico. And obviously there was September 11th and there were the wars. And Mexico really got pushed to the back burner in the Bush administration.

And so it was almost exactly a year ago that President Obama came here. You might remember, it was right before swine flu hit. And I believe it was one of his security detail, I think, came down with it later or came down with something that looked very much like swine flu. So it was almost exactly a year ago that he was here. And there's a sense that this administration is paying attention to Mexico which, you know, to Mexico is incredibly important because Mexico, the U.S. is Mexico's leading trading partner.

You know, obviously we're sharing this border. There are so many issues that are intertwined between these two nations, and that's very much recognized in Mexico. And I think there's often a sense that it's not recognized in the U.S. And so, this visit, other visits by high-ranking people inside the administration really sort of shore up faith in Mexico that the U.S. is paying attention.

MARTIN: And, Joel, I have a final question for you. This is something that The Root has engaged on. It's a question of the degree to which the president sort of embraces a black agenda.

Mr. DREYFUSS: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm just curious, as a journalist, as a person of Haitian extraction, as a person who thinks about these issues a lot, do you sense any unease on the part of the White House, of Michelle Obama, or any of the Obamas as individuals being too closely identified with this country? Does everyone recognize, clearly, the scope of the humanitarian disaster, but from the sense of not wanting to push the buttons of people who are fearful that the president will be too favorably disposed for black causes and things of that sort?

Mr. DREYFUSS: I'm not sure of that, because I've seen recently a string of announcements from the White House and conferences they've held or phone conversation with journalists, where they pointed out the benefits to African-Americans, for example, for the president's policies.

We ran a piece a weeks ago by somebody who had been to the Tavis Smiley conference who said that they were not giving enough credit to Obama, and she made a long list of policies and spending that has helped the African-American community. I think the White House has actually been a little defensive on this and has been pointing out the benefits to African-Americans of the Obama administration.

I think the bigger fear with Haiti is that the reconstruction will be a failure. And there's a great possibility it will be a failure. And I don't think people want to be identified with failure or blame for it.

MARTIN: All right, to be continued. It's an interesting story. Thanks for keeping us up to date. Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of TheRoot.com. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Jason Beaubien is NPR's Mexico City correspondent, and he joined us from his office there. I thank you both.

BEAUBIEN: Thank you.

Mr. DREYFUSS: Thank you.

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