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Inside Bill Clinton's New Plan for Haiti: Exclusive Q&A

"We'll have to modify everything according to what happened," the former president says. "We will reconstitute the UN effort. And I think it will be the most passionate effort you've ever seen."

By Mark Warren
January 15, 2010

(Click here to view the original article)

ESQUIRE: Based on your considerable experience in this area given your work in disaster relief after the South Asian tsunami, what do you project will be the recovery commitment by us and other nations after the acute crisis passes?

BILL CLINTON: Well, first of all, I think we've got a week or ten days more where we're going to be digging out the living and the dead. Presumably by then we will have reconstituted the United Nations system. Keep in mind — let me back up and say that Edmond Mulet, who is the deputy secretary general for peacekeeping, was the predecessor of Mr. Annabi down in Haiti. [Diplomat Hedi Annabi of Tunisia is believed to have been killed Tuesday in the collapse of UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince.] He's a very able man. He was sent by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon down there. First thing is that he's got to find our people. We've got 150 people under the rocks. In all probability, this is going to be the greatest loss of life in any mission since the creation of the United Nations. The Christopher Hotel where they worked collapsed entirely. We've taken a grand total — I haven't gotten an update, I'm sorry for that, but I've been too busy with this stuff — but as of Wednesday afternoon, we've only found ten people alive there. We've got thirteen to sixteen peacekeepers who have been killed that we know of, but almost all the peacekeepers are okay. The only people that we're sure are okay from the UN Mission are those that walked out of that office before 5 o'clock. I never was so happy to know that some people got to knock off a little early in my life.

So the fundamental problem in answering your question is that you've got to try to visualize this: The UN was, in effect, decapitated. The Haitian government was disabled by the destruction of the presidential palace and the president's offices, and the parliamentary building. There are senior parliamentarians still missing. Members of the cabinet still missing. The prime minister and the president are fine, and they're setting up shop around the airport. And the U.S. has given them communications equipment. One of the greatest pieces of good fortune is that the American embassy was unharmed, our people there are in good shape, and the UN Security Mission was largely unharmed, because they had an office out near the airport.

And so they are working very closely with the American military. I cannot say enough positive things about the statement that President Obama issued. And you know, Hillary flew back from Hawaii — Haiti has been a personal, almost obsession for her and for me since we first went there thirty-five years ago. And so she and Rajiv Shah, the US AID director, and Cheryl Mills, her counselor, are going to run the domestic side of this. They're doing very well, and we will reconstitute the UN effort. And I think it will be the most passionate effort you've ever seen.

But when we get through this, what I believe will happen, and what I have strongly recommended to do, is to simply take the economic plan that the Haitian government has already endorsed, which is a modified version of what Mr. [Oxford University economics professor Paul] Collier did for the United Nations, that we have all kinds of commitments around — donor commitments, NGO commitments — and modify it based on the damage, human and physical, done by the earthquake, and just go right back to work. Try to get everybody to keep the commitments they've made. We've got 10,000 NGOs there that have registered with us, that want to work together. I had a meeting with fifty NGOs and investors, who have been part of my investment conference that we did with the Inter-American Development Bank. The head of the Inter-American Development Bank was there, the World Bank was represented, Secretary Tom Vilsack came, representing the administration, along with two members of the Department of Commerce who are trying to get investors there, and they all said, Just tell us what you want us to do. We're getting hundreds of e-mails a day here talking about what they can do once the crisis passes. So what we're trying to do is to organize all that, get back to them, tell them we've logged them in, and we'll call them as soon as we're in a position to use their help. Look, once you get the dead and the living off the streets, once you dig out everybody from under the rocks, and you get the emergency needs met — food, water, shelter, and medical supplies — once you get that done, you've got to go back to implementing the plan. The point is, we've got a plan, that plan's still good, and it's more relevant than it was before the earthquake hit. It's just going to have to be modified based on the new facts. For example: If you had three people willing to open factory facilities in Port-au-Prince, how long will it take to fix the port? How are we going to provide their power needs? Literally thousands of questions. If we were going to try to combat deforestation by planting a lot of mango trees, which generate more money than tearing down the trees does, how are we going to get them to the ports in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere if the roads in Port-au-Prince are torn up? In other words, we'll have to modify everything according to what happened. But we have a plan. So what we're trying to do now is to say to people, if you want to help now, I even set up for our UN Mission a little Web site,, and text opportunity, Haiti 20222. Because right now, if you're not part of a medical team, if you're not part of a search and rescue team, what you can do is give money, even if it's one dollar, five dollars, or ten dollars, give something. We will immediately pass this money through, and move it quickly into those four essentials.

We are also trying to get some lighting on at night, and do some other things to ensure protection. I think there's only so long you can expect desperately poor people who don't know whether their loved ones are living or dead to step over bodies in the dark at night in the cities without having something bad happen. So we've got to get some protection there, too.

But those things are going to be done now.

Meanwhile, everybody is telling us, This is what I can do in construction, this is what I can in recovery. And we're logging all that in, organizing it, and we will find a way to use them in an organized fashion as we reconstitute the government of Haiti and reconstitute the UN's decision-making capacity.

ESQ: Mr. President, in 1994 you risked your presidency to help restore the democratically elected government there. Can you talk about the American relationship to that country? Can you talk about your relationship to Haiti?

CLINTON: Well first, let's talk about America's relationship. Before Abraham Lincoln, the United States treated Haiti like dirt — from 1804 until Lincoln became president. And we got into the Civil War and he issued the Emancipation Proclamation — because the establishment thought that the first successful slave revolt in history was a threat to slavery in America. And frankly, their neighbors weren't much better. And that history of abuse and neglect soon took hold within the country, and sometimes Haitians were doing to each other what had been done to them by outside powers. The Haitian military were quite able; they built an incredible fortress network of thirty-two mountain fortresses in the inland of the country, the biggest of which, Le Citadel, is still open as a tourist attraction, an amazing structure. But they assumed the French were coming back. And they were threatened by the British, they were threatened by the Spanish, and they were ignored by Americans. We could have made great friends. So Haiti went from being the richest part of the Caribbean — but as they weren't traded with, weren't treated with respect, and people had to just scrounge to make a living, the country went slowly downhill and then was just crushed by the Duvaliers, and wound up the poorest country in our Hemisphere.

So, twenty years ago almost when President Aristide was elected, there was hope for democracy. And when he was thrown out, and the military dictatorship started necklacing people, literally putting tires around their necks and setting them afire, we stopped it. We restored Aristide. It was clearly the right thing to do. I tried to do it peacefully, I tried to do it without sending the military. A lot of people, even in our country, thought it was wrong because they didn't have confidence in Aristide. But the first thing was we had to do was stop treating the people of Haiti like wards. They had made their decision, and it was entitled to be honored. The congress was in the hands of people led by Senator [Jesse] Helms who didn't believe in helping Haiti. They liked the military dictatorship.

But ever since the election of René Préval, we've been moving toward progress, and I think Prime Minister [Michèle] Pierre-Louis and her successor, Prime Minister [Jean-Max] Bellerive have tried to give Haiti a modern government. They've got a modern economic plan that they have fully embraced. The parliament has made several changes in the law to make it easier to do business there, and to give dual citizenship to the Haitian diaspora.

We've got to get back to that work, but first we've got to find the living and the dead, care for the sick and hungry, and give people with no place else to go a place to live. ESQ: Do you plan to go there?

CLINTON: Oh, sure. I'm going to go as soon as I can do some good. Right now, I'm doing more good from here, because keep in mind that when Mr. Mulet went down there, if I were down there in my UN capacity all I could be doing is what he's doing. He's got to loom after our people there, and he's very good at doing that. But as soon as that's done, I'll go. What I'm trying to do from here is solve particular problems. We've go to find out, Do we need a floating generator to get electricity back on in Port-au-Prince at night? Or is it enough to just put up the power lines? How are we going to get the earthmoving equipment in there? Paul Farmer's got two doctors who are in his group who were at the airport. They didn't even have aspirin to give people who were in pain.

By the way, the Americans have been great. The military has taken over the airport, and they're running that, so we don't have to worry about that. That's fine. But there's still a lot of very specific problems that have to be handled.. And when I put up this Web site — to give you an idea of how good the American people are, in 24 hours, people gave $4 million, average contribution of under $100. And that's just my Web site. It's good for them to give it to me, because I'm a pass-through — we take nothing, we just immediately put it into medicine, immediately put it into clean water, whatever the needs are. And having Paul Farmer as my deputy, who has been down there for twenty-five years, is really important. So for now I can do more good here. I've told President Obama I'll do whatever else he wants me to do. You know, for Hillary and for me, it's personal. We love the country. We believe in the people. We've seen how well the Haitian diaspora has done in America. We know what they can do, and we know what giving dual citizenship is going to mean once we get this thing going again. But right now, it's unimaginable. Just think about this UN thing. Think how you would feel if you showed up tomorrow to work at Esquire and three-quarters of your people were gone. And you couldn't find them. So we've got a lot to do here. I can't even find out what's happened to Haitians that I know.

So this is personal.