Sunday, January 30, 2011. Two hundred thousand people occupied Egypt’s Tahrir Square, defying a military curfew to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia’s authoritarian leader had just been overthrown, unleashing a wave of anti-government protests from Yemen to Syria to Morocco. South Sudan’s provisional president announced his people had voted overwhelmingly for independence, clearing the way for the breakup of Africa’s largest country. Yet as Hillary Clinton rushed to Andrews Air Force Base to catch her battered government-issue 727, the secretary of state was not headed to Cairo, Tunis or Juba. She was going to Haiti.
Haiti doesn’t seem like a place that would be central to a U.S. presidential candidate’s foreign policy. It’s a small country, whose 10.3 million people inhabit the western third of a Caribbean island the size of South Carolina. They are the poorest people in the hemisphere when you average their country’s meager $8.5 billion GDP among them, and would seem poorer still if you ignored the huge share held by the country’s tiny elite—which controls virtually everything worth controlling, from the banks and ports, to agriculture and, often, politics. It is not a major exporter of anything. Even its location, 500 nautical miles from the Florida Keys, has been of only passing strategic importance to the United States since a brutal 1915-1934 U.S. occupation assured no European power would surpass its influence there.
Yet the world’s most powerful couple have an abiding interest in this out-of-the-way place; the island where Bill Clinton four decades ago recommitted himself to politics after an eye-opening journey and an evening with a Vodou priest. During her tenure at State, Hillary traveled to Haiti four times, as often as she did Japan, Afghanistan or Russia. Bill Clinton continues to visit even as her presidential campaign starts up. He attended the February dedication of Port-au-Prince’s new luxury Marriott hotel, a trip on which he reaffirmed, once again, that his work in Haiti represented “one of the great joys of my life.”
Over the past two decades, the once-and-perhaps-future first couple repeatedly played a key role in Haiti’s politics, helping to pick its national leaders and driving hundreds of millions of dollars in private aid, investment and U.S. taxpayer money toward its development. They’ve brought with them a network of friends and global corporations that never would’ve been here otherwise. Together, this network of power and money has left indelible marks on almost every aspect of the Haitian economy. The island nation, in many ways, represents ground zero for the confusing and often conflict-ridden intersection of her State Department, the Clinton family’s foundation and both of their foreign policies.
“When it’s happening you don’t realize it, [but] after everything is in place … you see the Clintons at every level,” says former Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who was Clinton’s co-chairman on the commission charged with rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “Even if they are clever enough to make you think sometimes that you are the one having the idea.”
The legacy of the Clintons’ efforts here is decidedly mixed, a murky story filled with big promises and smaller results. Despite the huge amounts of aid and investment, the sweeping visions they’ve offered of transformative prosperity—promises delivered by a broad network of friends they recruited and deals they negotiated—have been tripped up by realities on the ground.
Five years after the hemisphere’s deadliest single natural disaster, when both Clintons assumed leading roles in the rebuilding efforts, little progress has been made on many core problems in Haiti, and the government that Hillary Clinton helped put in power during that January 2011 trip—and that both Clintons have backed strongly since—has proven itself unworthy of that trust. Economic growth is stalling, and the nation’s politics look headed for a showdown in the next year that could once again plunge the country into internal strife.
A World Bank study released in December showed that despite modest declines in extreme poverty—mainly in the capital, Port-au-Prince—Haiti remains the poorest and most economically depressed country on the continent, with the richest 20 percent of households accounting for 64 percent of the country’s total income. (The bottom one-fifth of the population earns less than 1 percent.) The report warned that impending political instability could quickly reverse the few gains made since the earthquake.
Hillary Clinton once hoped that Haiti would be the shining jewel of her foreign policy. But far from transforming this poorest of countries, many of the Clintons’ grandest plans and promises remain little more than small pilot projects—a new set of basketball hoops and a model elementary school here, a functioning factory there—that have done little to alter radically the trajectory of the country. Visiting some of their projects over the course of an April research trip affirmed as much about their tenuousness as about the limited benefits they’ve provided. Many of the most notable investments the Clintons helped launch, such as the new Marriott in the capital, have primarily benefited wealthy foreigners and island’s ruling elite, who needed little help to begin with.
Even for those who know how Haiti operates, there are many more questions than answers when one examines the Clintons’ recent work. Did Hillary Clinton keep her promise when she said, soon after taking office at State, that “we will demonstrate to ourselves as well as to the people of Haiti and far beyond that we can, working together, make a significant difference”?
Five years after her husband pledged to Esquire magazine that he was “prepared to spend three years” helping Haitians get “the right things for their country,” what does it mean that the vast majority of Haitians still haven’t gotten much of anywhere?
The Clintons like to cast their relationship with Haiti in personal terms—invariably starting with their 1975 visit as newlyweds to Port-au-Prince, where they watched Vodou penitents walk on coals and the country’s then-dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, lay a wreath at the base of a memorial to Haiti’s founding victory over slavery and the French empire. But there is more than sentiment at stake.
When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, America’s poorest neighbor was slated to be one of the first beneficiaries of what she called “the power of proximity.” One of her first directives at State was to review U.S. policy toward Haiti—“an opportunity,” she would write in her memoir Hard Choices, “to road-test new approaches to development that could be applied more broadly around the world.” That approach had business at its center: Aid would be replaced by investment, the growth of which would in turn benefit the United States. Underscoring the importance of the policy, she tasked her chief of staff—former Clinton White House deputy counsel Cheryl Mills—to oversee the Haiti review personally.
Clinton had two other tools to make Haiti an even more auspicious “road test.” Shortly after she was confirmed, her husband accepted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s offer to serve as his special envoy for Haiti. As president, Bill Clinton had intensified a crippling embargo against Haiti’s then-ruling military junta and ordered the 1994 U.S. invasion to restore the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. Now he was supposed to finish the job, spearheading development after a hunger crisis and a series of damaging hurricanes that had struck in late 2008. Haitians weren’t sure what to think: Clinton was popular with the masses for returning Aristide to power and hated by the elites for the same reason. But few understood his vague new role. Joking that he must be coming back to lead a new colonial regime, the Haitian press dubbed him Le Gouverneur.
The other tool was the Clinton Foundation, which was simultaneously embarking on its own program to boost Haiti’s economy, securing commitments worth more than $130 million from foreign leaders, corporate executives and philanthropists to help Haiti “build back better,” as Clinton put it, from the 2008 storms.
Everything seemed to be falling into place when, on January 12, 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake ripped through the mountains of Haiti’s southern peninsula, leveling much of the capital and killing 100,000 to 316,000 people—the deadliest single natural disaster ever recorded in the hemisphere. The earthquake destroyed the presidential palace, government ministries, schools, offices and countless homes.
It also threatened to upend the Clinton State Department’s nascent Haiti policy. Mills’ team had completed its review just a few hours before the ground shook, concluding in a draft report that Haiti was poised for an economic renaissance, citing indicators such as marginal declines in child mortality and upticks in employment in the country’s garment-assembly industry. Undeterred, in the final, 89-page post-quake version of the report, the State Department team would call the response to the disaster “a moment for U.S. partnership, leadership and strategic investment.”
I was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti at the time. I had been posted in Port-au-Prince for 2 ½ years when the earthquake shattered the walls of my house with me inside. That night, suddenly homeless like millions of others, I moved through the devastated city with my Haitian friend and colleague, Evens Sanon, taking stock of the devastation and watching Haitians rescue and comfort one another as best they could. The living sang prayers of salvation. Everyone was waiting to see what kind of help would come. I remained in Haiti for another year to report on the response, watching up close the central role Hillary and Bill Clinton came to play in the attempt to rebuild.
Four days after the quake, Hillary Clinton was at Port-au-Prince’s damaged airport, holding meetings with then-Haitian President René Préval. That same day, Bill Clinton was in the White House Rose Garden with President Barack Obama, agreeing to lead fundraising efforts on behalf of the beleaguered country along with former President George W. Bush. Two days later, on January 18, Bill arrived in the quake zone with daughter Chelsea and her fiancé, Marc Mezvinsky. In short order, the Clintons became the most important figures in the response. They co-moderated a U.N. donors conference at which 150 nations and organizations pledged $9 billion for Haiti’s recovery. Bill was tapped at the same meeting to co-chair the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, a nominally Haitian entity that was supposed to direct the spending. At every stage of Haiti’s reconstruction—fundraising, oversight and allocation—a Clinton was now involved.
“I believe, before this earthquake, Haiti had the best chance in my lifetime to escape its history, a history that Hillary and I have shared a tiny part of. I still believe that,” Bill Clinton had said in the Rose Garden, alongside Obama and Bush. “It is still one of the most remarkable, unique places I have ever been, and they can escape their history and build a better future if we do our part.”
Hillary Clinton never took her eye off Haiti as secretary of state, even as so many geopolitical hotspots competed for attention. The island represented a key piece of what Clinton called “economic statecraft”—her theory that U.S. foreign policy should not simply respond to security threats but should actively bolster both America’s economy and global influence through diplomacy, trade and economic development abroad.
By far the most consequential moment was that visit on Sunday, January 30, 2011. Two months before, just 10 months after the quake, Haiti had plowed ahead with a presidential election under pressure from Washington. Donors blamed then-President Préval, a skeptic of foreign aid and investment, for what had clearly become a glacial mess of a reconstruction effort. In short, they wanted him out. But the election was a fiasco. Voting halted five hours early on Election Day as nearly every candidate threw out accusations of fraud. When the results showed the candidate of Préval’s party advancing to a runoff anyway, supporters of the eliminated No. 3 candidate, the Haitian pop star Michel Martelly—better known by his stage name, “Sweet Micky”—rioted in protest for days.
Despite all that was happening around the globe that day, the secretary’s most important mission was to make sure all the parties in Haiti agreed to put Martelly back into the race—salvaging the election, in her view, and with it Haiti’s place in U.S. economic statecraft.
Martelly was a left-field candidate, a massively popular singer famous for taking off his pants during performances. But he was not a political neophyte. A longtime resident of Miami, he’d been a strong backer of the now-disbanded Haitian military and an opponent of Aristide. In 2002, the Washington Post called him a “favorite of the thugs who worked on behalf of the hated Duvalier family dictatorship before its 1986 collapse.” Martelly was also a businessman and, in contrast to Préval, an enthusiastic backer of foreign investment in Haiti.
Clinton met with the top three candidates at the U.S. ambassador’s mansion in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Then she went to the grounds of the destroyed national palace to confront a recalcitrant Préval.
“That day I realized why she is a great woman and a great politician,” former Prime Minister Bellerive, who was at the meeting, told me. “She said, ‘Look René … I care about you, because you are my only friend there. … What is happening in the international community is that they are making you appear as a little crook that wants to control the elections and put a puppet in the national palace. We cannot accept that. Because, in a way, you are the father of the democracy. You are the only president that was elected two times … that never [fled] the country, that never killed people, that enforced liberty of press. She went into a story I’ve never heard about what President Préval represented and I see that guy—vvvvhh—deflate. And he was not anymore in a fight mood. So my [election files] that I brought were never used. At the end of it, when we separated, I realized that the fight was over.”
Bill Clinton applauded from a few feet away.
Many in Haiti thought the Clintons’ influence had reached its peak when, shortly after Martelly took office, he selected one of Bill Clinton’s top aides, Garry Conille, to be his prime minister. Conille had been Bill Clinton’s chief of staff at the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy, and many in the Haitian political elite assumed that the Clintons had imposed him to keep an eye on the unpredictable new president.
If that was the idea, it failed. Conille lasted just four months. He was replaced by Laurent Lamothe, Martelly’s longtime business partner, whom the former pop star had once referred to, lovingly, as a “true bandit” in a song.
Things have only gotten more discordant since. Haiti has not held a single election, at any level, in Martelly’s four years in office. Parliament disbanded late last year when the terms of its members expired, leaving Martelly to rule by decree. Both the Clintons and the State Department tried to remain enthusiastic about the Martelly-Lamothe administration. But when opposition protests broke out last year, even Bill’s last-ditch endorsement of the prime minister in a Miami Herald interview could not save him from being forced to resign.
Shortly thereafter, a New York Times article by reporter Frances Robles spotlighted criminality surrounding the Martelly administration, including its protection of members of an alleged kidnapping and drug smuggling ring. A day after the article’s publication, one of the most prominent allies of the president, Woodley Ethéart, was indicted on charges of kidnapping and murder—only to be freed within weeks.
I asked Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, Nick Merrill, whether Martelly’s track record had changed her opinion about the leader she helped put in power. “She supports democratic elections, just like she did as secretary,” Merrill said. He declined further comment.
The hardest thing about evaluating the Clintons’ work in Haiti is that there is so much of it. There’s the Clinton Foundation, which has directed $36 million to Haiti since 2010, but also the $55 million spent through the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, and the $500 million in commitments made through the Clinton Global Initiative’s Haiti Action Network. On Hillary’s side, there’s her own diplomacy, the State Department’s Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator, and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose administrator reported to her.
The amounts of money over which the Clintons and their foundation had direct control paled beside the $16.3 billion that donors pledged in all. Even Bill’s U.N. Office of the Special Envoy couldn’t track where all of that went—and the truth is that still today no one really knows how much money was spent “rebuilding” Haiti. Many initial pledges never materialized. A whopping $465 million of the relief money went through the Pentagon, which spent it on deployment of U.S. troops—20,000 at the high water mark, many of whom never set foot on Haitian soil. That money included fuel for ships and planes, helicopter repairs and inscrutables such as an $18,000 contract for a jungle gym that I found buried in the U.S. Navy’s Haiti bills. Huge contracts were doled out to the usual array of major contractors, including a $16.7 million logistics contract whose partners included Agility Public Warehousing KSC, a Kuwaiti firm that was supposed to have been blacklisted from doing business with Washington after a 2009 indictment alleging a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government during the Iraq War. (That case is still pending in U.S. federal court.)
But even looking at money and institutional heft alone barely captures the reach and influence of the Clintons’ network in Haiti: a vast, diffuse web of power in all its 21st-century permutations. Take the story of actor Sean Penn and his unlikely transformation into a Haiti power player. Penn used his celebrity to establish the aid group J/P HRO in the weeks after the earthquake, then to forge a friendship with Bill Clinton—who in turn used his foundation and his own celebrity to help turn J/P HRO into one of the most powerful NGOs in Haiti. That led to deeper ties to the newly elected government of Martelly, which named Penn an ambassador.
When I returned to Haiti in April for nine days, the Clinton Foundation put me in touch with about a dozen projects it is still running there. Many surely do excellent work, such as the Haitian medical group GHESKIO, one of the world’s oldest AIDS clinics, which is now engaged in a host of medical issues including battling the pernicious cholera epidemic imported into Haiti by United Nations peacekeepers in 2010. The Clinton Global Initiative supports coffee growers and peanut farmers, and has helped the Swiss fragrance supplier Firmenich expand its access to Haitian limes and vetiver, a key oil in perfumes.
The money given directly by Clinton entities, often a few hundred thousand dollars, is small change compared to the billions floating around the humanitarian industry and the corporate world. But the combination of carefully targeted money and connections is invaluable, says GHESKIO’s founder, Dr. Jean William Pape: “He’s a catalyst. He doesn’t give you funds to throw away. He gives you funds to get you started.”
The Clintons have also had a hand in nearly all the new luxury hotel projects that have sprung up around the Haitian capital. Denis O’Brien, the billionaire owner of the major cellphone provider Digicel and principal investor in the swank $45 million Marriott that just opened in Port-au-Prince, said Bill Clinton conceived the project. “He said to the two of us [O’Brien and Marriott CEO Arne Sorensen], ‘Why don’t you build a hotel?’ And after a bit of a conversation, about half an hour, we said, ‘We’ll put up the money.’”
One of the Clinton Foundation’s favorite lines is: “Everywhere we go, we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job.” But at least in the case of Haiti, it’s hard to see how that would happen. The Clintons themselves are the only thing linking all of these projects and initiatives.
More than money, in other words, what the Clintons really provide is access. That dynamic both leaves them open to criticism and makes people loath to criticize for fear of being left on the outside. “I don’t want to use names, but I have seen bad businessmen around Mr. Clinton badmouthing the good businessmen and then the good businessmen, seeing that, come into the Clinton Foundation. It’s life, it’s like that,” says Leslie Voltaire, a longtime Haitian politician and government minister who served as the Préval government’s liaison to Clinton at the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. “Every businessman looks to see if they can be next to power.”
The Clintons are hardly the first foreigners to try to remake this island. The ancestors of today’s Haitians were survivors of one of the most brutal periods of slavery, torture and exploitation the world has ever known. More than 910,000 kidnapped Africans were taken to what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue between 1679 and 1797, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database at Emory University. Their labor on sugar and coffee plantations turned the colony into France’s most valuable engine of economic growth. That period ended with the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in modern history, which created the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, behind the United States—and the first in which all people were free. Haiti’s former French masters, though, exacted a crippling indemnity in compensation for what they deemed the lost value of land and bodies.
For the past century, it’s been the Americans, not the French, who repeatedly reshaped the political landscape here. On July 1, 1915, the U.S.S. Washington arrived on the north coast of Haiti, nominally in response to political turmoil on the island. Within weeks, U.S. Marines had taken the capital, placing the United States in control of Haiti’s government and finances. Five U.S. presidents oversaw the occupation of Haiti, waging war against Haitian insurgents, rewriting laws and ensuring, as Duke University historian Laurent Dubois has written, a “Haitian government [that] was compatible with American economic interests and friendly to foreign investments.”
The Marines’ departure in 1934 did not end U.S. involvement in Haiti. Exactly sixty years later, President Clinton ordered a new American invasion—Operation Uphold Democracy—to restore exiled President Aristide, who had been deposed in a 1991 coup. The story of the Clintons and the first black republic had already been underway for a long time. Their December 1975 trip as newlyweds is often described by the Clintons as a seminal journey. It was paid for by a friend, Edwin David Edwards, a junior executive at Citibank who had just set off a firestorm by accusing his bank of improper currency transactions in the Caribbean.
The newly married couple were at a critical juncture in their political lives. Bill had just lost a congressional race in Arkansas and was giving up on national politics. It was in Haiti that he decided instead to embark on a run for Arkansas attorney general—the race that turned out to be the start of his journey to the White House and, arguably, the beginning of Hillary’s public life as well. We may never know what moved him. But an important moment came outside the capital, at the Vodou temple of Max Beauvoir, a Sorbonne- and City College of New York-educated houngan, or priest. After a ceremony honoring Ogou—the god of iron, war and politics—the Clintons and Beauvoir sat all night by the coral-stone peristyle talking about faith and the future, the houngan told me. “We reached the conclusion that the pursuit of God is the pursuit of excellence,” he recalls.
When Clinton ran for president in 1992, he blasted the George H.W. Bush administration for rounding up boats of Haitians fleeing the military junta that ousted Aristide and for taking too light a hand countering the junta itself, many of whose leaders had received U.S. training or money. Ultimately, Clinton’s intervention returned Aristide to power. But Aristide did not live up to White House expectations. In the years ahead, U.S. relations worsened, and in 2004 the George W. Bush administration provided a plane to fly him into exile, touching off years of instability and lost growth, all capped by the 2010 earthquake. That last disaster presented another chance for the U.S. to get involved and another chance for redemption.
Today, driving east from the city of Cap-Haïtien—where the U.S.S Washington first arrived 100 years ago this summer—out along Haiti’s north coast, past the banana-tree farms at the foothills of the Massif du Nord, you enter the hotbed of U.S. post-quake reconstruction. The agricultural region, a bumpy six-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, was partly chosen to encourage people to disperse from places devastated by the 2010 disaster. Development plans for the corridor include expanded tourist facilities (visitors are expected to flock to the Citadelle Laferrière, a monumental 19th-century Haitian fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site; Royal Caribbean’s lone pier in the country is also nearby), ports, schools, roads and electrification. American Airlines recently began flights to Cap-Haïtien.
The linchpin is the $300 million, 600-acre Caracol Industrial Park, financed by U.S. taxpayer money and Inter-American Development Bank and geared toward making clothes for export to the United States. The Clintons were instrumental at nearly every step in its creation. The development program Bill came to sell as U.N special envoy, written by Oxford University economist Paul Collier, had garment exports at its center.
As only he can, Bill Clinton managed to tout the idea as an exciting departure from Haiti’s past. He successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to eliminate tariffs on textiles sewn in Haiti. (The powerful Association des Industries d’Haiti lobbied, too, paying at least $550,000 to a D.C. lobbying firm led by Andrew Samet, a former Clinton Labor Department official, and Ronald Sorini, who was the chief U.S. Trade Representative negotiator on textiles during the North American Free Trade Agreement talks.)
Clinton won headlines by apologizing for having maintained as president the import-substitution policies that destroyed Haiti’s food sector—policies built on the dangerously misguided theory that factory jobs obviated the need to produce rice and other food locally. He made a special point to note that the policy had benefited farmers in his home state of Arkansas. The message was clear: This time would be different. And he had grand plans for what the industry could become. Clinton predicted that with the right support to the garment sector, 100,000 jobs would be created “in short order.”
Secretary Clinton joined in too: She hired Collier’s research partner in Haiti, Soros Economic Development Fund consultant Jean-Louis Warnhoz, as a senior adviser. She and her key aide Cheryl Mills negotiated an agreement between the Haitian and U.S. governments, multilateral financiers and the South Korean textile giant Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd., which makes clothes for Old Navy, Walmart, Kohl’s, Target and other retailers. The Haitian government provided the land. To create a “plug and play” environment in a country lacking nearly all basic services, IADB and USAID invested millions in roads, water systems, a power plant, executive dormitories and the warehouse-like “shells” that would house the factories. The Clinton Foundation “helped to promote Caracol as an investment destination and worked … to attract new tenants and investments to the park,” says Greg Milne, the foundation’s director of Haiti programs.
In October 2012, Hillary and Bill Clinton flew down to join President Martelly at the ribbon-cutting, where she pledged, “Our partnership, I promise you, will extend far beyond my time as secretary of state. And so, too, will the personal commitment that my husband and I have to Haiti.”
If things went as planned, Caracol would be a triumph of the Clintons’ core model: the “public/private partnership”—U.S. taxpayer dollars, Haitian land and private corporations working together to put cheap clothes on American shelves and wages in Haitian pockets.
Today’s reality, though, falls far short of the 2012 dream—despite an incredible financial investment. Far from 100,000 jobs—or even the 60,000 promised within five years of the park’s opening—Caracol currently employs just 5,479 people full time. That comes out to roughly $55,000 in investment per job created so far; or, to put it another way, about 30 times more per job than the average Sae-A worker makes per year. The park, built on the site of a former U.S. Marine-run slave labor camp during the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, has the best-paved roads and manicured sidewalks in the country, but most of the land remains vacant.
The park’s boosters respond that the number of employees has doubled in the past year. One of Haiti’s richest men, Richard Coles, is opening a new factory to produce for Hanesbrands there. The park’s 10-megawatt plant is providing electricity to more than 8,000 people in the surrounding area under a pilot project run by a Beltway-based energy cooperative, bypassing the weak national electric utility. Mark D’Sa, a former Gap Inc. sourcing director who now works for the State Department, laughed at the idea that anyone could evaluate Caracol’s success or failure after only 2 ½ years. “It’s a half-baked idea that’s still in the oven,” he says, approvingly.
But the workers have their own complaints, starting with pay. Aselyne Jean-Gilles, 35, makes the minimum 225 gourdes a day, or about $4.75. She says she spends $3.19 on food, plus 45 cents each way for a group taxi that takes her from her home in Cap-Haïtien to a town where she can catch a free shuttle to work. She does not have children yet. “If you do, you can’t afford to do anything,” she says.
Inside, Sae-A’s three warehouses are kept reasonably comfortable by giant fans. A disc jockey plays Haitian kompa music to keep workers energized. Enormous U.S., Haitian and South Korean flags hang overhead. Seamstresses sit in forward-facing rows, stitching and passing forward Mossimo and Old Navy tops under the glow of red signs that keep track of the daily “meta,” or quota (the signs were imported, along with middle managers, from older Sae-A factories in Central America, at least one of which closed as the Haiti project was opening). Quality checkers stand all day at the end of the row, discarding clothes unfit for export. “From 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., I stand and stand. I can’t sit down,” says Tamara Pierre, a 22-year-old quality checker, rubbing her visibly swollen ankles as she waits for a bus home.
Outside the park’s walls some 336 families say they were forced off the land to make way for Caracol and were not compensated enough to make up for the loss of livelihoods. It was good, productive farmland in a deforested, hungry country—chosen by the park’s planners precisely because of its access to a good water supply. The farmers’ claims are hard to prove, in large part because Haitian land law is a mess. Five years after it became clear that disputes over land tenure were halting reconstruction after the quake, Haiti still lacks a functioning land registry.
Park officials say the proper channels were followed and compensation was more generous than it had to be. But the peasant farmers believe that once again they were taken advantage of by unaccountable, distant powers. “Mr. and Mrs. Clinton,” specifies Milostene Castin, an area farmer and organizer with the community group Je Nan Je, or “Eye to Eye,” “they have been there since the cornerstone was laid. I think they have monetary interests and political interests in the park.”
When I mentioned that President Clinton had apologized for harming Haitian farmers in the past, Castin was unimpressed. “We call on them to invest in the people, respect human rights and the law,” he says.
To many close observers of Haiti, the Clintons made the same mistake that has been made for generations. Though striking a populist pose, in practice they were attracted to power in Haiti, which meant making alliances and friendships within the Haitian elite. “The strong push toward Caracol is evidence of this,” says Robert Maguire, an expert on development in Haiti and the director of The George Washington University’s Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program. Their project responded not as much to the “more inclusive development priorities pushed for by most Haitians and their government … but rather to those supported by Haiti’s economic elites, who stood to benefit the most from them.”
That does not mean that the Haitian elite are all fans of the Clintons. Far from it. Many still smart over Bill’s decision to reinstate the overthrown Aristide. Others are resentful of the power and money the Clintons bring with them in their entourage, including billionaires like O’Brien (who in turn have no love for the oligarchical power of the Haitian import-export cartels). But infighting, the maneuvering of power and political brinkmanship have long been tactics of the Haitian elite.
In a way, some whisper in Port-au-Prince, it’s as if the Clintons have joined their ranks.
The Washington Post recently wrote that “the Clintons’ long influence in Haiti is hard to overstate.” It’s indeed hard—but not impossible. While the Clintons and their allies sometimes seem to be omnipresent, they are not omnipotent. In part, that’s because, as a rule, things in Haiti do not go as planned.
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission closed shop in 2011, derided for ineffectiveness and decisions “not necessarily aligned with Haitian priorities,” according to theGovernment Accountability Office. In December 2010, the IHRC’s Haitian members protested in a letter that they were being sidelined by Clinton, Bellerive and major donors on the board, including the U.S. representative to thecommission, Mills. “In reality, Haitian members of the board have one role: to endorse the decisions made by the Director and Executive Committee,” they wrote.
Washington was a bigger obstacle. Congress capped the U.S. money it let the IHRC control at a comparatively tiny $120 million, and the Obama administration then issued instructions on how the money had to be spent. “That was the end of the trust fund as it was intended,” a former senior Haitian commission official told me. (In a recent interview, Bill Clinton told Town & Country that the IHRC was “incredibly cumbersome.”)
Other allegations of double-dealing and pocket-lining have been based on the dubious idea that the Clintons can do as they please in Haiti. Conservative author Peter Schweizer recently set off a media storm when he reported that a small mining company with rights to dig in northern Haiti had Tony Rodham, Hillary’s brother, on its board. On a sunbaked April morning, I hiked up a narrow path on Morne Bossa, the mountain 160 miles north of Port-au-Prince where that mine is supposed to end up. Spectacular countryside surrounded us. In the distance, across a wide green valley, the Citadelle Laferrière soared atop a 3,000-foot peak. Our destination inspired less awe: a sawed-off PVC pipe in a concrete base the size of a shoebox, from which the company—Victory, Championship, Strategic Mining—occasionally takes samples.
Schweizer’s report triggered a lot of speculation, inside Haiti and out, that the Clinton network was enriching itself in Haiti, and that lonely pipe on a remote hill became an object of fascination for the political press. But the site looked more like another example of overblown promises than a master scheme. There was no mining equipment nearby, and judging by the complete lack of activity at VCS Mining’s nearby office, little sign any would come soon.
VCS CEO Angelo Viard told me Rodham was a financial adviser, not a member of the board as had been reported, and that he had met him—through the Clinton Global Initiative—after the Haitian government had already granted him the right to explore for gold and copper. “Mr. Rodham … said very clearly, Haiti has been hurt by so many disasters, if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know. And we said, ‘Hey, you might be able to help us with the capital,’ and he was very happy to do so,” Viard told me. He estimates he needs $60 million to begin digging, whenever the government might allow it again.
All mining programs in Haiti are on hold while the country’s mining law is reviewed. VCS’s office, full of dusty bags and wooden boxes of rocks, have no active staff beside the caretaker, Williamcite Noel, whose main qualifications seem to be speaking a bit of English and living near the site.
Many observers I spoke to think Viard is more likely to try and flip the company than to ever actually start blasting the ground. What role Tony Rodham might play in the company’s future, or what money he might make off a future deal, is just as unclear as the mine’s future. Its potential may never amount to anything, which some argue might actually be the better outcome for Haiti. An open-pit mine on the site could create environmental havoc while destroying the gorgeous view from the Citadelle, harming tourism potential in the years ahead.
Others have questioned a $500,000 donation to the Clinton Foundation made by the Algerian government after the 2010 earthquake, and a $900,000 donation by Boeing to support Haitian schools at the same time Secretary Clinton was lobbying the Russian government to buy that company’s planes. The foundation has acknowledged it violated an ethics agreement with the Obama White House by taking the Algerian donation. Boeing indeed won a major contract, according to the Washington Post.
But, though tracing the money in Haiti is difficult, there are no solid indications that the donations went anywhere other than where they were supposed to go. A Clinton Foundation spokesman says the Algerian money went into a $16.4 million direct aid fund, which in turn provided money to groups including Partners in Health, the operating fund of the IHRC, and Sean Penn’s J/P HRO.
Boeing’s money went to a now-defunct NGO named Architecture for Humanity, which rebuilt a quake-damaged school in the impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel-Air. I visited on a recent school day. While the new building does not scream luxury—there is no library or computer lab, barely any furniture, and the school building does not get electricity—it does seem to be a well-put-together piece of construction, certainly by Haitian standards, where schools collapsed from shoddy building materials even before the earthquake. The former lead for the project, Kate Evarts, told me that while she no longer has immediate access to the books, she thinks that $900,000 sounds about right as a price tag when considering fees, licenses and the cost of subcontractors. The foundation says some money also went to teacher training.
Following the money in Clinton Foundation projects is often a challenge. In recent weeks, under media pressure, the foundation has admitted that its bookkeeping and transparency have been lacking at times. Last week, after days of questions and press reports about the Clinton Foundation’s work in various countries, acting CEO Maura Pally posted a statement explaining the foundation was committed to transparency: “Yes, we made mistakes, as many organizations of our size do, but we are acting quickly to remedy them, and have taken steps to ensure they don’t happen in the future.”
Even poring over documents doesn’t tell you much: In 2013, the most recent tax year for which disclosures are available, the foundation raised $295 million overall and spent $223 million—of which it says $197 million, or 88 percent, went to “program services.” That intentionally vague term, used universally by NGOs across the aid world, includes anything that can be justifiably linked to specific projects including travel, office expenses and salaries.
Clinton Foundation officials told me that, “unlike most organizations operating in Haiti, the Clinton Foundation and its Haiti program do not charge overhead expenses or collect an administrative fee for our work.”
It is easy to see how the Clintons’ influence in Haiti—where the power players are few and the vast majority of people live on less than $2 a day—can be misunderstood or raise suspicions. There is little transparency in Haiti. Almost every deal, even a legitimate one, gets made out of sight—and over the past five years, the Clintons have seemingly had a representative or friend in all the most important backrooms. That power discrepancy, along with the Clintons’ fondness for keeping their cards close to the vest, has led to wild rumors everywhere. Many center on the Clintons supposedly buying land, the traditional source of wealth and power. “I’ve heard people say Bill Clinton was trying to buy the Citadelle!” laughs Michele Oriol, an expert on land rights with a Haitian government agency.
The complexity and limits of the Clinton model in Haiti can be summed up in a complex of 750 pastel-colored houses up the road from Caracol. The residents of Village La Difference are happy to have homes with electricity and water cisterns. But the settlement has been plagued by construction problems since the beginning. Two USAID contractors have been suspended for failures including using shoddy concrete blocks and failing to separate water and sewage pipes.
The village’s shining feature, however, and its most Clintonian innovation, is a school. Lekol S&H’s monthly $8,400 budget is funded by Sae-A. It’s a savvy public relations move that has yielded what is probably the most dynamic elementary school in the country. The principal, Jean V. Mirvil, was recruited from P.S. 73 in the Bronx. He and his teachers, many of whom have completed teaching school (a rarity), devised a cutting-edge curriculum that emphasizes instruction in Kreyòl, rather than French, the traditional language of education and the elites.
Like many of the Clintons’ interventions in Haiti, it is not a direct project of the foundation but what Mirvil happily referred to as “the Clinton network.” The Clintons provided contacts ranging from USAID trainers to the Brooklyn Nets, who donated the basketball hoops out back. Gold plaques in the hallways and cafeteria bear the hand-scrawled inscriptions in English: “My best wishes to the children who will be educated here and congratulations to Sae-A!—Hillary Rodham Clinton.” (Bill’s scrawl adds, “To the children: Learn a lot!”)
But barring an angel investor willing to pay for the program nationwide for a generation or so, Lekol S&H remains essentially a one-off, dependent on a single company’s decision to stay and keep paying the bills. The model is precarious—particularly given the increasingly likely possibility that Haiti reenters a period of political instability.
Haiti’s current political troubles fall short of what might cause real problems for Hillary Clinton as she touts her foreign policy bona fides during her White House run. But that could quickly change.
Impatience with President Martelly is growing at all levels, even inside the State Department. With the falling price of oil and the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the seemingly free PetroCaribe money that has bankrolled Haiti’s meager growth—and the Martelly administration’s tenuous hold on power—is running out.
With the Martelly administration now able to set up elections on its own terms, the long-delayed parliament vote is scheduled for August. New presidential elections are slated for October. Martelly is barred from running for reelection by the constitution. Both Lamothe and the president’s wife, Sofia Martelly, are rumored to be exploringruns. No one knows if the elections will go off on time.
“If the election is not held this year and there is a high level of violence and turmoil, [the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti] decides to leave, and the 82nd Airborne or the Marines have to be sent here to keep order, then yes, this could affect the U.S. election. It could lead to questioning the ability of a Democrat in the White House to keep peace and stability in a country like Haiti,” says Lionel Delatour, a prominent Haitian businessman with ties to many in the U.S. government and private sector. “The likelihood of such a series of events to take place is very remote. But we have surprised the world before.”
The real date to watch is May 15, 2016, when Martelly’s five-year term ends. If no election is held by then, a transitional government will take power, there will be a constitutional crisis, or both. That date will fall almost precisely as Hillary Clinton hopes to wrap up the Democratic primaries and turn to the general election. Instability in a place where she and her husband have planted a big flag would hardly help her campaign.
It’s impossible to say how all this will turn out. From top to bottom, the Clintons’ work in Haiti is far from over. Many promises remain unfulfilled; many projects still, as D’Sa put it, “half-baked.” Bill Clinton still goes there frequently, including a February stop to join Martelly and O’Brien at the opening of the Port-au-Prince Marriott. His comments are ever boosterish, but tinged with frustration. “If everyone knew this country the way Denis and I do, your incomes would be three times higher than they are, people would be flooding in here every day, and we wouldn’t have had the problems we do,” the former president told a group of Haitians, according to the Miami Herald.
If Hillary is successful in her presidential bid, the Clintons will have another four or even eight years to drive U.S. policy toward this Caribbean nation—for better or for worse. Perhaps unsure of how Haiti will fit into the upcoming election, Hillary Clinton has been less talkative than her husband. Her spokesman declined to comment on how her experience in Haiti has shaped her foreign policy, saying she would address that “when the time comes to do so.”
I asked Benel Etienne, a 32-year-old resident of Village La Difference and construction day laborer at Caracol, if he had a message for the candidate. “Mrs. Clinton, we hope you became president of your United States, but at the same we hope you bring change for Haiti, because you have good diplomatic relations with Haiti,” he told me. When I asked what kind of change that might be, he smiled and shrugged. Haitians like him have heard too many promises, and seen too many things, to think they could really know.