PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former President Bill Clinton became the U.N.’s first special envoy to Haiti last Tuesday, bringing an unmatched combination of local popularity and global star power to help a country devastated by political turmoil, poverty and natural disasters.
Haitians — at least those old enough to have heard of Clinton — welcomed the international attention they said he will bring to their desperate nation. Some expressed optimism that he can help alleviate poverty.
“If he can make the U.N. work better with Haiti and gets us more money, that would be good,” said John-Peter Lacoure, a 24-year-old college graduate who cannot find a job despite his economics degree.
But many Haitians said their problems are too great for any one person to fix.
“Where we are now, the only one who can help us is God,” said Patrick Pierre, 47, hawking cell phone cards on the dusty street where the U.N. is based.
Clinton — who will be paid $1 a year and travel to Haiti several times annually — said he is honored.
“I believe Haiti is better positioned to make progress for all its people than at any time since I first visited in 1978,” he said in a statement. “Last year’s natural disasters took a great toll, but Haiti’s government and people have the determination and ability to … lay the foundations for the long-term sustainable development that has eluded them for so long.”
Clinton is well-regarded in Haiti for using the threat of U.S. military force to oust a dictatorship in 1994, then sending Army troops and Marines to pave the way for the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed in a coup. Aristide was again ousted in a 2004 rebellion and flown into exile on a U.S. plane.
Clinton’s popularity could help temper the feelings of many Haitians toward the U.N. peacekeeping force. Many see the “blue helmets,” who have been the country’s only real security since 2004, as unwanted occupiers and ask why they haven’t done more to alleviate poverty in a country where 80 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.
U.N. officials say the peacekeepers’ mandate only covers security, and that the soldiers go beyond their required duties by sometimes carrying out development and disaster assistance.
But that distinction is lost on Haitians who see armed soldiers rumbling by atop armored vehicles as they walk miles uphill to work, or catch glimpses of the high-walled mansions where international staff live. Protesters frequently jeer at soldiers with a derisive “baaaa” — referencing oft-repeated stories that peacekeepers have stolen families’ goats.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in Geneva that Clinton will “bring energy, dynamism and focus to the task of mobilizing international support for Haiti’s economic recovery and reconstruction.”
Clinton will focus on economic and social development, leaving management of the peacekeepers to Ban’s full-time representative, Hedi Annabi.
Ban’s spokeswoman, former Haitian radio journalist Michelle Montas, said Clinton may improve the U.N.’s image in the country, but that was not why he was chosen.
“He is going to be an advocate for the Haitian people,” Montas told reporters at the peacekeeping headquarters in Port-au-Prince. She said Clinton is the first special U.N. envoy to Haiti.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prompted laughter in Washington when she announced the appointment without mentioning the new envoy’s name or the fact that he is her husband: “Ban Ki-moon has chosen a high-profile envoy to raise the visibility of the needs of the people of Haiti.”
Nearly 40 percent of Haitians are under 15, and many have never heard of Clinton. Yet the former president was greeted like a rock star during his last visit. Shrieking fans climbed over one another to shake his hand with nearly as much excitement as they reserved for rap star Wyclef Jean, who was also in the group.
Ban led that March trip to drum up more international support for Haiti, and said both he and Clinton left shocked at the country’s situation.
Haiti was already in the midst of a food crisis and political deadlock when four tropical storms battered it last fall, killing some 800 people and doing $1 billion in damage. Hunger worsened, poverty deepened and hard-won stability threatened to come apart five years after a bloody rebellion.
Ban “felt that something had to be done,” Montas told The Associated Press, adding: “He was convinced that there was a special effort needed.”
But some Haitians said Clinton is not the answer. Silvio Sintlaire, 18, shook his head when asked about the former U.S. president, saying he had never heard of him.
“Haiti needs its own president who can help, so we can stop going through misery,” he said as he roamed the capital trying to sell fluorescent light bulbs and TV antennas.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.
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