WASHINGTON — Haitian President-elect Michel Martelly won enthusiastic backing Wednesday from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the two acknowledged enormous challenges for a country that's still struggling to recover from the January 2010 earthquake.
"We are behind him. We have a great deal of enthusiasm," said Clinton, who stood with Martelly in the ornate Treaty Room at the State Department. "The people of Haiti may have a long road ahead of them, but as they walk it, the United States will be with you all the way."
She and Martelly — who described the reconstruction progress as "despairingly slow" — acknowledged that massive work needs to be done in the hard-luck nation.
Clinton noted that there are still tons of rubble to be cleared and 650,000 people living in tent camps. Fifty-three Democratic members of Congress sent Clinton a letter Tuesday asking for more aid on behalf of people living in Haiti's tent cities.
The U.S. show of confidence in Martelly — who won the presidency in a runoff last month after fraud and chaos marred the first round of voting — comes at a crucial time for the formerly outlandish carnival singer who's never held political office.
Clinton acknowledged that her interest in Haiti is a "personal priority" for her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who co-chairs the international commission that's working on Haiti reconstruction efforts, and her.
Martelly — who met with Clinton for a working lunch, vowed to "transform my campaign promises into an action plan."
"Clearly I have huge challenges in front of me, but I intend to meet them," he said through an interpreter.
In addition to figuring out how to pay for those campaign promises, including free education and security in a nation that's dependent on foreign aid, Martelly will have to determine the future of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission — which has been charged with overseeing post-quake reconstruction — figure out how to improve coordination between his government and the thousands of aid organizations in the country, and decide where to focus his government's limited resources.
His Washington trip comes just weeks before he's to assume the presidency. Martelly also visited with officials at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, signaling that he wants their support for aid to the Haitian government and investments in the private sector. The agencies, which have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief to Haiti even before the quake, are looking to the new government to promote transparency and anti-corruption measures.
Like other donor nations, the U.S. has been frustrated by the pace of reconstruction in Haiti. Clinton suggested steps that the Haitian government needs to take, including making it easier to transfer ownership of state-owned land for affordable housing and streamlining the process for starting new businesses.
She said she was also worried that Haiti's judicial system needed an overhaul, but she expressed confidence that Martelly will deliver.
"We know this takes leadership, which we have seen Mr. Martelly exhibit in his very vigorous campaign," she said. "We know it takes political will — which we know he has — a commitment to transparency and good governance, and getting results for people."
(Charles, of The Miami Herald, reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.)
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