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U.S. faces very long commitment in Haiti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama jumped in to help Haiti after its disastrous earthquake, but with experts saying it will take 10 years and billions of dollars to fix the shattered country, the United States faces another long-term commitment in a foreign country.

Haiti was the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state even before last month’s quake, with 80 percent of its people surviving on under $2 per day and a long history of instability and corruption.

The January 12 disaster killed more than 200,000 of Haiti’s 9 million people, injured another 300,000, destroyed much of its capital and institutions, and left 1 million homeless.

Obama sent millions of dollars in aid and a massive influx of resources, including 13,000 U.S. military personnel. He also boosted an appeal for Americans to donate for Haiti, which has yielded hundreds of millions of dollars, by naming two former presidents, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, to lead the drive and keep it above party politics.

“The president handled this quite well,” said Robert Pastor, who was former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America and an adviser on Haiti for the Clinton administration.

“He reacted faster than everyone else. It wasn’t just a political gesture. It was sincere and he got the entire government to move as quickly as it could.”

But a month later, the recovery is still largely in emergency response mode.

With the rainy season about to start, planning for shelters and new homes is not far along. There are now nearly 500 spontaneous tent encampments around the capital Port-au-Prince where most live under plastic tarps or cloth bedsheets.

“We are still in a very difficult situation,” Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told Reuters in an interview this week. “We still don’t have a clear vision of certain problems -- how we are going to relocate all those people.”


Disaster experts predict it will take 10 years to get Haiti onto a stable footing, with housing, an effective government, security, poverty reduction and development expanded to areas outside of Port-au-Prince.

“What you are shooting for is something that Haiti has never really had before,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The problem is complicated by Haiti’s history of corruption - $5 billion in aid was pumped into the country, which has an annual GDP of just $7 billion, in the past 20 years. But there has been little to show for it, and many Haitians doubt things will be different now.

“There are two questions. One is the money that’s needed, and the other is their ability to absorb it,” said Elizabeth Ferris, an international development scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

That corruption could rebound against Obama as the aid effort plays out. Incidents like the arrest of 10 U.S. missionaries accused of kidnapping children from Haiti, which has distracted and embarrassed U.S. aid workers and angered Haitians, could also hurt the administration.

A Haitian judicial source said on Wednesday the detained Americans would be freed by a judge.

“The risks are going to come in strange ways,” Pastor said, with incidents like the missionaries’ arrest, government corruption or incompetence or even a coup or other political instability.

“When any of these happen, I think this will rebound negatively on the administration,” he said. “Not all of the efforts are going to succeed.”


Ferris was skeptical that the international community would make the kind of commitment needed. “I’m quite pessimistic. I think it will be hard to sustain the momentum. The past history isn’t very good,” she said.

“There’s a 20 percent chance that there’s a long-term financial commitment and that Haiti would end up better. All the odds are stacked against it,” she said.

Skeptics note that international lenders have yet to forgive Haiti’s $900 million debt, despite the rhetoric about helping the stricken country.

But U.S. and international authorities insist they are committed for the long haul.

Experts said Haiti has some advantages. It is relatively small, had six years of political stability before the earthquake, and does not suffer from the ethnic and religious strife crippling other developing states.

And most importantly, it is close to the United States.

“This is the Americas. This is our hemisphere,” Deshazo said. “It doesn’t behoove our hemisphere to have a country that is in such a difficult situation.”

Additional reporting by Jim Loney in Port-au-Prince, editing by Pascal Fletcher and Alan Elsner