The Clintons have loomed large in Haiti for decades.
As Bill and Hillary Clinton ascended in the political world, their interest in Haiti — sparked by their 1975 honeymoon there — kept pace. They played key behind-the-scenes roles in Haiti presidential elections and publicly championed the Caribbean nation after the 2010 earthquake.
But that deep involvement in the politics of a foreign country wasn’t always welcomed by Haitians or the diaspora. And now some Haitian-American voters are threatening to turn their backs on Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential bid because they say the Clintons — and the Clinton Foundation — have not always done what’s best for Haiti.
In sought-after Florida, where the race between Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump has remained tight, Clinton is finding that the Haitian-American vote is far from locked up.
“They know that the Haitian community has a beef with them,” said Dr. Laurinus “Larry” Pierre, head of the Democratic Haitian American Caucus of Florida and a prominent Democratic party fundraiser. “Mistakes were clearly made in Haiti. But at least with Hillary, we have some access.”
Haitian voters point out that Clinton hasn’t visited Little Haiti, while Trump has. And though Clinton did meet with a handful of Haitian Americans before a Coral Springs rally Sept. 30 — five days before Hurricane Matthew hammered Haiti’s southwestern peninsula — Pierre, who attended the meeting, said that wasn’t enough: “I still asked Hillary if she could make a stop in the Haitian community.”
Pierre, who has been campaigning for Clinton as part of an effort by the political action committee Haitian Americans for Progress, says his message is simple: “If you don’t vote, it’s like you vote for Trump and if Trump is elected, we have no access.”
Still, it’s a hard sell for some.
The traditionally Democratic-leaning community isn’t necessarily flocking to Trump, who has tried to make Haiti a symbol of what he calls Hillary Clinton’s “crooked” behavior in hopes of diluting the black vote, particularly in Florida. But Haitian-American voters also aren’t giving Clinton the kind of support other Democratic candidates are accustomed to in an election where every vote is critical.
The Clinton campaign insists it isn’t taking the Haitian-American vote for granted. It has focused on reaching Haitian-American voters with efforts that include a Little Haiti field office and two Creole-language radio ads. Its media buy on Haitian radio, the campaign says, is larger than President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
“We’re proud of our extensive grassroots outreach to the Haitian community here in Florida to register and ultimately turn out voters in support of Hillary Clinton this election,” said Cassandra Theramene, who is in charge of engaging the Haitian community statewide to get Clinton and other Democrats on the ballot elected. “Hillary Clinton understands that Haitian Americans have helped build this country and strengthen our communities — and she has a plan to create good-paying jobs with rising incomes, provide a world-class education for every child and pass comprehensive immigration reform to help keep Haitian families together.”
At least one Haiti expert, Robert Maguire at George Washington University, says Clinton’s image when it comes to Haiti is pretty much set, for better or worse.
“I’m not sure there is much she could say at this point that would make any difference in terms of how her engagement with Haiti is perceived,” he said.
Some of the antipathy toward the Clintons is rooted in half truths, rumors and falsehoods like Trump’s claim at a Panama City campaign rally earlier this month that the couple used $400 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars and aid “to build what amounted to a massive sweatshop” in northern Haiti, an assertion rated by the Washington Post as a distortion of the facts. Others have falsely claimed on social media and in private conversations that the Clinton Foundation ripped off billions of dollars in aid pledged after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
But there are also legitimate frustrations and criticism over the power couple’s gaffes in dealing with Haiti, such as the U.S. trade policy under former President Bill Clinton that forced Haiti to drop its tariffs on imported subsidized U.S. rice. The policy, which Clinton apologized for in 2010 while serving as United Nations envoy for Haiti, killed Haiti’s local rice market.
And then there is the failed promise by Bill Clinton — the public face of the earthquake recovery and reconstruction effort as co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission while his wife, as secretary of state, directed the U.S. response and policy toward Haiti — to help the country “build back better” after the disaster.
Frustrations over the lack of progress in Haiti have caused some in and out of Haiti to protest against the couple, and Trump has sought to make the most of the frustrations. During the third and final presidential debate, he told voters that Haitians in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood “hate the Clintons because of what’s happened in Haiti with the Clinton Foundation.”
Ralph Kenol, a Haitian-American attorney and Democrat from Broward County who cast his ballot during early voting, said he went with the green party candidate instead of Clinton. He said the Clintons, like the Democratic Party, have taken the black vote for granted — including the Haitian vote. He also said that the efforts by Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation after the quake showed no real results.
“The Clintons’ history in Haiti is symptomatic of their relationship with black people in the last 30 years,” Kenol said. “I have a problem with Clinton’s Haiti policy just as much as I have one with their policies over the crime bill and welfare reform.
“The Haitian people had a rare opportunity to see Bill Clinton up close for many years and see the non-results. … There were a lot of photo ops, but five, six years later, Haitians know nothing was accomplished,” he said.
Role in Haiti
While some Haitians’ dislike of Clinton is linked to former President Clinton restoring ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994 and pushing out the military that led the coup d’etat, that’s not the only issue. Maguire, the Haiti expert, said another important element of Haitians’ antipathy is what some perceive to be former Secretary of State Clinton’s “intrusive role” in Haiti’s 2010 presidential elections that “subverted Haitian electoral-political process and resulted in the ascension to office of Michel Martelly.”
Martelly, a musician-turned-politician, was president of Haiti for five years. He left office Feb. 7 without an elected successor after fraud allegations derailed last year’s presidential elections, forcing Haiti into a transitional government. Martelly, who failed to hold elections during his first four years as president and instead appointed friends and close associates to run cities, denied allegations at the time that he tried to rig the vote that would have chosen a new president. The vote is now rescheduled for Nov. 20.
“The unflinching public support from Hillary’s Department of State and John Kerry’s, too, of Martelly … also sticks in the craw of many Haitians and, I would imagine, Haitian Americans,” Maguire said.
Jean-Junior Joseph, a Port-au-Prince political blogger, agreed. The Clintons, he said, “like Haiti, but they don’t know what is best for us.”
And he said Clinton didn’t help her cause when she referred to Haiti as “the poorest country in our hemisphere” during the Oct. 19 presidential debate as she defended the couple’s involvement in the country, especially through their charitable work.
“People on Facebook and on other social media networks were upset because they believe that if Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, then the Clintons are to be blamed for part of the poverty that we are living,” Joseph said. “They came back with Aristide and then they forced Martelly in power. Look at where we are today. We are in a deep economic and political crisis because Martelly never held elections. We are paying the consequences of Martelly having been in power.”
Also hurting Clinton’s support among Haitians is the release of her personal emails from her time as secretary of state. They have reinforced the perception that top aides were deeply involved in the country’s internal affairs and confirmed that even some in the Clintons’ network believed that Martelly was put in power by the United States.
The emails also reveal the “behind the doors” actions of the Haitian elite, in coordination with the State Department, to force the Haitian government to overturn the initial 2010 election results, and raise questions about the extent to which Clinton Foundation donors were given favorable treatment by U.S. and foundation officials after the earthquake.
Asked during the debate about emails showing that foundation donors got special access to her after the Haiti earthquake, Clinton said that “everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values.”
“The Clinton Foundation raised $30 million to help Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake and all of the terrible problems the people there had,” she later added, defending its work. “We have done things to help small businesses, agriculture and so much else. And we’re going to keep working to help Haiti.”
On Tuesday, as Clinton tried to woo Hispanic voters on a Spanish-language show on Univision, the foundation tweeted, “President @billclinton and the #ClintonFoundation’s only goal in Haiti is to help the people of #Haiti.”
Founded in 1997 as the William J. Clinton Foundation, the charitable organization’s work in Haiti began in 2009 before the quake. The foundation, currently headed by Donna Shalala, now focuses on encouraging economic growth in Haiti.
Outside of the foundation, Bill Clinton has helped secure commitments of nearly $500 million that have gone to address education, healthcare, economic development, climate-smart agriculture and other challenging issues in Haiti. The efforts have put people back to work, reduced poverty, and facilitated investment across the country.
“We consider ourselves partners in Haiti’s future, but our goal is simple: We want to work ourselves out of a job,” Shalala said last July. “To do that, we’re actually supporting entrepreneurs and business owners and smallholder farmers who are helping to [lift] their communities around them.”
During the campaign, Trump and the GOP have tried to cast the Clintons’ work in Haiti as a failure, accusing them of blurring the lines between politics, charity and business.
As U.N. Envoy for Haiti, Bill Clinton raised the country’s profile on the global stage even before the earthquake left 1.5 million homeless and more than 300,000 dead and an equal number injured. After the disaster, he led several high-profile visits to check on Clinton Foundation projects and bring groups of potential investors to the country.
Away from the cameras, however, Clinton encountered frustrations and roadblocks despite professing publicly in New York that Martelly’s administration was the best Haitian government that he had worked with. One Port-au-Prince business-owner was forced to give back a $415,000 Clinton Foundation loan after the government claimed part of her land under eminent domain to build a park, and she wasn’t able to expand her business to provide jobs to mostly poor women.
The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission that Clinton co-chaired alongside Haiti’s prime minister also hit hurdles. Though it didn’t manage money, serving as a clearing house to approve projects proposed by international aid agencies, many accused the commission of mishandling the $10.4 billion in aid that donors pledged but didn’t actually give after the disaster.
But some, like Maguire, the longtime Haiti observer at George Washington University, say Haitians know they will have more of an ear in Washington if Clinton is elected.
“All things considered, the Clintons have cared deeply about Haiti and have worked with the intent of improving conditions there, even if this has not always worked out as they had hoped,” he said. “If she becomes president, this would certainly ensure that the country remains a blip on the U.S. foreign affairs radar screen.”
And Haitian Americans have continued to seek a conversation with Clinton. Last week, as she visited South Florida with President Obama, 27 Florida-based organizations and 24 other prominent Floridians wrote to her asking for her positions on issues of concern to the Haitian American community, and for a meeting regarding them.
Among the issues: whether re-designation of Temporary Protected Status for undocumented Haitians would continue and Clinton’s position on the upcoming elections in Haiti.
The letter came on the heels of Hurricane Matthew, which devastated southwestern Haiti, killing at least 546 people, according to the government’s official tally and wiping out 100 percent of the crops in some areas.
“Fifty-one Florida based leaders want to know what Hillary Clinton would do and will do on these issues,” said Steven Forester, a longtime activist in South Florida’s Haitian community.
Herald Staff Writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.