the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Bill Clinton’s Lasting Legacy May Be Haiti’s Earthquake Recovery Effort

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Bill Clinton’s love for Haiti began in Arkansas.

In 1975, he and wife Hillary traveled to the Caribbean nation for a delayed honeymoon. When he became president nearly two decades later, Haiti was on his early agenda, with the goal of ending the violent military dictatorship there and restoring its elected president.

After Clinton left the White House, his work continued in Haiti through his Clinton Global Initiative and the United Nations. When the devastating 7.0 earthquake struck the country a year ago, on Jan. 12, Clinton traveled to the country six days later with supplies.

The former president, who is the U.N.’s special envoy for Haiti, has returned to mark the one-year anniversary of the quake and to evaluate progress and problems. He has visited 13 times since the catastrophe that killed more than 200,000 people and left millions homeless.

In Little Rock, where Clinton’s fascination with the Third World country ignited, the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center is currently hosting an exhibit, “Haiti: Building Back Better,” that celebrates the beleaguered nation’s history and outlines its current state.

“The Haitian people are reimagining their future,” Clinton says in a film that welcomes exhibit visitors. “It won’t be easy. It won’t be quick, but it can be done. There are great reasons to hope.”

The exhibit, mounted in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, begins on the museum’s first floor with a history of Haiti and a display of pre-Columbian stone artifacts. But it quickly jumps to the 1990s when Clinton, in his first 18 months as president, worked with the United Nations and the Organization of American States to strengthen economic sanctions against the ruling junta — Haiti’s eighth — and its surrogates. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned as president in 1994, Clinton called it “the beginning of a new era of hope for the people of Haiti . . . and a victory for freedom throughout the world.”

News footage of Aristide and Clinton at the Presidential Palace plays on a continual loop.

Historical points, which remind visitors that Clinton has worked to change the course of Haiti’s history, are made amid displays of vivid papier-mache masks, vibrant paintings given to the Clintons (one by director Jonathan Demme) and glittery gifts from current Haitian President Rene Preval. For example, one display spotlights Hillary Clinton’s two-day visit to the country in November 1998. The purpose of the trip was “to encourage the people and assess progress” after Hurricane Georges. The floor-to-ceiling display also highlights the Clinton administration’s efforts to curb deforestation in the country. The impact: By 1998, more than 7 million trees had been planted in the country by Peace Corps volunteers.

Visitors exit the first part of the exhibit through two large doors covered with a massive picture of the presidential palace. A time stamp and date are on the picture: 4:52 p.m., Jan. 12, 2010.

On the library’ third floor, past the life-size replica of the Oval Office, two doors feature a completely different picture — the presidential palace in ruin. The time stamp: 4:53 p.m., Jan. 12, 2010. It takes visitors longer to reach the third floor than it did for the building to collapse in the 7.0 earthquake.

The exhibit’s second half shows a country torn apart by the quake It bluntly details the staggering statistics — 2.3 million people displaced; 220,000 fatalities; 300,000 injuries.

Chunks from Holy Trinity Cathedral’s historic murals offer a concrete glimpse of the disaster’s impact for those who may never visit Haiti. The Smithsonian is currently helping to restore the church, which has been destroyed six times in its history.

The final displays prop up the Clinton Foundation and its Global Initiative work in Haiti and show footage of President Obama asking Clinton and former President George W. Bush to raise money for the relief effort. But it’s the last feature — the story of the Iron Market — that highlights Clinton’s talent for uniting forces to help Haiti.

The Iron Market was built in France in the 1890s and shipped to Port-au-Prince to become the city’s core as a beloved bazaar where an array of goods, from dried starfish to artisan wares, were sold. Before the earthquake, it had already suffered a major fire and parts of it were already in rubble.

On Tuesday, the Clinton Foundation tweeted: “I just arrived at the opening of the historic Iron Market, a true symbol of Building Back Better.” The tweet included a picture of the restored structure.

Denis O’Brien, an Irish billionaire who is founder and chairman of Digicel, the largest mobile telecommunications operator in the Caribbean, had been interested in restoring the dilapidated market before the earthquake. Afterward, O’Brien, whose company was already the single largest private sector investor in Haiti, moved quickly to do so. In turn, he also became a facilitator for the Clinton Global Initiative’s Haiti Action Network. O’Brien has been named the Goodwill Ambassador for Port-au-Prince by its mayor. He invested $12 million of his own money into the restoration and has committed to oversee the Iron Market for 50 years.

The new Iron Market, painted in its original bright red with a clock tower and minarets, meets international codes, features solar panels and was built to resist hurricanes and earthquakes. It could become an engine to help fuel Haiti’s economy.

“When you look at what you have achieved here, this should be a sign to you that you can have success in the reconstruction, in education, in health care,” Clinton said Tuesday at the Iron Market’s opening.

Clinton’s work, and hope, for Haiti may just be his most lasting legacy.

During the 1990s, Haiti seemed like a blip on the radar screen of a U.S. administration trying to tackle myriad world and domestic issues simultaneously. The Little Rock exhibit, and Clinton’s visit to Haiti this week, show that he is still married to a place he discovered 35 years ago.

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