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.
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.”
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.