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After Quake In Haiti, Who's The Boss?

Latin America

Audio from Martin Kaste

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The United Nations Donors' Conference on Haiti began today. Haiti's president made a rare appearance, thanking the international community for its support in the effort to rebuild. But since January's earthquake badly weakened Haiti's government, it's unclear who will take the lead in that rebuilding. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Port-au-Prince.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN KASTE: Roll call for Haiti's tiny senate. The parliament building was damaged, so this meeting is in a hotel.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: Sixteen senators are waiting for the prime minister, who's running late. The senators will wait. They want him to explain the government's recovery plan. They don't like what they've been hearing, especially the part that sets up a special commission to manage all the foreign aid for reconstruction. That commission will have foreigners on it. In fact, foreigners may end up with the majority vote.

Haitian Senate President Kely Bastien says in effect, the foreign aid donors will be in charge.

Senator KELY BASTIEN (Haiti, Senate President): (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: I know they have their own priorities, because they're the ones donating the money, Bastien says. But we Haitians should manage it, because we're the ones who will be rebuilding the country.

(Soundbite of children laughing)

KASTE: But in everyday life, the Haitian government is conspicuous by its absence. In one of the new homeless camps not far from where the senators are meeting, boys play hoops - not basketball, but hoops. Using lengths of stiff wire, they roll salvaged plastic hoops down a hill, like something out of Dickens.

Five thousand families live here, but they say they have yet to see anybody from the government or the mayor's office or even the police, so they govern themselves. Lionel Edouard is on the camp council.

Mr. LIONEL EDOUARD (Member, Camp Council): Let's say we make the law to control activities in the camp. We tried to find help.

KASTE: It's Edouard's responsibility to go out into the city and find aid for the camp - medical care, food and tents. His day job is journalism. He covers politics for a local paper, and he says he's disturbed to see how international aid agencies are filling the vacuum left by the government.

Mr. EDOUARD: If we are in an independent state, we have to make decisions. We know what is good for us. If other nations take decisions in our place, that will be not good for all Haitian people.

KASTE: The foreigners here tend to agree with this sentiment - in principle.

President BILL CLINTON: I think it's a constant struggle.

KASTE: Former President Bill Clinton is the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti. Historically, he says, foreign aid has created dependency in this country, and this time he wants it to be different.

Pres. CLINTON: I do believe there is a conscious goal, that - I've had two meetings with the non-governmental groups and I said we have to tell everybody that the new mission here is to work ourselves out of a job. Is everybody on board with that? And they said yes.

KASTE: But at the same time, Clinton needs to convince foreign donors that their billions won't be lost to corruption in the Haitian government. It makes for a delicate balancing act.

Pres. CLINTON: I want it to be more accountable and transparent to the outside world, but I also want it to be something that builds the capacity of the Haitian government.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: Back at the hotel, the senators kill time by debating recent corruption allegations against them. Finally, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive arrives -almost two hours late - to explain the government's recovery plan and the controversial commission. Taking the microphone, Senator Edmonde Beauzile tells him it's a challenge to national sovereignty.

Senator EDMONDE BEAUZILE (Haiti): (Through translator) This document places the country in total dependency on external help.

KASTE: Prime Minister Bellerive responds with a tired shrug.

Prime Minister JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE (Haiti): (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: I hope you sense the dependency of this document, Bellerive tells the senator. If you don't sense it, you should tear it up.

In a moment of frankness that's rare in politics, the prime minister says the humility in the government's recovery plan is intentional, and it's not forever, he says.

Mr. BELLERIVE: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: I am optimistic that in 18 months, yes, we will be autonomous in our decisions, he says. But right now, as prime minister, I have to assume that we are not.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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