PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Former President Bill Clinton said desperately needed U.S. aid is coming to Haiti despite delays after listening last week to refugees in a sprawling homeless camp complain of a lack of food, jobs and housing nine months after a devastating earthquake.
Clinton, the co-chair of the commission overseeing Haiti’s reconstruction, expressed frustration with the slow delivery of promised funds by donors who have delivered about $732 million of a promised $5.3 billion in funds for 2010-11, along with debt relief. Most notably absent is the United States, which has yet to deliver any of its promised $1.15 billion.
“First of all, in the next day or so it will become obvious that the United States is making a huge down payment on that,” the former U.S. president and husband of the current secretary of state told reporters without providing details. “Secondly I’m not too concerned -- although I'm frustrated - because the Congress have approved the money that the Secretary of State and the White House asked for.”
The stakes were made clear in a morning visit to a storm-battered hillside former golf-course in Port-au-Prince now home to 55,000 increasingly desperate Haitians, who told Clinton amid mosquito swarms and fraying tarps that they need money, jobs, houses and education to get out of the dangerous and inhospitable camp where they are stuck.
Hours later Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive stood in the sweltering heat before the former U.S. Embassy that is now Bellerive’s office to announce $777 million in projects for education, business, rubble removal and other areas freshly approved by the commission they jointly lead.
Clinton singled out, without naming, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn for holding up an authorization bill that could have eased the flow of money. Coburn’s secret hold on the bill - used because he objected to a $5 million provision to create the office of a senior Haiti coordinator of U.S. policy - was revealed by an Associated Press investigation last month.
Citing “a rather bizarre system of rules in the United States Senate,” Clinton said that “barely over one-half of 1 percent of the money that’s been approved is holding up all the rest.”
“Since I believe that we are still essentially a sane as well as a humane country I believe the money will be released, and when that happens that will also give a lot of other donors encouragement to raise their money,” Clinton said.
This week the U.S. funds were prepared for release with the approval of a State Department spending plan. But in part because of a lack of detail it will take at least weeks and perhaps more for the funds to start being delivered on contracts such as rubble removal, a congressional staffer said.
At last Tuesday’s meeting the U.S. government also pledged a $120 million contribution to a World Bank-managed reconstruction fund with money for rubble removal, housing, education, business credit and budgetary support. It is not clear if that money is coming from the supplemental request funding its donors-conference pledge, or when it will be delivered.
The State Department has also gone ahead and created a nearly identical office to the one Coburn objected to last week, naming department veteran Thomas C. Adams to the post of special Haiti coordinator.
But the Oklahoma Republican will not release his hold, because he does not believe he is preventing money from being spent on Haiti’s reconstruction.
“Dr. Coburn wants to approve additional funds without increasing the deficit and without creating duplicative roles,” said Coburn staffer John Hart. “What we’ve seen is the typical Washington game of demonizing one senator to distract the public from the incompetence in Congress and the State Department.”
During his visit to the camp, Clinton donated $500,000 to the J/P Haitian Relief Organization co-founded by actor Sean Penn, which provides services there.
Camp residents, some up to their ankles in mud, hooted and cheered as the former president walked deeper into the camp, exclaiming, “We are hungry!” and “We can’t take this anymore!” Some called for the ouster of President Rene Preval and the return of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Edwin Auguste, a 26-year-old unemployed man who lost both parents and his home in the quake, said he was glad that Clinton came, but that he has lost what little faith he had in Haitian leaders and the international community.
“When the leaders tell the Haitian people I will do something for you, after that they do nothing,” he said.
Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza contributed to this story