January 19, 2010 / 6:11 PM / 9 years ago

Haitians look to Obama to keep hopes alive

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitians are looking to Barack Obama as their potential savior, saying the first black U.S. president is their best hope for building a new country from the rubble of their earthquake-shattered homeland.

In the chaos and misery of the Haitian capital, much of which was left in ruins by the quake, stunned survivors glued to local radio have taken solace and inspiration in Obama’s pledge to throw himself personally into helping Haiti.

“Mr. Obama has said he will help save us. I’m praying to Jesus for that,” said Steeve Grange, an 18-year-old high school student, squatting with scores of people to recharge mobile telephones off power lines from a radio station’s generator.

“Haitians are very proud of Mr. Obama,” Grange added.

Many in this impoverished Caribbean nation see Obama as a superstar and kindred spirit of Haiti, where rebel slaves overthrew French colonial rule to claim independence in 1804 as the world’s first black-ruled independent republic.

“The fact that Obama is the first black U.S. president and that Haiti is the first black republic could compel him to be more attentive to Haiti’s needs,” said Patrick Moussignac, head of Radio Television Caraibes, Haiti’s largest broadcast group which has provided free power for people to recharge their cellphones.

“Just as people believe that Obama cares about Haiti, Haitians care about Obama too,” added Moussignac.

A week after one of the world’s worst natural disasters, emergency relief for Haiti is still just beginning to get to desperate and hungry Haitians. Their shell-shocked government estimates anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died.

There are widespread fears in the city that frustration over the slow distribution of aid will lead to violence in a country that is often written off as a failed state.

THORNY HISTORY

Highlighting Haiti’s dire straits, Haitian-born Berly Renfort, who lived in Florida until he was deported for a run-in with the law, said he would rather spend 10 years locked up in a U.S. jail than another day in the country he left at the age of 6.

“At least in prison they give you three meals a day,” said Renfort, 21, clad in bright orange hip-hop-style shorts, black basketball shoes and a matching New York Yankees ball cap.

Yet even Renfort looked to Obama to take action to surmount the hurdles to relief efforts and ensure aid continues to pour in after the world media spotlight has moved on from Haiti.

Haiti has a thorny history with the United States, which sent troops to occupy Haiti in 1915. They stayed 19 years.

More recently, U.S. politicians have been blamed for blocking aid to Haiti because of their opposition to its first democratically elected president and former Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a firebrand populist.

Former President Bill Clinton helped restore Aristide when he was ousted by the military after taking power in 1991. But under President George W. Bush, Washington did little to help Aristide stay in office when his second term was cut short by an armed revolt in 2004.

It is a measure of Obama’s popularity here, but also of the scale of the disaster, that most Haitians are now crying out for the deployment of U.S. troops on the streets of their capital, to help establish law and order.

“It’s high time for those troops to have been deployed. They are crucial to help restore security in our devastated towns,” said Yvon Jerome, mayor of the hard-hit Carrefour district on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Writing by Tom Brown; editing by Anthony Boadle and Eric Beech

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