Former President Bill Clinton told a lot of jokes when he filled in for President Barack Obama as principal speaker at this year’s Gridiron Dinner, a white-tie gathering of leading Washington news people. Then Mr. Clinton turned serious and urged the journalists not to forget Haiti and told them to keep the Haiti story going.
Stories do die, vanishing from newspaper front pages, television shows and Web sites — even big stories like the disastrous Haiti earthquakes and subsequent rescue and rebuilding efforts. What needs longer-range attention is restoring Haiti to economic self-sufficiency.
Mr. Clinton, who is the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, had publicly apologized last month for his part in destroying the Haitian rice industry. In the mid-1990s, he and the International Monetary Fund had pressured Haiti to dramatically cut its tariffs on imported U.S. rice.
Rice is a staple of the Haitian diet. In recent years, Haiti has been importing 80 percent of the rice its people consumed. Thirty years ago, with a protective tariff of 50 percent, Haiti produced enough rice to feed its people and export some of it. When Mr. Clinton restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994, the rice tariff was cut to 3 percent.
Mr. Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.”
He and former President George W. Bush are leading an international drive to raise the initial $3.8 billion that Haiti is requesting toward an estimated total of $11.5 billion needed for reconstruction over the next decade.
Simply rebuilding will not be enough. U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told The Associated Press that the pattern of food aid and cheap imports has discouraged investment in Haitian farming and must be reversed. He said Haiti was a prime example of a global phenomenon and a good place to start rectifying it.
The AP quoted Haitian President Rene Preval, an agronomist from a rice-growing region, as calling for an end to food aid in favor of agricultural investment. The need begins with fixing quake damage to agriculture, plus restoring Haiti’s damaged watersheds, improving irrigation and infrastructure, and training and supporting farmers.
Haiti once was known as the “jewel of the Antilles,” and its rich agriculture supplied half of the gross national product of France. Now it is up to Bill Clinton to undo past damage and help Haiti once more feed itself rather than subsisting on international charity.
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