WASHINGTON — Haitian President Rene Preval emerged from a round of talks at the White House and Congressl on Wednesday optimistic that President Barack Obama and lawmakers are receptive to helping the shattered country with direct aid to the government.
"They understand very well the problem and they are ready to help,'' Preval said after meetings with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "They understand the urgency to act. I know that they will act promptly.''
Obama welcomed Preval to the Oval Office, pledging that the U.S. would remain îîa steady and reliable partner'' as Haiti continues to recover from the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced nearly a million.
"America's commitment to Haiti's recovery and reconstruction must endure and will endure,'' Obama said. "This pledge is one that I made at the beginning of this crisis, and I intend for America to keep our pledge. America will be your partner in the recovery and reconstruction effort.''
Preval's trip to Washington and request for help comes nearly two months after the quake and as international donors prepare to meet at the United Nations in New York later this month to plot the country's recovery . . . estimated to cost as much as $14 billion.
Obama and congressional leaders made no promises about the level or type of aid the U.S. is prepared to commit, though the administration is said to be preparing a request to Congress that could be as much as $3 billion.
Haiti is hoping the U.S. will play a leading role in the donor conference and will resume direct aid to the country's government. The U.S. and other nations had stopped funding the government directly because of Haiti's history of corruption and squandered aid.
Preval acknowledged the U.S. reluctance, but told Pelosi that government revenue has plunged and the government needs aid to keep services running.
"We know that they are reluctant to give direct support to the budget, but we will find a way to have this support,'' Preval said. "Otherwise, inflation will grow and it will cause social or maybe political turbulence, political problems.''
At a Rose Garden reception following his meeting with Obama, Preval called the damage from the quake "unimaginable,'' but noted the response from the international community "from Asia to Africa, from the United States, from Canada, from all of Latin America, from the Caribbean, from Europe, all the way to the Middle East thanks to its swiftness, thanks to its size, was commensurate with the disaster.''
The two presidents held what Obama said was a "very productive meeting'' before delivering remarks to a crowd that included aid workers, members of Congress and Haitian Americans from across the country.
Florida State Rep. Ronald Brise, D-Miami, among those in the audience, said he believes Preval's visit would keep Haiti in the forefront as coverage of the earthquake fades from the front pages and nightly newscasts.
"His message was loud and clear that Haiti still needs the help and hopefully it went far and wide enough,'' Brise said, noting that the appearance also gives Preval the opportunity to counter the perception that the Haitian government was on the sidelines in the aftermath of the quake.
Members of Congress said they were anxious to help, but acknowledged that spending bills are likely to face increased scrutiny.
"In these tough economic times, the American people demand that we do everything in our power to ensure their tax dollars are used in the most efficient and transparent manner possible,'' said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which met Wednesday with Preval. "It cannot be business as usual. The time for blank checks for foreign aid no longer exists. We are a caring and generous nation but not at the expense of our economic future.''
The two presidents were joined in the Rose Garden by officials with some of the U.S. agencies who responded to the quake, including representatives of the State Department, USAID, Homeland Security, FEMA, Health and Human Services, Transportation and the Defense Department.
Also in attendance, volunteer physicians, nurses and paramedics and members of the urban search-and-rescue teams who pulled survivors out of the wreckage.
Preval, who met Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, thanked Americans "not only for the material aid, but also for the moral support, the psychological support, that helped us realize that we were not alone and that provided us great comfort in our distress.''
He also pressed for the creation of a multi-donor trust fund, similar to one set up in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunamis. He said at the White House that Obama supported the idea.
"It is not just to reconstruct Haiti, it is to make another Haiti,'' Preval told Pelosi. "A decentralized Haiti with the opportunity of having jobs, having health care, having education wherever the Haitian is living.''
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