By JONATHAN M. KATZ, May 5, 2015, Politico
Sunday, January 30, 2011. Two hundred thousand people occupied
Egypt’s Tahrir Square, defying a military curfew to demand the ouster
of President Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia’s authoritarian leader had just
been overthrown, unleashing a wave of anti-government protests from
Yemen to Syria to Morocco. South Sudan’s provisional president
announced his people had voted overwhelmingly for independence,
clearing the way for the breakup of Africa’s largest country. Yet as
Hillary Clinton rushed to Andrews Air Force Base to catch her battered
government-issue 727, the secretary of state was not headed to Cairo,
Tunis or Juba. She was going to Haiti.
Haiti doesn’t seem like a place that would be central to a U.S.
presidential candidate’s foreign policy. It’s a small country, whose 10.3
million people inhabit the western third of a Caribbean island the size of
South Carolina. They are the poorest people in the hemisphere when
you average their country’s meager $8.5 billion GDP among them, and
would seem poorer still if you ignored the huge share held by the
country’s tiny elite—which controls virtually everything worth
controlling, from the banks and ports, to agriculture and, often, politics.
It is not a major exporter of anything. Even its location, 500 nautical
miles from the Florida Keys, has been of only passing strategic
importance to the United States since a brutal 1915-1934 U.S.
occupation assured no European power would surpass its influence
Yet the world’s most powerful couple have an abiding interest in this
out-of-the-way place; the island where Bill Clinton four decades ago
recommitted himself to politics after an eye-opening journey and an
evening with a Vodou priest. During her tenure at State, Hillary traveled
to Haiti four times, as often as she did Japan, Afghanistan or Russia. Bill
Clinton continues to visit even as her presidential campaign starts up.
He attended the February dedication of Port-au-Prince’s new luxury
Marriott hotel, a trip on which he reaffirmed, once again, that his work
in Haiti represented “one of the great joys of my life.”
Over the past two decades, the once-and-perhaps-future first couple
repeatedly played a key role in Haiti’s politics, helping to pick its
national leaders and driving hundreds of millions of dollars in private
aid, investment and U.S. taxpayer money toward its development.
They’ve brought with them a network of friends and global corporations
that never would’ve been here otherwise. Together, this network of
power and money has left indelible marks on almost every aspect of the
Haitian economy. The island nation, in many ways, represents ground
zero for the confusing and often conflict-ridden intersection of her
State Department, the Clinton family’s foundation and both of their
“When it’s happening you don’t realize it, [but] after everything is in
place … you see the Clintons at every level,” says former Haitian Prime
Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who was Clinton’s co-chairman on the
commission charged with rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
“Even if they are clever enough to make you think sometimes that you
are the one having the idea.”
The legacy of the Clintons’ efforts here is decidedly mixed, a murky
story filled with big promises and smaller results. Despite the huge
amounts of aid and investment, the sweeping visions they’ve offered of
transformative prosperity—promises delivered by a broad network of
friends they recruited and deals they negotiated—have been tripped up
by realities on the ground.
Five years after the hemisphere’s deadliest single natural disaster,
when both Clintons assumed leading roles in the rebuilding efforts,
little progress has been made on many core problems in Haiti, and the
government that Hillary Clinton helped put in power during that
January 2011 trip—and that both Clintons have backed strongly since—
has proven itself unworthy of that trust. Economic growth is stalling,
and the nation’s politics look headed for a showdown in the next year
that could once again plunge the country into internal strife.
A World Bank study released in December showed that despite modest
declines in extreme poverty—mainly in the capital, Port-au-Prince—
Haiti remains the poorest and most economically depressed country on
the continent, with the richest 20 percent of households accounting for
64 percent of the country’s total income. (The bottom one-fifth of the
population earns less than 1 percent.) The report warned that
impending political instability could quickly reverse the few gains made
since the earthquake.
Hillary Clinton once hoped that Haiti would be the shining jewel of her
foreign policy. But far from transforming this poorest of countries,
many of the Clintons’ grandest plans and promises remain little more
than small pilot projects—a new set of basketball hoops and a model
elementary school here, a functioning factory there—that have done
little to alter radically the trajectory of the country. Visiting some of
their projects over the course of an April research trip affirmed as much
about their tenuousness as about the limited benefits they’ve provided.
Many of the most notable investments the Clintons helped launch, such
as the new Marriott in the capital, have primarily benefited wealthy
foreigners and island’s ruling elite, who needed little help to begin with.
Even for those who know how Haiti operates, there are many more
questions than answers when one examines the Clintons’ recent work.
Did Hillary Clinton keep her promise when she said, soon after taking
office at State, that “we will demonstrate to ourselves as well as to the
people of Haiti and far beyond that we can, working together, make a
Five years after her husband pledged to Esquire magazine that he was
“prepared to spend three years” helping Haitians get “the right things
for their country,” what does it mean that the vast majority of Haitians
still haven’t gotten much of anywhere?
The Clintons like to cast their relationship with Haiti in personal
terms—invariably starting with their 1975 visit as newlyweds to Portau-
Prince, where they watched Vodou penitents walk on coals and the
country’s then-dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, lay a wreath
at the base of a memorial to Haiti’s founding victory over slavery and the
French empire. But there is more than sentiment at stake.
When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, America’s
poorest neighbor was slated to be one of the first beneficiaries of what
she called “the power of proximity.” One of her first directives at State
was to review U.S. policy toward Haiti—“an opportunity,” she would
write in her memoir Hard Choices, “to road-test new approaches to
development that could be applied more broadly around the world.”
That approach had business at its center: Aid would be replaced by
investment, the growth of which would in turn benefit the United
States. Underscoring the importance of the policy, she tasked her chief
of staff—former Clinton White House deputy counsel Cheryl Mills—to
oversee the Haiti review personally.
Clinton had two other tools to make Haiti an even more auspicious
“road test.” Shortly after she was confirmed, her husband accepted
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s offer to serve as his
special envoy for Haiti. As president, Bill Clinton had intensified a
crippling embargo against Haiti’s then-ruling military junta and ordered
the 1994 U.S. invasion to restore the democratically elected president,
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. Now he was supposed to finish the
job, spearheading development after a hunger crisis and a series of
damaging hurricanes that had struck in late 2008. Haitians weren’t sure
what to think: Clinton was popular with the masses for returning
Aristide to power and hated by the elites for the same reason. But few
understood his vague new role. Joking that he must be coming back to
lead a new colonial regime, the Haitian press dubbed him Le
The other tool was the Clinton Foundation, which was simultaneously
embarking on its own program to boost Haiti’s economy, securing
commitments worth more than $130 million from foreign leaders,
corporate executives and philanthropists to help Haiti “build back
better,” as Clinton put it, from the 2008 storms.
Everything seemed to be falling into place when, on January 12, 2010, a
magnitude-7.0 earthquake ripped through the mountains of Haiti’s
southern peninsula, leveling much of the capital and killing 100,000 to
316,000 people—the deadliest single natural disaster ever recorded in
the hemisphere. The earthquake destroyed the presidential palace,
government ministries, schools, offices and countless homes.
It also threatened to upend the Clinton State Department’s nascent
Haiti policy. Mills’ team had completed its review just a few hours
before the ground shook, concluding in a draft report that Haiti was
poised for an economic renaissance, citing indicators such as marginal
declines in child mortality and upticks in employment in the country’s
garment-assembly industry. Undeterred, in the final, 89-page postquake
version of the report, the State Department team would call the
response to the disaster “a moment for U.S. partnership, leadership and
I was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti at the time. I had been
posted in Port-au-Prince for 2 ½ years when the earthquake shattered
the walls of my house with me inside. That night, suddenly homeless
like millions of others, I moved through the devastated city with my
Haitian friend and colleague, Evens Sanon, taking stock of the
devastation and watching Haitians rescue and comfort one another as
best they could. The living sang prayers of salvation. Everyone was
waiting to see what kind of help would come. I remained in Haiti for
another year to report on the response, watching up close the central
role Hillary and Bill Clinton came to play in the attempt to rebuild.
Four days after the quake, Hillary Clinton was at Port-au-Prince’s
damaged airport, holding meetings with then-Haitian President René
Préval. That same day, Bill Clinton was in the White House Rose Garden
with President Barack Obama, agreeing to lead fundraising efforts on
behalf of the beleaguered country along with former President George
W. Bush. Two days later, on January 18, Bill arrived in the quake zone
with daughter Chelsea and her fiancé, Marc Mezvinsky. In short order,
the Clintons became the most important figures in the response. They
co-moderated a U.N. donors conference at which 150 nations and
organizations pledged $9 billion for Haiti’s recovery. Bill was tapped at
the same meeting to co-chair the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, a
nominally Haitian entity that was supposed to direct the spending. At
every stage of Haiti’s reconstruction—fundraising, oversight and
allocation—a Clinton was now involved.
“I believe, before this earthquake, Haiti had the best chance in my
lifetime to escape its history, a history that Hillary and I have shared a
tiny part of. I still believe that,” Bill Clinton had said in the Rose Garden,
alongside Obama and Bush. “It is still one of the most remarkable,
unique places I have ever been, and they can escape their history and
build a better future if we do our part.”
Hillary Clinton never took her eye off Haiti as secretary of state, even
as so many geopolitical hotspots competed for attention. The island
represented a key piece of what Clinton called “economic statecraft”—
her theory that U.S. foreign policy should not simply respond to security
threats but should actively bolster both America’s economy and global
influence through diplomacy, trade and economic development abroad.
By far the most consequential moment was that visit on Sunday,
January 30, 2011. Two months before, just 10 months after the quake,
Haiti had plowed ahead with a presidential election under pressure
from Washington. Donors blamed then-President Préval, a skeptic of
foreign aid and investment, for what had clearly become a glacial mess
of a reconstruction effort. In short, they wanted him out. But the
election was a fiasco. Voting halted five hours early on Election Day as
nearly every candidate threw out accusations of fraud. When the results
showed the candidate of Préval’s party advancing to a runoff anyway,
supporters of the eliminated No. 3 candidate, the Haitian pop star
Michel Martelly—better known by his stage name, “Sweet Micky”—
rioted in protest for days.
Despite all that was happening around the globe that day, the secretary’s
most important mission was to make sure all the parties in Haiti agreed
to put Martelly back into the race—salvaging the election, in her view,
and with it Haiti’s place in U.S. economic statecraft.
Martelly was a left-field candidate, a massively popular singer famous
for taking off his pants during performances. But he was not a political
neophyte. A longtime resident of Miami, he’d been a strong backer of the
now-disbanded Haitian military and an opponent of Aristide. In 2002,
the Washington Post called him a “favorite of the thugs who worked on
behalf of the hated Duvalier family dictatorship before its 1986
collapse.” Martelly was also a businessman and, in contrast to Préval, an
enthusiastic backer of foreign investment in Haiti.
Clinton met with the top three candidates at the U.S. ambassador’s
mansion in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Then she went to the
grounds of the destroyed national palace to confront a recalcitrant
“That day I realized why she is a great woman and a great politician,”
former Prime Minister Bellerive, who was at the meeting, told me. “She
said, ‘Look René … I care about you, because you are my only friend
there. … What is happening in the international community is that they
are making you appear as a little crook that wants to control the
elections and put a puppet in the national palace. We cannot accept that.
Because, in a way, you are the father of the democracy. You are the only
president that was elected two times … that never [fled] the country,
that never killed people, that enforced liberty of press. She went into a
story I’ve never heard about what President Préval represented and I
see that guy—vvvvhh—deflate. And he was not anymore in a fight mood.
So my [election files] that I brought were never used. At the end of it,
when we separated, I realized that the fight was over.”
Bill Clinton applauded from a few feet away.
Many in Haiti thought the Clintons’ influence had reached its peak
when, shortly after Martelly took office, he selected one of Bill Clinton’s
top aides, Garry Conille, to be his prime minister. Conille had been Bill
Clinton’s chief of staff at the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy, and many
in the Haitian political elite assumed that the Clintons had imposed him
to keep an eye on the unpredictable new president.
If that was the idea, it failed. Conille lasted just four months. He was
replaced by Laurent Lamothe, Martelly’s longtime business partner,
whom the former pop star had once referred to, lovingly, as a “true
bandit” in a song.
Things have only gotten more discordant since. Haiti has not held a
single election, at any level, in Martelly’s four years in office. Parliament
disbanded late last year when the terms of its members expired, leaving
Martelly to rule by decree. Both the Clintons and the State Department
tried to remain enthusiastic about the Martelly-Lamothe
administration. But when opposition protests broke out last year, even
Bill’s last-ditch endorsement of the prime minister in a Miami Herald
interview could not save him from being forced to resign.
Shortly thereafter, a New York Times article by reporter Frances Robles
spotlighted criminality surrounding the Martelly administration,
including its protection of members of an alleged kidnapping and drug
smuggling ring. A day after the article’s publication, one of the most
prominent allies of the president, Woodley Ethéart, was indicted on
charges of kidnapping and murder—only to be freed within weeks.
I asked Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, Nick Merrill, whether Martelly’s
track record had changed her opinion about the leader she helped put in
power. “She supports democratic elections, just like she did as
secretary,” Merrill said. He declined further comment.
The hardest thing about evaluating the Clintons’ work in Haiti is that
there is so much of it. There’s the Clinton Foundation, which has
directed $36 million to Haiti since 2010, but also the $55 million spent
through the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, and the $500 million in
commitments made through the Clinton Global Initiative’s Haiti Action
Network. On Hillary’s side, there’s her own diplomacy, the State
Department’s Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator, and the U.S.
Embassy in Port-au-Prince, as well as the U.S. Agency for International
Development, whose administrator reported to her.
The amounts of money over which the Clintons and their foundation
had direct control paled beside the $16.3 billion that donors pledged in
all. Even Bill’s U.N. Office of the Special Envoy couldn’t track where all
of that went—and the truth is that still today no one really knows how
much money was spent “rebuilding” Haiti. Many initial pledges never
materialized. A whopping $465 million of the relief money went through
the Pentagon, which spent it on deployment of U.S. troops—20,000 at
the high water mark, many of whom never set foot on Haitian soil. That
money included fuel for ships and planes, helicopter repairs and
inscrutables such as an $18,000 contract for a jungle gym that I found
buried in the U.S. Navy’s Haiti bills. Huge contracts were doled out to
the usual array of major contractors, including a $16.7 million logistics
contract whose partners included Agility Public Warehousing KSC, a
Kuwaiti firm that was supposed to have been blacklisted from doing
business with Washington after a 2009 indictment alleging a conspiracy
to defraud the U.S. government during the Iraq War. (That case is still
pending in U.S. federal court.)
But even looking at money and institutional heft alone barely captures
the reach and influence of the Clintons’ network in Haiti: a vast, diffuse
web of power in all its 21st-century permutations. Take the story of
actor Sean Penn and his unlikely transformation into a Haiti power
player. Penn used his celebrity to establish the aid group J/P HRO in the
weeks after the earthquake, then to forge a friendship with Bill Clinton
—who in turn used his foundation and his own celebrity to help turn J/P
HRO into one of the most powerful NGOs in Haiti. That led to deeper
ties to the newly elected government of Martelly, which named Penn an
When I returned to Haiti in April for nine days, the Clinton Foundation
put me in touch with about a dozen projects it is still running there.
Many surely do excellent work, such as the Haitian medical group
GHESKIO, one of the world’s oldest AIDS clinics, which is now engaged
in a host of medical issues including battling the pernicious cholera
epidemic imported into Haiti by United Nations peacekeepers in 2010.
The Clinton Global Initiative supports coffee growers and peanut
farmers, and has helped the Swiss fragrance supplier Firmenich expand
its access to Haitian limes and vetiver, a key oil in perfumes.
The money given directly by Clinton entities, often a few hundred
thousand dollars, is small change compared to the billions floating
around the humanitarian industry and the corporate world. But the
combination of carefully targeted money and connections is invaluable,
says GHESKIO’s founder, Dr. Jean William Pape: “He’s a catalyst. He
doesn’t give you funds to throw away. He gives you funds to get you
The Clintons have also had a hand in nearly all the new luxury hotel
projects that have sprung up around the Haitian capital. Denis O’Brien,
the billionaire owner of the major cellphone provider Digicel and
principal investor in the swank $45 million Marriott that just opened in
Port-au-Prince, said Bill Clinton conceived the project. “He said to the
two of us [O’Brien and Marriott CEO Arne Sorensen], ‘Why don’t you
build a hotel?’ And after a bit of a conversation, about half an hour, we
said, ‘We’ll put up the money.’”
One of the Clinton Foundation’s favorite lines is: “Everywhere we go,
we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job.” But at least in the case of
Haiti, it’s hard to see how that would happen. The Clintons themselves
are the only thing linking all of these projects and initiatives.
More than money, in other words, what the Clintons really provide is
access. That dynamic both leaves them open to criticism and makes
people loath to criticize for fear of being left on the outside. “I don’t
want to use names, but I have seen bad businessmen around Mr. Clinton
badmouthing the good businessmen and then the good businessmen,
seeing that, come into the Clinton Foundation. It’s life, it’s like that,”
says Leslie Voltaire, a longtime Haitian politician and government
minister who served as the Préval government’s liaison to Clinton at the
U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. “Every businessman looks to
see if they can be next to power.”
The Clintons are hardly the first foreigners to try to remake this
island. The ancestors of today’s Haitians were survivors of one of the
most brutal periods of slavery, torture and exploitation the world has
ever known. More than 910,000 kidnapped Africans were taken to what
was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue between 1679 and 1797,
according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database at Emory
University. Their labor on sugar and coffee plantations turned the
colony into France’s most valuable engine of economic growth. That
period ended with the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution, the only successful
slave revolt in modern history, which created the second-oldest
republic in the Western Hemisphere, behind the United States—and the
first in which all people were free. Haiti’s former French masters,
though, exacted a crippling indemnity in compensation for what they
deemed the lost value of land and bodies.
For the past century, it’s been the Americans, not the French, who
repeatedly reshaped the political landscape here. On July 1, 1915, the
U.S.S. Washington arrived on the north coast of Haiti, nominally in
response to political turmoil on the island. Within weeks, U.S. Marines
had taken the capital, placing the United States in control of Haiti’s
government and finances. Five U.S. presidents oversaw the occupation
of Haiti, waging war against Haitian insurgents, rewriting laws and
ensuring, as Duke University historian Laurent Dubois has written, a
“Haitian government [that] was compatible with American economic
interests and friendly to foreign investments.”
The Marines’ departure in 1934 did not end U.S. involvement in Haiti.
Exactly sixty years later, President Clinton ordered a new American
invasion—Operation Uphold Democracy—to restore exiled President
Aristide, who had been deposed in a 1991 coup. The story of the Clintons
and the first black republic had already been underway for a long time.
Their December 1975 trip as newlyweds is often described by the
Clintons as a seminal journey. It was paid for by a friend, Edwin David
Edwards, a junior executive at Citibank who had just set off a firestorm
by accusing his bank of improper currency transactions in the
The newly married couple were at a critical juncture in their political
lives. Bill had just lost a congressional race in Arkansas and was giving
up on national politics. It was in Haiti that he decided instead to embark
on a run for Arkansas attorney general—the race that turned out to be
the start of his journey to the White House and, arguably, the beginning
of Hillary’s public life as well. We may never know what moved him. But
an important moment came outside the capital, at the Vodou temple of
Max Beauvoir, a Sorbonne- and City College of New York-educated
houngan, or priest. After a ceremony honoring Ogou—the god of iron,
war and politics—the Clintons and Beauvoir sat all night by the coralstone
peristyle talking about faith and the future, the houngan told me.
“We reached the conclusion that the pursuit of God is the pursuit of
excellence,” he recalls.
When Clinton ran for president in 1992, he blasted the George H.W.
Bush administration for rounding up boats of Haitians fleeing the
military junta that ousted Aristide and for taking too light a hand
countering the junta itself, many of whose leaders had received U.S.
training or money. Ultimately, Clinton’s intervention returned Aristide
to power. But Aristide did not live up to White House expectations. In
the years ahead, U.S. relations worsened, and in 2004 the George W.
Bush administration provided a plane to fly him into exile, touching off
years of instability and lost growth, all capped by the 2010 earthquake.
That last disaster presented another chance for the U.S. to get involved
and another chance for redemption.
Today, driving east from the city of Cap-Haïtien—where the U.S.S
Washington first arrived 100 years ago this summer—out along Haiti’s
north coast, past the banana-tree farms at the foothills of the Massif du
Nord, you enter the hotbed of U.S. post-quake reconstruction. The
agricultural region, a bumpy six-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, was
partly chosen to encourage people to disperse from places devastated by
the 2010 disaster. Development plans for the corridor include expanded
tourist facilities (visitors are expected to flock to the Citadelle
Laferrière, a monumental 19th-century Haitian fortress and UNESCO
World Heritage Site; Royal Caribbean’s lone pier in the country is also
nearby), ports, schools, roads and electrification. American Airlines
recently began flights to Cap-Haïtien.
The linchpin is the $300 million, 600-acre Caracol Industrial Park,
financed by U.S. taxpayer money and Inter-American Development
Bank and geared toward making clothes for export to the United States.
The Clintons were instrumental at nearly every step in its creation. The
development program Bill came to sell as U.N special envoy, written by
Oxford University economist Paul Collier, had garment exports at its
As only he can, Bill Clinton managed to tout the idea as an exciting
departure from Haiti’s past. He successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to
eliminate tariffs on textiles sewn in Haiti. (The powerful Association
des Industries d’Haiti lobbied, too, paying at least $550,000 to a D.C.
lobbying firm led by Andrew Samet, a former Clinton Labor Department
official, and Ronald Sorini, who was the chief U.S. Trade Representative
negotiator on textiles during the North American Free Trade Agreement
Clinton won headlines by apologizing for having maintained as
president the import-substitution policies that destroyed Haiti’s food
sector—policies built on the dangerously misguided theory that factory
jobs obviated the need to produce rice and other food locally. He made a
special point to note that the policy had benefited farmers in his home
state of Arkansas. The message was clear: This time would be different.
And he had grand plans for what the industry could become. Clinton
predicted that with the right support to the garment sector, 100,000 jobs
would be created “in short order.”
Secretary Clinton joined in too: She hired Collier’s research partner in
Haiti, Soros Economic Development Fund consultant Jean-Louis
Warnhoz, as a senior adviser. She and her key aide Cheryl Mills
negotiated an agreement between the Haitian and U.S. governments,
multilateral financiers and the South Korean textile giant Sae-A
Trading Co. Ltd., which makes clothes for Old Navy, Walmart, Kohl’s,
Target and other retailers. The Haitian government provided the land.
To create a “plug and play” environment in a country lacking nearly all
basic services, IADB and USAID invested millions in roads, water
systems, a power plant, executive dormitories and the warehouse-like
“shells” that would house the factories. The Clinton Foundation “helped
to promote Caracol as an investment destination and worked … to
attract new tenants and investments to the park,” says Greg Milne, the
foundation’s director of Haiti programs.
In October 2012, Hillary and Bill Clinton flew down to join President
Martelly at the ribbon-cutting, where she pledged, “Our partnership, I
promise you, will extend far beyond my time as secretary of state. And
so, too, will the personal commitment that my husband and I have to
If things went as planned, Caracol would be a triumph of the Clintons’
core model: the “public/private partnership”—U.S. taxpayer dollars,
Haitian land and private corporations working together to put cheap
clothes on American shelves and wages in Haitian pockets.
Today’s reality, though, falls far short of the 2012 dream—despite an
incredible financial investment. Far from 100,000 jobs—or even the
60,000 promised within five years of the park’s opening—Caracol
currently employs just 5,479 people full time. That comes out to roughly
$55,000 in investment per job created so far; or, to put it another way,
about 30 times more per job than the average Sae-A worker makes per
year. The park, built on the site of a former U.S. Marine-run slave labor
camp during the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, has the best-paved roads
and manicured sidewalks in the country, but most of the land remains
The park’s boosters respond that the number of employees has doubled
in the past year. One of Haiti’s richest men, Richard Coles, is opening a
new factory to produce for Hanesbrands there. The park’s 10-megawatt
plant is providing electricity to more than 8,000 people in the
surrounding area under a pilot project run by a Beltway-based energy
cooperative, bypassing the weak national electric utility. Mark D’Sa, a
former Gap Inc. sourcing director who now works for the State
Department, laughed at the idea that anyone could evaluate Caracol’s
success or failure after only 2 ½ years. “It’s a half-baked idea that’s still
in the oven,” he says, approvingly.
But the workers have their own complaints, starting with pay. Aselyne
Jean-Gilles, 35, makes the minimum 225 gourdes a day, or about $4.75.
She says she spends $3.19 on food, plus 45 cents each way for a group
taxi that takes her from her home in Cap-Haïtien to a town where she
can catch a free shuttle to work. She does not have children yet. “If you
do, you can’t afford to do anything,” she says.
Inside, Sae-A’s three warehouses are kept reasonably comfortable by
giant fans. A disc jockey plays Haitian kompa music to keep workers
energized. Enormous U.S., Haitian and South Korean flags hang
overhead. Seamstresses sit in forward-facing rows, stitching and
passing forward Mossimo and Old Navy tops under the glow of red signs
that keep track of the daily “meta,” or quota (the signs were imported,
along with middle managers, from older Sae-A factories in Central
America, at least one of which closed as the Haiti project was opening).
Quality checkers stand all day at the end of the row, discarding clothes
unfit for export. “From 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., I stand and stand. I can’t sit
down,” says Tamara Pierre, a 22-year-old quality checker, rubbing her
visibly swollen ankles as she waits for a bus home.
Outside the park’s walls some 336 families say they were forced off the
land to make way for Caracol and were not compensated enough to
make up for the loss of livelihoods. It was good, productive farmland in a
deforested, hungry country—chosen by the park’s planners precisely
because of its access to a good water supply. The farmers’ claims are
hard to prove, in large part because Haitian land law is a mess. Five
years after it became clear that disputes over land tenure were halting
reconstruction after the quake, Haiti still lacks a functioning land
Park officials say the proper channels were followed and compensation
was more generous than it had to be. But the peasant farmers believe
that once again they were taken advantage of by unaccountable, distant
powers. “Mr. and Mrs. Clinton,” specifies Milostene Castin, an area
farmer and organizer with the community group Je Nan Je, or “Eye to
Eye,” “they have been there since the cornerstone was laid. I think they
have monetary interests and political interests in the park.”
When I mentioned that President Clinton had apologized for harming
Haitian farmers in the past, Castin was unimpressed. “We call on them
to invest in the people, respect human rights and the law,” he says.
To many close observers of Haiti, the Clintons made the same mistake
that has been made for generations. Though striking a populist pose, in
practice they were attracted to power in Haiti, which meant making
alliances and friendships within the Haitian elite. “The strong push
toward Caracol is evidence of this,” says Robert Maguire, an expert on
development in Haiti and the director of The George Washington
University’s Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program. Their
project responded not as much to the “more inclusive development
priorities pushed for by most Haitians and their government … but
rather to those supported by Haiti’s economic elites, who stood to
benefit the most from them.”
That does not mean that the Haitian elite are all fans of the Clintons. Far
from it. Many still smart over Bill’s decision to reinstate the overthrown
Aristide. Others are resentful of the power and money the Clintons
bring with them in their entourage, including billionaires like O’Brien
(who in turn have no love for the oligarchical power of the Haitian
import-export cartels). But infighting, the maneuvering of power and
political brinkmanship have long been tactics of the Haitian elite.
In a way, some whisper in Port-au-Prince, it’s as if the Clintons have
joined their ranks.
The Washington Post recently wrote that “the Clintons’ long
influence in Haiti is hard to overstate.” It’s indeed hard—but not
impossible. While the Clintons and their allies sometimes seem to be
omnipresent, they are not omnipotent. In part, that’s because, as a rule,
things in Haiti do not go as planned.
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission closed shop in 2011, derided
for ineffectiveness and decisions “not necessarily aligned with Haitian
priorities,” according to the Government Accountability Office. In
December 2010, the IHRC’s Haitian members protested in a letter that
they were being sidelined by Clinton, Bellerive and major donors on the
board, including the U.S. representative to thecommission, Mills. “In
reality, Haitian members of the board have one role: to endorse the
decisions made by the Director and Executive Committee,” they wrote.
Washington was a bigger obstacle. Congress capped the U.S. money it let
the IHRC control at a comparatively tiny $120 million, and the Obama
administration then issued instructions on how the money had to be
spent. “That was the end of the trust fund as it was intended,” a former
senior Haitian commission official told me. (In a recent interview, Bill
Clinton told Town & Country that the IHRC was “incredibly
Other allegations of double-dealing and pocket-lining have been based
on the dubious idea that the Clintons can do as they please in Haiti.
Conservative author Peter Schweizer recently set off a media storm
when he reported that a small mining company with rights to dig in
northern Haiti had Tony Rodham, Hillary’s brother, on its board. On a
sunbaked April morning, I hiked up a narrow path on Morne Bossa, the
mountain 160 miles north of Port-au-Prince where that mine is
supposed to end up. Spectacular countryside surrounded us. In the
distance, across a wide green valley, the Citadelle Laferrière soared atop
a 3,000-foot peak. Our destination inspired less awe: a sawed-off PVC
pipe in a concrete base the size of a shoebox, from which the company—
Victory, Championship, Strategic Mining—occasionally takes samples.
Schweizer’s report triggered a lot of speculation, inside Haiti and out,
that the Clinton network was enriching itself in Haiti, and that lonely
pipe on a remote hill became an object of fascination for the political
press. But the site looked more like another example of overblown
promises than a master scheme. There was no mining equipment
nearby, and judging by the complete lack of activity at VCS Mining’s
nearby office, little sign any would come soon.
VCS CEO Angelo Viard told me Rodham was a financial adviser, not a
member of the board as had been reported, and that he had met him—
through the Clinton Global Initiative—after the Haitian government had
already granted him the right to explore for gold and copper. “Mr.
Rodham … said very clearly, Haiti has been hurt by so many disasters, if
there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know. And we said, ‘Hey,
you might be able to help us with the capital,’ and he was very happy to
do so,” Viard told me. He estimates he needs $60 million to begin
digging, whenever the government might allow it again.
All mining programs in Haiti are on hold while the country’s mining law
is reviewed. VCS’s office, full of dusty bags and wooden boxes of rocks,
have no active staff beside the caretaker, Williamcite Noel, whose main
qualifications seem to be speaking a bit of English and living near the
Many observers I spoke to think Viard is more likely to try and flip the
company than to ever actually start blasting the ground. What role Tony
Rodham might play in the company’s future, or what money he might
make off a future deal, is just as unclear as the mine’s future. Its
potential may never amount to anything, which some argue might
actually be the better outcome for Haiti. An open-pit mine on the site
could create environmental havoc while destroying the gorgeous view
from the Citadelle, harming tourism potential in the years ahead.
Others have questioned a $500,000 donation to the Clinton Foundation
made by the Algerian government after the 2010 earthquake, and a
$900,000 donation by Boeing to support Haitian schools at the same
time Secretary Clinton was lobbying the Russian government to buy
that company’s planes. The foundation has acknowledged it violated an
ethics agreement with the Obama White House by taking the Algerian
donation. Boeing indeed won a major contract, according to the
But, though tracing the money in Haiti is difficult, there are no solid
indications that the donations went anywhere other than where they
were supposed to go. A Clinton Foundation spokesman says the
Algerian money went into a $16.4 million direct aid fund, which in turn
provided money to groups including Partners in Health, the operating
fund of the IHRC, and Sean Penn’s J/P HRO.
Boeing’s money went to a now-defunct NGO named Architecture for
Humanity, which rebuilt a quake-damaged school in the impoverished
Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel-Air. I visited on a recent school day.
While the new building does not scream luxury—there is no library or
computer lab, barely any furniture, and the school building does not get
electricity—it does seem to be a well-put-together piece of construction,
certainly by Haitian standards, where schools collapsed from shoddy
building materials even before the earthquake. The former lead for the
project, Kate Evarts, told me that while she no longer has immediate
access to the books, she thinks that $900,000 sounds about right as a
price tag when considering fees, licenses and the cost of subcontractors. The foundation says some money also went to teacher training.
Following the money in Clinton Foundation projects is often a
challenge. In recent weeks, under media pressure, the foundation has
admitted that its bookkeeping and transparency have been lacking at
times. Last week, after days of questions and press reports about the
Clinton Foundation’s work in various countries, acting CEO Maura
Pally posted a statement explaining the foundation was committed to
transparency: “Yes, we made mistakes, as many organizations of our
size do, but we are acting quickly to remedy them, and have taken steps
to ensure they don’t happen in the future.”
Even poring over documents doesn’t tell you much: In 2013, the most
recent tax year for which disclosures are available, the foundation
raised $295 million overall and spent $223 million—of which it says
$197 million, or 88 percent, went to “program services.” That
intentionally vague term, used universally by NGOs across the aid
world, includes anything that can be justifiably linked to specific
projects including travel, office expenses and salaries.
Clinton Foundation officials told me that, “unlike most organizations
operating in Haiti, the Clinton Foundation and its Haiti program do not
charge overhead expenses or collect an administrative fee for our work.”
It is easy to see how the Clintons’ influence in Haiti—where the power
players are few and the vast majority of people live on less than $2 a day
—can be misunderstood or raise suspicions. There is little transparency
in Haiti. Almost every deal, even a legitimate one, gets made out of sight
—and over the past five years, the Clintons have seemingly had a
representative or friend in all the most important backrooms. That
power discrepancy, along with the Clintons’ fondness for keeping their
cards close to the vest, has led to wild rumors everywhere. Many center
on the Clintons supposedly buying land, the traditional source of wealth
and power. “I’ve heard people say Bill Clinton was trying to buy the
Citadelle!” laughs Michele Oriol, an expert on land rights with a Haitian
The complexity and limits of the Clinton model in Haiti can be summed
up in a complex of 750 pastel-colored houses up the road from Caracol.
The residents of Village La Difference are happy to have homes with
electricity and water cisterns. But the settlement has been plagued by
construction problems since the beginning. Two USAID contractors
have been suspended for failures including using shoddy concrete
blocks and failing to separate water and sewage pipes.
The village’s shining feature, however, and its most Clintonian
innovation, is a school. Lekol S&H’s monthly $8,400 budget is funded by
Sae-A. It’s a savvy public relations move that has yielded what is
probably the most dynamic elementary school in the country. The
principal, Jean V. Mirvil, was recruited from P.S. 73 in the Bronx. He and
his teachers, many of whom have completed teaching school (a rarity),
devised a cutting-edge curriculum that emphasizes instruction in
Kreyòl, rather than French, the traditional language of education and
Like many of the Clintons’ interventions in Haiti, it is not a direct
project of the foundation but what Mirvil happily referred to as “the
Clinton network.” The Clintons provided contacts ranging from USAID
trainers to the Brooklyn Nets, who donated the basketball hoops out
back. Gold plaques in the hallways and cafeteria bear the hand-scrawled
inscriptions in English: “My best wishes to the children who will be
educated here and congratulations to Sae-A!—Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
(Bill’s scrawl adds, “To the children: Learn a lot!”)
But barring an angel investor willing to pay for the program nationwide
for a generation or so, Lekol S&H remains essentially a one-off,
dependent on a single company’s decision to stay and keep paying the
bills. The model is precarious—particularly given the increasingly likely
possibility that Haiti reenters a period of political instability.
Haiti’s current political troubles fall short of what might cause real
problems for Hillary Clinton as she touts her foreign policy bona fides
during her White House run. But that could quickly change.
Impatience with President Martelly is growing at all levels, even inside
the State Department. With the falling price of oil and the death of
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the seemingly free PetroCaribe money that
has bankrolled Haiti’s meager growth—and the Martelly
administration’s tenuous hold on power—is running out.
With the Martelly administration now able to set up elections on its
own terms, the long-delayed parliament vote is scheduled for August.
New presidential elections are slated for October. Martelly is barred
from running for reelection by the constitution. Both Lamothe and the
president’s wife, Sofia Martelly, are rumored to be exploring runs. No
one knows if the elections will go off on time.
“If the election is not held this year and there is a high level of violence
and turmoil, [the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti] decides to leave, and
the 82nd Airborne or the Marines have to be sent here to keep order,
then yes, this could affect the U.S. election. It could lead to questioning
the ability of a Democrat in the White House to keep peace and stability
in a country like Haiti,” says Lionel Delatour, a prominent Haitian
businessman with ties to many in the U.S. government and private
sector. “The likelihood of such a series of events to take place is very
remote. But we have surprised the world before.”
The real date to watch is May 15, 2016, when Martelly’s five-year term
ends. If no election is held by then, a transitional government will take
power, there will be a constitutional crisis, or both. That date will fall
almost precisely as Hillary Clinton hopes to wrap up the Democratic
primaries and turn to the general election. Instability in a place where
she and her husband have planted a big flag would hardly help her
It’s impossible to say how all this will turn out. From top to bottom, the
Clintons’ work in Haiti is far from over. Many promises remain
unfulfilled; many projects still, as D’Sa put it, “half-baked.” Bill Clinton
still goes there frequently, including a February stop to join Martelly
and O’Brien at the opening of the Port-au-Prince Marriott. His
comments are ever boosterish, but tinged with frustration. “If everyone
knew this country the way Denis and I do, your incomes would be three
times higher than they are, people would be flooding in here every day,
and we wouldn’t have had the problems we do,” the former president
told a group of Haitians, according to the Miami Herald.
If Hillary is successful in her presidential bid, the Clintons will have
another four or even eight years to drive U.S. policy toward this
Caribbean nation—for better or for worse. Perhaps unsure of how Haiti
will fit into the upcoming election, Hillary Clinton has been less
talkative than her husband. Her spokesman declined to comment on
how her experience in Haiti has shaped her foreign policy, saying she
would address that “when the time comes to do so.”
I asked Benel Etienne, a 32-year-old resident of Village La Difference
and construction day laborer at Caracol, if he had a message for the
candidate. “Mrs. Clinton, we hope you became president of your United
States, but at the same we hope you bring change for Haiti, because you
have good diplomatic relations with Haiti,” he told me. When I asked
what kind of change that might be, he smiled and shrugged. Haitians like
him have heard too many promises, and seen too many things, to think
they could really know.