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Visit by former presidents Clinton, Bush renews focus on quake victims

Former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in Port-au-Prince on Monday pledging that the world had not forgotten Haiti's plight after a devastating January 12 earthquake killed at least 220,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless.


AFP - Former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush visited Port-au-Prince Monday and promised Haitians the world had not forgotten them 10 weeks after the deadliest earthquake of modern times.

"In the short-term, how can the people of Haiti stop living from day-to-day and at least live from month-to-month, know they'll be OK for a month, their children will be OK for a month," implored Clinton.

The unlikely duo met President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive before touring one of the many camps, where hundreds of thousands of survivors are at risk from the coming rains and hurricane season.

"It's one thing to see it on TV, it's another thing to see it first-hand and hopefully our trip will help remind people in our country that Haiti needs help," Bush said against the backdrop of the ruined presidential palace.

The pair head the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a relief organization set up after the January 12 quake that leveled parts of the capital Port-au-Prince, killing at least 220,000 people and leaving 1.3 million homeless.

The ex-presidents were tapped by President Barack Obama to lead a bipartisan fundraising campaign and oversee long-term reconstruction and relief efforts in the country, the poorest nation in the Americas.

They shook hands with mothers cradling babies and children seeking medical help as they toured the Hotel de la Patrie camp beside the ruined palace before visiting small businesses they said needed to be at the heart of the recovery.

"We know there's still a lot of problems in the camps with sanitation, with moving people to better ground who are not in safe places right now," Clinton said, highlighting the importance of an upcoming donors meeting in New York.

"How can those of us who don't live in Haiti help you to build the country that you want to build according to your own economic plan which will be re-presented March 31 at the donors conference? How can we do that? How can we best do that?" he asked.

The New York meeting could commit as much as 11.5 billion dollars to an epic reconstruction effort following an unprecedented disaster that caused nearly eight billion dollars of damage, equivalent to 120 percent of Haiti's GDP.

Almost 10 weeks after the 7.0-magnitude quake, progress is painfully slow and the government and international aid groups are racing against time to relocate more than 200,000 people in high-risk camps.

Many lie on steep slopes that could be washed away when the rains come, but despite the squalor and insecurity people there are loath to move away from the capital to new sites -- which will not be ready for weeks anyway.

Survivors at the Hotel de la Patrie said not everyone had tents but told Bush and Clinton that although they wanted to go elsewhere they couldn't leave the center of town where the chance of finding a job was higher.

Clinton, the long-time UN envoy to Haiti who honeymooned in the Caribbean nation in 1975 with his wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has already visited twice since the quake.

Monday was the first-ever visit by Bush, whose administration was criticized for not bolstering Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president who was flown into exile during a 2004 rebellion.

Dozens of supporters of Aristide's Lavalas party, excluded from elections later this year, protested during the visit, shouting "Return Aristide! Down with Preval! Down with Bush!" from outside the palace gates and burning a tire.

A gaunt-looking Clinton, who underwent a procedure to unblock an artery in his heart last month, admitted the US wrongly pushed Haiti from 1981 to 2000 to open its agricultural markets to subsidized production from other countries.

"It is unrealistic to expect that a country can totally obliterate its capacity to feed itself and just skip a stage of development. It seems almost laughable now that we ever thought it," Clinton said.

"One of the things we have done is to provide more money for seed and fertilizer for this farming season and I am going to do what I can to help the agriculture sector not only rebound but increase and diversify."

He also pledged to pressure Congress to adopt trade legislation to help Haiti's vital garment industry and create as many as 100,000 jobs.


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