The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti Jan. 12 also provoked one of America's most remarkable political reunions in recent memory. Five days later, President Barack Obama stood on the White House lawn flanked by former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton who together pledged to help rebuild Haiti. Bush captured the spirit of the moment, telling reporters that, "Now's not the time to focus on politics. It's time to focus on helping people."
This sudden presidential unity on Haiti is promising, because Haiti has long been the subject of bitter partisan bickering in Washington that exacerbated the country's instability and deepened its economic misery. This is a fact that Clinton and Bush both know all too well.
The partisan divide on Haiti emerged at the end of the Cold War, when U.S. support for the anti-communist Duvalier regime began to unravel. In 1990, a former priest of the poor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won the country's first democratic elections, but he was deposed by a military junta in 1991.
As president, Clinton dispatched 20,000 U.S. Marines to return Aristide to power in October 1994. Clinton touted this mission as a foreign-policy success: The military departed without bloodshed, and Haiti's rightful government was restored.
But the U.S. intervention crystallized deep partisan divisions that plagued Haiti policy for years. Conservative Republicans denounced the mission to return Aristide as a massive waste of resources. Personal antipathy toward both Aristide and Clinton gave these policy views a sharper edge. For its part, the Clinton administration claimed it had achieved a major strike for democracy and continued to do so over the course of two terms, even as Haiti went into an economic and political tailspin. (In 1996, Rene Preval was inaugurated as Haiti's president, but Aristide was thought to retain most of the authority.) In the fall of 2000, the Clinton administration signed a Republican-backed provision that froze U.S. aid to Haiti pending resolution of an electoral dispute. Most major international donors followed suit, and upward of $500 million in international aid was withheld from the Haitian government.
In early 2001, Bush and Aristide (who had won a second presidential term) were inaugurated within weeks of each other, but the tense standoff in U.S.-Haitian relations continued. Without U.S. assistance, the Haitian government grew increasingly brittle and, in 2004, an uprising by gang leaders and former army officers drove Aristide again into exile, leaving the country's political system in tatters. Aristide's abrupt departure fanned the flames of partisanship in Washington. Many Democratic leaders seethed at what they viewed as the U.S. government's tacit support for a "coup," a charge the Bush administration denied.
As passions began to cool, however, a gradual bipartisan consensus emerged in Washington that the United States must stay engaged with Haiti over the long term for humanitarian and national security reasons. The Bush administration later contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to aid in the stabilization of Haiti, and this continued under Obama, even before the earthquake struck.
The calm, reasoned governing style of Rene Preval, re-elected in 2006, has aided in this process. The joint effort by Clinton and Bush to help Haiti's earthquake recovery represents a welcome culmination of America's new bipartisan approach. It may represent an act of atonement by two U.S. presidents who, in different ways, contributed to Haiti's woes during their time in office.
The United States cannot solve all of Haiti's problems, but the partnership of Clinton and Bush may help Obama avoid the partisan wrangling on Haiti policy that bedeviled his predecessors and undermined U.S. interests in Haiti.
As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s.
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