Obama administration officials and the U.S. ambassador to Haiti on Friday sought to assure the Haitian-American community that recovery and reconstruction efforts were on track in the Caribbean country two years after a catastrophic earthquake.
The U.S. government supports Haitian President Michel Martelly, who "brings energy and determination to make things happen that had been previously lacking," Ambassador Ken Merten told a few dozen Haitian-American community leaders, elected officials and Haitian government representatives gathered for an evening briefing at a middle school in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.
"One of his stated priorities is to increase investment in Haiti, and I believe this is the right path," Merten said. "Real, transformative change in Haiti can only come through investment, because only investment can create the jobs that Haiti so desperately needs."
The U.S. government's priorities for reconstruction in Haiti focus on infrastructure and energy, food and economic security, health and Haiti's rule of law, including reforms in its prisons and judicial system, said Tom Adams, the State Department's special coordinator for Haiti.
The U.S. also is focused on strengthening Haitian institutions and reducing the reliance on non-governmental organizations that have worked around Haiti's previous governments, said Elizabeth Hogan of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Thursday was the second anniversary of the catastrophic quake that killed 316,000 people and displaced 1.5 million people in the vulnerable Caribbean country.
More than 500,000 people are still living in temporary camps amid a cholera epidemic that began in 2010 after the earthquake and has killed roughly 7,000 people and sickened a half-million more.
U.S. and Haitian officials have said more than half the rubble left by the earthquake has been removed, but many Haitians have said they see little rebuilding as reconstruction efforts get stalled by political disputes and a lack of aid coordination.
The Haitian-Americans who gathered for the panel Friday, singing the Haitian national anthem in unison at its opening, had questions about accountability for the billions of dollars pledged to recovery efforts, along with concerns about housing, mental health services and employment for earthquake survivors in Haiti.
Some members of the audience criticized the Obama administration for not fast-tracking visas for tens of thousands of Haitians whose petitions to join relatives in this country already have been approved. A cap on the number of visas the U.S. grants each year means it can take a decade for a visa to be issued.
Dozens of members of Congress support paroling Haitians waiting for the family-based visas into the U.S., as thousands of Cubans approved to join relatives in the U.S. have been paroled into the country under the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program created in 2007.
"It has bipartisan support," Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, told the panel. "Aren't Haitians deserving?"
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat whose district includes Little Haiti, noted that the U.S. government granted temporary protected status for Haitians, which allows them to legally live and work in the U.S. for a limited period of time.
"This administration has done more than any other administration. This was an extraordinary event that needed extraordinary help, and I think the U.S. has stepped up to that," Nelson said before the meeting began.
Proposals for a Haitian family reunification program and the extension of certain low-skilled, temporary worker visas to Haiti are being considered by Homeland Security, Adams said.