Above: US Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL)
By Alexander Britell
IN DECEMBER, UNITED STATES CONGRESSMAN Alcee Hastings, the Representative for Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, re-introduced legislation calling for President Barack Obama to convene a White House Conference on Haiti in the next calendar year. At the time, the Congressman said that while the United States’ response to the earthquake in Haiti had been commendable, the country needed to do all it could to ensure a long-term, sustainable recovery for Haiti. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Hastings about the proposed conference, the state of aid money in the country, and how US congressional gridlock has extended to issues concerning Haiti.
What was the motivation behind the proposed presidential conference?
Well the fact of the matter is that the collaboration on the rebuilding of Haiti is vitally needed. So I introduced HR 3711, which would require the President to call the White House Conference on Haiti. You go through the litany of things that have happened since the earthquake, and the cholera outbreak, the rain season — another one will be coming soon in April — and too many people are living in tents, too many people are sick, and too many buildings are not restored. So even though you have a lot of non-governmental operations on the ground, and even though there was the intent, it seems, to try to coordinate those efforts, it has not happened. And I thought that, through the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security, we could put together a structured committee under the aegis of the President and the Congress — nine people that could be established as a policy committee and report back to the White House what has gone on, analyze that and then suggest the things that might be done that would be helpful. It’s just sort of like going around in a circle — you have $9 billion dollars that have been pledged, and only about half of that has been spent. Some of the organizations still have unspent monies and it’s troubling that we haven’t been able to get the resources that are desperately needed, primarily for housing and education, which then produces jobs.
What kind of progress have you seen in Haiti?
I’ve seen progress, but how do you measure it? Or do you measure it by the small things that have been done with the large amount of money, and the things that are still needed to be done? The substantial measures of progress would be the election of the President and the selection of a Prime Minister. But I think the next election will tell the tale. What is needed is added resources to assist Haiti in governance.
I’ve seen progress, but how do you measure it?”
It is that even in the Diaspora, I find that Haitian people quarrel among themselves about which direction the country should undertake. But at this time, I’m interested for example, in Rachel [Wheeler], the young lady in my congressional district who raised the money to build 150 homes [in Haiti]. If Rachel can do that, I don’t see why the NGOs can’t do that. So, government aside, it seems to me to be a problem. And in that regard, there are things that are desperately needed: the reconstruction of hospitals and in the mountain areas where some of the resources have not reached that I think are important. This is the country closest to the United States and has a significant number of nationals, and it is just, in my view, wise that we should do everything we can to assist in the rebuilding of the country.
A recent film called Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? focused on the issue you mentioned, the disbursement of aid funds in Haiti. What can be done to make sure that the money is going where it needs to go?
I’ve heard about it. That’s what the focus of my White House Conference call is — to analyze how organizations who have hundreds of millions of dollars are spending it on the ground. It creates the perception among Haitians that foreigners come there and take control of everything. When you are talking about moving earth and transporting it to other areas, you wind up with too little in the way of money actually getting to the ground. That’s another danger there: if the money that was used in some of the camps to provided sanitation and health care dries up, then what happens to the other people if they are not in the position to take care of themselves? So there’s a lot of criticism about how resources are used, and some executives are paid handsome salaries while there are people that are impoverished, and it just isn’t computing and it’s not making sense. So I thought that stakeholders in rebuilding, along with other interested parties, should come together and share their knowledge and best practices and identify gaps in the recovery process.
What are some of the other proposals you’ve made?
That isn’t the only thing I’ve sponsored or co-sponsored this year. We go involved in the Haitian Emergency Life Protection Act to reinstate the B-visas to allow the designation to have people approved, to have family-sponsored immigrants get visas to come to the US. We did that for Cubans, and it seems only right that we would do it for the nearly 15,000 Haitians with approved visas, to expedite that. There was some movement on that yesterday in Florida, as a matter of fact. Also, there is the Haitian Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act; this was a measure, in partnership with the government of Haiti, we would support the sustainable recovery and rebuilding [of Haiti] and charge USAID to submit to Congress a multi-year strategy to provide assistance. We filed a resolution expressing the sense of the House that the US should work with Haiti to address gender-based violence and violence against children. We’re always filing these [bills], but we never get anything passed. And we don’t get anything passed because there are people in Congress that don’t believe in Haiti or helping any other country.
We’re always filing these [bills], but we never get anything passed. And we don’t get anything passed because there are people in Congress that don’t believe in Haiti or helping any other country.”
And so when it comes to getting 218 votes in the House, it becomes almost impossible to try to get the relief efforts. You get the sympathy, but you don’t get the money. And when you get the money, it’s voluntarily by other people. And so I’m hopeful the elections that are coming up will help stabilize the government. Another thing we could do is help in training the elected officials for their governance aspects, and help in training the judiciary. I, for one, do not favour a reconstitution of an army. I do believe that a strong national police would assist in our security. But I don’t see Haiti has being threatened by anybody to need an army. What they need is an army of reconstruction.
I don’t see Haiti has being threatened by anybody to need an army. What they need is an army of reconstruction.”
Given the inability to get legislation passed in Congress that you discussed, what can the Executive Branch do in the meantime to help Haiti?
That’s just what I’m trying do legislatively. I think they could call a White House Conference. I have asked that. Now I will put it in writing, and ask that the President, with his pen, say, “Fine I’m going to have the White House collaborate in Haiti,” which would look at what has been done and what needs to be done. I think he could raise the issue from the bully pulpit, and point out more about the needs that are still not there. I think [President Obama] could commission the Commerce Department to do a trade mission to Haiti, and I believe that would be helpful. I think you could get businesspersons associated with Haitians, so that Haitians in the Diaspora could better assist in the redevelopment of the country. I believe those are the things that the White House could do.