For more than two decades now, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has been a diehard supporter of Haiti.
In the United States Congress, and beyond those halls, she has been one of the few consistent voices speaking out about the problems of Haiti and on behalf of Haitians at home and those living in, or immigrating to, the U.S.
In 2004, her friend and political ally, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Artistide, was exiled (in an ouster supported by then-President George W. Bush). After he was airlifted to the Central African Republic, she immediately flew to the African nation to see him. During that time, the lawmaker spoke out strongly, publicly and fearlessly in his defense – directly challenging the official Bush administration stance regarding Aristide. He currently lives in South Africa and she still keeps up with him.
Now, in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation January 12, Waters has been actively involved in the reconstruction of the country. She has visited several times and even sponsored a bill that has now passed the U.S. House and Senate to forgive Haiti’s debt owed to the United States. She expects President Obama to sign it soon.
Last week, Waters attended the United Nations International Donors Conference in New York. She describes that event as an “extremely important” piece in the reconstruction puzzle of Haiti.
BET.com spoke with the Congresswoman about her involvement in Haiti now and in the past, what we can do to help the recovery effort, U.S. policy in Haiti, why Americans must support the cancellation of Haiti’s debt and what she thinks of the new health care law.
First, congratulations on the passage of the bill you authored to forgive Haiti of debt it owes the United States. Why should the U.S. and other donor nations forgo money they’ve loaned to Haiti?
It is important for the U.S., the international community of nations and multi-lateral agencies to forgive money Haiti owes because as long as Haiti is attempting to pay off debt, it prevents them from investing in education and health and infrastructure. Haiti has borrowed money over the years and some of that money was borrowed during the era of the country’s dictators. They will never be able to pull themselves up out of this debt by simply using their meager resources and revenue to pay it off. If we want to help Haiti, the most important thing we can do for them is to relieve them of this debt.
What did the Haiti Donors Conference last week in New York achieve?
It gave countries an opportunity to commit resources to Haiti and that they did. Haiti came to the conference asking for about $3.9 billion immediately to get the country going. They ended up with about $5.3 billion that has been committed immediately. Over 10 years, more than $10 billion has been committed by countries around the world who are now living up to their stated support of Haiti. This will ensure that the country has enough resources to rebuild.
What are the next steps for you, personally, regarding Haiti?
I’ve been there twice since the earthquake. I’ve met with more than 150 officials and others involved – the President of Haiti, the United Nations, USAID, the Clinton Fund. My most important thing is oversight of our own government and making sure USAID has the lead responsibility to lead the United States efforts there. I plan to help not only with the emergency relief but also with the planning of the new Haiti. Right now, I’m still focused on the emergency needs. The rains are coming. The hurricane season is upon us. A lot of people still don’t have shelter. We’re trying to get tents from all around the world to Haiti in an effort to get people out of Port-au-Prince to reduce the crowding and the possibility for diseases to spread. I work on all those issues. Plus, I’m working with Haitians on the ground who have never been involved in the business community and government. This is your educated middle class who we have started to work with to get them involved in national governance and the business opportunities which will be presented once the dollars start to flow in for the development of the country. I’m also working with Haitians in the Diaspora who are interested in going back home to be involved in rebuilding. I’m going to keep Haiti on my radar screen for a long time.
What was your impression of Port-au-Prince the first time you visited after the earthquake?
The devastation is overwhelming. I’ve been to Haiti many times. It’s a very poor country – the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve always been overwhelmed by the poverty and the population in Port-au-Prince, particularly in Cite Soleil. But this time, it was indescribable. The buildings that had been flattened – pancaked. The debris blocking the streets from the buildings that had crumbled. It was surreal, a nightmare. The rubble. The government buildings had collapsed and all the official papers that had been strewn in the streets from the palace and other places. I went to many of the makeshift clinics. One of them, people were coming in with broken limbs and women were delivering babies. Many of them were diabetic. It was horrific. It’s the kind of experience that no human being should have to go through. My heart just bleeds for the Haitian people. The fact that they have not only gone through this earthquake but they also went through four hurricanes back to back. Haiti is in great difficulty. It’s going to take a lot of work. The people are resilient and they get up every morning and work and do all they can to survive but it is a big, big, big mountain to climb.
In recently declassified U.S. government documents from the early 1980s, there were a number of disparaging comments about Haiti that some critics have called “disrespectful, arrogant and condescending.” Worse, they say those memos clearly reflect the U.S. government’s willful neglect of Haiti. Do you think that relationship has changed over the years?
It certainly has changed as you know. The U.S. must bear some responsibility for its policies in Haiti. We at one time occupied Haiti. We have oftentimes worked with past dictators in Haiti and we have not supported Haitian governments that were really working hard to have a democratic Haiti. Of course, there have been changes. The fact that we stepped up to the plate in both the aftermaths of the hurricanes and earthquake. And now, we are engaging the government and working with the government. It’s a big change. We have to not only be there to support the business elite and the mulatto families who have controlled the economics of Haiti. We have a challenge and opportunity to create stability and spread opportunity throughout Haiti and give the average Haitian a chance to get involved in business and government. We have a long history that we can not be proud of in Haiti, but times have changed. Yes, I’m pleased about the way we are moving now but we really have to prove ourselves and show that we will relate to Haiti differently than we have in the past.
You were a supporter of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. How is he doing?
President Aristide is doing fine. He’s in South Africa. He’s working with the university there and he’s writing. He’s got a couple of books he’s writing. He’s doing fine but he would love to come home.
Do you think there’s a chance he’ll go back home soon?
That’s not possible right now. Some of the forces that were against him and helped to demonize him are still active in Haiti. Unfortunately, the United States bought into the demonization of President Aristide. That still has to be undone. I think he’s an honorable man who practiced liberation theology as a Catholic priest. When he spoke about reparations from France and when he spoke of a minimum wage and getting rid of some of the slave policies, he stepped on a lot of feet and unfortunately some of them were powerful. There was a shadow government that was connected to the United States and the U.S. bought into all of that. He is now exiled but someday, I believe, he will be able to come home. A lot has to be done though, to make that happen.
Do you plan to visit Haiti soon?
Yes. I’ll be back in Haiti in April. I hope to be down there during the next visit that President Clinton makes. I have been talking with him about the power that he has as envoy to help open up Haiti to the average Haitian on the ground and involve them in the planning and direction of the country. He has indicated he wants to do that, so I hope to be there when he’s there. I would like to connect him with the 150 people I’ve been meeting with who are trying to open all of this up.
On an unrelated domestic issue: I know you were a big supporter of the public option. How do you feel about the last iteration of the health care bill that was passed into law without one?
I believe there is some good aspects to the health care reform – the 32 million people that will now be covered; discontinuing discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions; allowing families to keep their children on their insurance policies until the age of 26 – all of that is good stuff. I’m certainly pleased and proud about that. I’m worried about how we can contain the increasing premiums that insurance companies might have the opportunity to escalate and increase but, overall, I’m pleased with most of the reforms.