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Oberstar warns of political turmoil in Haiti

A boy stands at an open area camp in Port-au-Prince where people are staying following Tuesday's major earthquake.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A boy stands at an open area camp in Port-au-Prince where people are staying following Tuesday’s major earthquake.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Few members of Congress know Haiti like Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, who worries that if the Haitian government fails in the current humanitarian crisis, “the political turmoil will be unimaginable.”

“This is a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions, there was abject poverty and distress in Haiti prior to the earthquake; I can only imagine how horrid the situation is now,” Oberstar said in a statement today.

From 1959 to 1962, Oberstar taught English to cadets at the Haitian Military Academy, students he has kept in touch with as they’ve risen through the ranks of the Haitian military and civil society. At the same time, Oberstar taught Americans to speak French and Creole, the two official languages of Haiti which he speaks fluently.

Rep. James Oberstar
Rep. James Oberstar

Oberstar was an election observer in 1990 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the country’s first democratic election. Aristide was deposed in a coup less than a year after taking office. In 1994, following international pressure and the imminent threat of a U.S. military invasion, the military government stepped down and allowed Aristide to return to power. Months later, Oberstar returned to Haiti with President Clinton to participate in a change of power ceremony.

More than a decade of political strife, election fraud and continued poverty later, Haiti may have been poised to finally turn the corner, Oberstar said. A national election is scheduled for November, in which Haitians must elect a new president. Past elections have been marked by widespread fraud and followed by military coups. 

Oberstar said that free and open election, followed by a peaceful transition of power, would mark a major point of political progress for the impoverished island nation and signal to investors that the government was finally stable. 

“Conversely, if the Haitian government fails in this humanitarian crisis, the political turmoil will be unimaginable, and will plunge the country into another decade, or more, of even worse distress,” he said. “It is imperative for us to intervene for the long-term of stability and the region.  Our government has to show that it can partner with the Haitian government to provide service to the people, order amongst the chaos, and to show signs for long-term recovery.

“This is truly a critical moment in the history of the entire Caribbean region,” Oberstar said. “If over these weeks following the earthquake the international community does not shore up the government, does not provide the humanitarian assistance and restore the services of government to the people, then there will be an equal political earthquake and collapse.”

Untold millions of dollars in aid have been pledged to help rebuild Haiti following a massive earthquake that killed possibly hundreds of thousands of people and leveled homes, hospitals and schools in what was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

President Obama said this morning: “The losses that have been suffered in Haiti are nothing less than devastating, and responding to a disaster of this magnitude will require every element of our national capacity — our diplomacy and development assistance; the power of our military; and, most importantly, the compassion of our country.”

Aid underway

The Coast Guard has dispatched three cutters to Haiti and a fourth is being readied. The White House said several search and rescue teams have arrived in Haiti and are beginning to assess the damage while the military has begun airlifting the injured out of Haiti to hospitals in the U.S. 

Cleanup efforts haven’t begun yet, partly because the damage is still being assessed and partly because Haiti doesn’t have the means to unbury itself from the rubble.

“They lack even the bulldozers, backhoes and cranes to clean up the cities,” Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said. “They basically need everything, and they need it yesterday.”

House and Senate leaders were quick to promise financial aid to Haiti. Though no dollar estimates have been released, the sums will undoubtedly run into the millions – perhaps billions. 

“I join with my fellow members of Congress in exploring every way possible to most effectively marshal national and international resources to assist our neighbors who had very little – and have lost even that,” said Rep. Keith Ellison. “I and the good people of the 5th Congressional District of Minnesota stand ready to help in any way we can.”

One of those ways is speeding up the adoption process for American families who are trying to adopt children from Haiti. 

“We have been contacted by several Minnesota families with pending adoptions in Haiti,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “These families have been able to confirm that their children are safe. But we are now working with the State Department and Citizenship and Immigration Services to expedite these adoptions so the families can bring their children home safely.”

Update: Sen. Al Franken today called for emergency aid to Haiti to be appended to the next “vehicle bill” before the Senate, which returns to Washington Tuesday.

“The thoughts and prayers of Minnesotans are with the Haitian people right now,” Franken said in a statement.  “It is nearly impossible to comprehend the scope of this disaster. We need to act swiftly and decisively to get supplies and resources to Port-au-Prince and do whatever we can to help in the wake of this catastrophe.” 

A vehicle bill is a non-controversial bill already introduced that an additional provision can be tacked on to without violating Senate rules. The one used for the Senate’s health care bill had to do with homeownership tax credits for armed service members.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Stricherz on 01/14/2010 - 12:29 pm.

    Strange. No mention of the US Marines eventually kidnapping Aristide and turning the country over to a more corporate president.No mention that about a year a massive demonstration in Port-au-Prince demanding Aristide’s return—of course No Clinton, No Oberstar.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/14/2010 - 01:28 pm.

    Darn right, Gregory S.

    Or of U.S.-CAFTA trade policies foisted upon poor countries like Haiti and Mexico that allowed our agribusiness giants to dump staples like corn, beans and rice on their markets until their farmers went out of business and the corporations could export to them at higher prices. This is why Mexicans, former farmers, flood the U.S. looking for work and why Haitian farmers moved into its cities looking for other work (including factory work in an industrial development plan that did not take off).

    The U.S. has a great deal to answer for in many countries that are victims of our so-called “free trade” agreements. Farmers in India, for instance, are forced to buy seed rice from America each year instead of saving seed from year to year. If they have one bad crop, they can’t afford to pay back the money they bought to buy seed. Thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide because they can no longer face being unable to feed their families.

    Haiti descended into chaos (and has remained there) when we abducted the democratically elected president Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and whisked him off to France. His passport expired while he was in either Australia or South Africa and he is stuck there. Our reason for thinking we had the right to remove him? Because he would be looking after the needs of his people instead of our corporations. He might even be … oh, the horror … a socialist.

    Just as President Zelaya of Honduras would be doing if we had refused to recognize the illegal election held by the illegal economic-elite coup-makers and their military election-supervisors. And just as Hugo Chavez (whose abduction and two ensuing attempted removals by force we supported), Evo Morales (a true hero), and other leaders in Latin America are doing in spite of our continued efforts to thwart their progress in democracy.

    I’ve been waiting for our policy in Latin America to change. So far, not much reason to hope.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/15/2010 - 05:53 pm.

    I think our State Department has more important work to do right now, including for Haiti, than diverting its resources and those of Haiti to expediting adoptions, particularly at a time when verifying the children’s eligibility will be virtually impossible.

    Those interested in the subject of adoption from areas of civil strife or natural disasters might consider reading here:

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