- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Obama administration on Tuesday warned Haiti against a long delay of elections previously scheduled for early next year to ensure that the billions of dollars in international aid pledged after the January earthquake are spent by a legitimate government.

During a visit to Washington to thank the administration for its massive rescue and relief efforts, Haitian President Rene Preval said a parliamentary vote planned for February is likely to be postponed because of the devastation caused by the Jan. 12 quake.

“Everybody will understand that, due to the conditions, how difficult it will be to respect that timetable and to organize elections,” Mr. Preval told reporters at the State Department after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Political stability is something fundamental for the development of a country,” he said. “That is what constitutes a guarantee for investors, for the population, that there is some guarantees, that there is some security about their future.”

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. government so far “has supplied nearly $700 million in assistance,” and about a “half of all households in America have contributed something to private relief efforts,” so it is important that there are responsible officials in Haiti to make sure the money is spent properly.

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“We must work toward elections to ensure the stability and legitimacy of the Haitian government,” she said. “I assured President Preval that the United States would work with the international community to hold elections as soon as appropriate.”

Before the parliamentary vote, presidential elections are scheduled for November, but it is not clear if they will take place then. Although Mr. Preval, who also met with President Obama, does not plan to stay in office after his term ends in February, he also said there should not be a power vacuum.

“Before I depart, we must have a parliament and a new president. We have almost a year to do that,” he said. “If in a year we have a provisional government, that would be a catastrophe. That government would have no legitimacy, there wouldn’t be a parliament … and it would really be a return to 2004.”

He referred to a chaotic period when a bloody rebellion forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.

Mrs. Clinton agreed that there is much to be done before Haiti is ready for a national election and again offered help. The United States and the United Nations are scheduled to host a large donors conference in New York on March 31.

“There are many specific problems that must be addressed — from how we get people into safe housing before and during the rainy season, to how we provide fertilizer and seed to Haiti’s farmers so that they can begin planting, to how we get Haiti’s factories going again and start new factories throughout the country, how we convince other countries to extend the same favorable tariffs that the United States does,” she said.

Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, said it “will be a big challenge to hold new elections because of the disarray in the logistical infrastructure and gaps in voter registration.”

“The most immediate challenge lies in holding new parliamentary elections, which are already past due, and Preval’s term will also expire within a year, but the Haitian government has indicated that it wants to maintain a constitutional legitimacy moving forward,” Mr. Erikson said.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and Finance Committee chairman, called for an expansion of U.S. trade benefits to help Haiti rebuild its clothing sector.

“We must lend a hand. We must assist Haiti’s earthquake-recovery efforts by creating additional incentives for investment in Haiti’s apparel sector,” Mr. Baucus said at a hearing on reforming U.S. trade preference programs for developing countries.

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