On Monday, January 16, I had my first chance to visit Haiti as part of my official work on the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
Having lived in Miami for most of my life, I have crossed paths with many people of Haitian descent over the years. The story of Haiti’s challenges and opportunities is one that so many of us are familiar with, whether we’ve heard it from Florida’s vast diaspora community or seen it in news accounts.
I wanted to see Haiti for myself. I wanted to meet with Haitians, assess the progress of rebuilding efforts, see how U.S. taxpayer dollars are being spent, and learn what more I can do to help. From the moment I landed, I knew I was in for a life-changing experience. After all, it is one thing to read and see reports about the tragic legacy of decades of mismanagement and the devastation from the January 2010 earthquake, and it is another to see the suffering in the eyes of the people we encountered and to hear about the vision of their leaders for a more hopeful future. It was also important to see the smiles on children’s faces and the gratitude of so many Haitians for America’s support in their time of need. Despite all the calamities they have faced and the obstacles before them, the Haitian people’s resilience offers encouragement of what can become of the Haitian republic – with the right leadership and policies, and the support of the United States and our partners.
In meetings with U.S. embassy officials, President Martelly, Prime Minister Garry Conille, private sector leaders and other community leaders, I came away with several reflections on ways the U.S. can continue supporting Haiti’s rebuilding process and help move the country forward.
First, I believe it is important that all our fellow Floridians and the American people recognize what is at stake for us in Haiti. I believe it is in the United States’ best interests for Haiti to consolidate its democratic institutions and reclaim its destiny as a more prosperous and stable nation. This is important for our own security and prosperity. In essence, we cannot have a failed state in our hemisphere and especially one that sits at the crossroads of air and sea commerce in the Caribbean and in close proximity to our shores in Florida. Among other consequences, this would leave a void that bad actors – transnational criminal organizations or even terrorists – could fill. The government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is actively using resources to prey on weaker Caribbean states in his search of friends in the face of international condemnation for his government’s growing ties to drug trafficking and active state sponsors of terror.
Rather than allow such a dark scenario, we should pursue the optimal goal: encouraging a prosperous Haiti committed to the free market and rule of law. Such a reality would lead to economic opportunities for the U.S., and Florida would especially stand to benefit given Haiti’s geographic proximity and strong cultural links between our peoples.
To this end, I was pleased to hear sincere commitments and action plans from the Haitian government to focus on education, job creation, institutional reform and investment-based development to gradually reduce their nation’s dependence on foreign aid. As the government pursues these domestic initiatives, the Obama Administration should review its policy in Haiti to ensure greater coordination, true capacity building among Haitian institutions and businesses, and accountability in how U.S. assistance is spent. The U.S. should also make it a priority to better integrate the private sector into all recovery projects. I strongly urge the Administration to seize this important moment in Haitian history and ensure that short and medium term aid projects are expedited, lest we allow bad actors with dubious aims to gain a foothold in the country.
Another particular issue that I wanted to explore during my visit was human trafficking. I wanted to learn more about how it manifests itself in Haiti, what the government is doing about it, and how the U.S. can encourage more robust efforts to combat this form of modern day slavery. During the trip, we had a chance to discuss this issue with everyone we met and also visited a school of children who have been victims of this practice. To be frank, I was startled by the sense of complacency I encountered.
Despite Haiti’s proud history as the first republic born out of the struggle of former slaves, the slavery problem still exists in the modern incarnation of the restaveks, a common practice for many families who simply cannot afford to take care of their children and instead send them into what amounts to indentured servitude. To be clear, Haitians are struggling mightily to overcome significant challenges. Nonetheless, we should not allow historical precedent to keep them from putting an end to a practice that steals so many Haitians’ dignity. I am hopeful that President Martelly’s emphasis on expanding education opportunities for Haitians will lead to better alternatives and a sustainable path to ending the practice of restaveks. My experience in Haiti has only strengthened my resolve to make combatting human trafficking a core mission of America’s foreign policy.
In sum, what I saw in Haiti as a whole was both eye-opening, heartbreaking and cause for optimism about the future. It is clear to me that America must be a friend and partner to Haiti. And it is now incumbent on me to share my experiences and insights with my colleagues to ensure that Haiti is not forgotten as we help shape foreign policy. And should the need for U.S. involvement in Haiti be seriously questioned, it is my promise to stand up and make clear why it is important.
As a resident of Miami, I have been blessed to meet and work with many people of Haitian descent over the years. And I am honored today to represent the state with the largest Haitian diaspora in the country. I am glad I was able to visit this land that so many of my constituents love and feel connected to, oftentimes because of friends and relatives that still reside there. As your U.S. senator, my office stands ready to serve you to the best of our abilities.