BY LESLEY CLARK AND JACQUELINE CHARLES, Miami Herald
Haitian President René Préval arrives in Washington Monday for meetings with Congress and President Barack Obama as the White House prepares to ask lawmakers for more than $1 billion in aid for the earthquake ravaged country.
Préval, though, is likely to also press for more immediate concerns. He told The Miami Herald on Friday that though millions have been pledged, little has gone to the Haitian government.
“There is an urgency. The urgency is that we have entered into a rainy season,” he said, noting that the country needs at least $93 million immediately to fix drainage pipes to prevent flooding.
The country is also seeking money to get students back in school.
Préval arrives in Washington after meeting with a series of visiting U.S. lawmakers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several Latin American leaders. He has been to the neighboring Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico but it will mark his first U.S. trip, post-disaster.
It comes just three weeks before the U.S. and other donor nations meet in New York to map out a way to assist in a reconstruction effort that has been estimated to cost $14 billion.
“What’s most important is the philosophy of the reconstruction,” Préval said he will tell U.S. officials. “It’s not just reconstruct Port-au-Prince. It’s rebuild Haiti.”
Decades of neglect of the provinces and agriculture, Préval said, have forced people into the overcrowded capital.
“We need to put jobs in the provinces and for that you need roads, electricity, education, health,” he said.
His visit comes as administration officials are pulling together an emergency spending package on Haiti reconstruction to present to Congress. As of March 2, the U.S. has spent more than $712 million for relief efforts, including $427 million by the U.S. Agency for International Development and $285 million by the Defense Department.
Aid organizations have pressed the administration to ask for $3 billion for relief and reconstruction efforts in what could be the first step in a decade-long reconstruction effort. Congressional staffers said they expect to see a request for between $1.5 billion to $3 billion.
“The administration needs to send up the largest emergency spending ever for a single nation,” said Mark Schneider, a former U.S. AID official who coordinated the U.S. response to Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
“The reality is, the earthquake in Haiti was one of the worst disasters in recorded history and I would hope the response reflects that.”
Schneider, now with the International Crisis Group, noted that in past disasters in the hemisphere, including Mitch, the U.S. has provided as much as 60 percent of the reconstruction assistance.
COSTS IN FLORIDA
States like Florida are expected to ask for reimbursement for treating injured Haitians and sheltering and schooling refugees. Congressional aides said it’s unclear how much of the request will be for reimbursing federal and state agencies and how much will be for new spending.
“In addition to the badly needed assistance for the Haitian relief efforts, any emergency supplemental must reimburse the state and county governments in Florida,” for the additional costs, said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
Administration officials declined to comment, but Secretary of State Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that she expects the spending package to go before Congress “in the next few weeks.”
She said it would “include both replenishment of funds in the Defense Department and USAID principally, but also funding for the recovery and reconstruction efforts going forward.”
Observers suggest there is a huge well of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for Haiti — even in a stagnant economy and amid worries over spending bills. But they caution that the administration and Congress need to act quickly before attention wanes.
“There’s a genuine sense on the Hill that we need to get something done and get it done right,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Interest was evident Thursday as members of a House Financial Services subcommittee quickly approved a bill aimed at easing Haiti’s economic situation by pressing lenders to forgive the country’s debt and distribute any new aid in the form of grants. The bill will be on the House floor Wednesday. A similar resolution cleared the Senate without opposition Friday.
“Even during our own economic situation, we haven’t lost our compassion,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.
Haiti currently owes $1.1 billion to various lending institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has already called on the banks to cancel the debt, but treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for the western hemisphere, Nancy Lee, told lawmakers that Congress’ clout would be “critical.
“We can go to the donors and say, `This is an idea that’s attractive on the Hill,’ ” Lee told House members.
Thomas Hart of One, a global advocacy campaign founded by the Irish rock star Bono, welcomed the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., but noted it will “free up very little in the short-term for recovery efforts.
“Haiti will need far more long-term development assistance and trade income than debt relief,” he told lawmakers. “Debt cancellation is a small but important piece of a complex puzzle.”
In an opinion piece for McClatchy Newspapers, including The Miami Herald, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House is awaiting the administration’s request for emergency spending and that “Congress is committed to helping Haiti recover from this tragedy.
“We have an urgent responsibility to help provide a foundation for a stable and more prosperous neighbor,” she wrote. “Sustained and constructive American leadership is essential in this fight.”
And she underscored a consistent refrain among politicians and the donor community that has long seen money go missing in Haiti: “Strong accountability and transparency must rest at the center of this undertaking.”
The House has sent three delegations of lawmakers to Haiti to see the damage for themselves.
Despite vehement opposition to recent spending bills, Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, the Majority Whip whom Pelosi has named her point person on Haiti legislation, predicted a Haiti aid bill would garner 400 votes. He noted private donors have raised nearly $1 billion for Haiti.
“There’s absolutely the support,” Clyburn said.
Clark reported from Washington; Charles from Port-Au-Prince Haiti.
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