When President Barack Obama went to Trinidad for the Summit of Americas, he brought the promise of “change” to a Latin America policy that has brought suffering to our neighbors while reducing U.S. influence and moral standing in the hemisphere. Change would be especially welcome to Haitians, who have suffered their usual unfair share of political and economic instability from these policies. But Haitians are still waiting to see whether the promised change will extend beyond ending the illegal and destructive policies of the last eight years, and include a shift away from U.S. policies that have failed both our oldest neighbor and our highest ideals for over two centuries.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a down-payment on the promise of change shortly before the summit. Speaking at the Haiti Donors’ Conference at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, Clinton pledged $50 million in aid to Haiti, including $20 million to cover Haiti’s expected 2009 debt service to the IDB and the World Bank. The debt relief measure rights a longstanding wrong: Over half of the loans Haiti is repaying were given to prop up dictators friendly to the U.S. but brutal to their citizens. Until recently, Haiti was repaying these loans at a clip of $1 million a week, diverting funds from urgent priorities like health care, education, and economic development.

This money isn’t in the bank yet. The aid package needs congressional approval, and if Haiti is unable to jump through all the hoops of the World Bank’s debt relief program by June, its debt service this year will increase. But the announcement itself is a welcome departure from the Bush administration’s policies.

Bush’s Approach

In 2001, the Bush administration imposed a development assistance embargo on Haiti because it didn’t like the economic policies of Haiti’s democratically elected government. The embargo stopped urgently needed government programs — a Partners In Health study found that canceling IDB water projects in just one city (Port de Paix) had a devastating impact on health in the area. In 2004, U.S. officials forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide aboard a clandestine flight to Africa and placed a Bush supporter from Florida at the head of Haiti’s government. Thousands were killed in the ensuing political violence. Years of hard-won progress toward democracy were erased overnight.

But U.S. mistreatment of Haiti started much earlier. As soon as Haiti became independent in 1804, we refused to even recognize the new republic run by former slaves who fought to emancipate their island. In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti to ensure repayment of a debt to the First National Bank of New York (now Citibank) and stayed until 1934 — this was the longest Marine occupation ever in the Americas. Democrats and Republicans propped up ruthless dictators in the name of fighting communism. In the 1980s, the United States decimated Haiti’s agricultural base by forcing subsidized U.S. rice on Haitian markets.

These policies failed Haitians terribly. They cost thousands of lives lost in political violence. Millions more suffered because Haiti’s governments couldn’t or wouldn’t provide clean water and basic healthcare. The policies have also failed the United States by requiring us to mount expensive military interventions, respond to repeated waves of refugees, and deal with the drugs that transit easily through an underdeveloped Haiti on their way from South America.

Haitians’ hopes for better treatment from the United States are grounded not just in Obama’s promise, but in their own country’s brief but successful experiment with democracy from 1994 to 2004, and in the strategic U.S. policies that contributed to that success.

Haiti’s democratic interlude showed that democracy does work, even in difficult situations. The period did have contested elections and the government struggled to provide basic justice, education, and health care — the predictable challenges of a poor, emerging democracy. But that interlude also included Haiti’s first transfer of power from one elected president to another in February 1996, and the second successful transition in February 2001. Democratic progress included extending AIDS retroviral therapy to rural areas that had never before had a simple clinic. It included two historic trials that brought powerful figures from Haiti’s former army and current police force to justice, showing the power and potential of an independent judiciary.

These successes were due, in part, to U.S. government efforts. U.S. troops intervened to restore the constitutional government in 1994. USAID helped craft Haiti’s successful application for financing from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. U.S. judges, prosecutors and police officers trained their Haitian counterparts, and also brought basic legal resources and materials into Haitian courts.

Historic Opportunity

Obama now has a historic opportunity to build a stronger, more prosperous Haiti. “Shovel-ready” policies could make an immediate impact. The Obama administration could grant Haiti’s request for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a special immigration status that allows visitors from fragile countries to remain in the United States and work after their visas have expired. This would allow the 30,000 Haitians with final deportation orders to stay here and send money home to their relatives in Haiti. Obama could facilitate Aristide’s return — he’s still exiled in South Africa and remains the country’s most popular political figure, hastening the return of normalcy to Haitian politics.

In the long run, the United States will need to persistently invest in Haiti’s democracy. Money is notoriously short these days, but Haiti’s small scale makes it a relative bargain: Three days’ spending in Iraq or two weeks’ interest on the U.S. bank bailout could fund Haiti’s entire government for a year. Prudent, depoliticized investments in Haiti’s democracy will yield dividends of prosperity and stability to Haiti, and will save U.S. taxpayer dollars in the long run by reducing the flow of refugees and drugs to our shores. Perhaps most importantly, by helping rebuild a better Haiti, the United States can recover our lost prestige and influence and demonstrate to all of Latin America that we are ready to be a good neighbor.

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