World

International coalition rallies for Haiti

Alarmed that Haiti's hard-won stability could be swept away by the food crisis, a broad coalition of international donors and countries is rallying to assist President René Préval with emergency grants and soft loans.On Thursday, an international delegation led by the head of the Organization of American States and top officials from the United States, Canada, the European Union, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina traveled to Haiti to meet with Préval, who is attempting to form a new government after his prime minister was forced out following riots over rising food prices. Officials from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also in Port-au-Prince for discussions.

''The world community has an obligation to do everything it can,'' said Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who on Wednesday sent President Bush a letter asking for more assistance. ``And even when it feels it's done enough, to dig deeper and do more.''

Haiti was supposed to be the venue for a donor's conference this week, but earlier this month at least five protesters and one U.N. peacekeeper were killed during riots, forcing the conference's postponement. The international delegation led by OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza flew to Haiti anyway, reflecting the international community's concern that the country, after billions of dollars in international assistance and the presence of 9,000 United Nations security forces, could slip into chaos as Haitians grow angry over the soaring costs of rice, wheat and other staples.

The crisis also drew delegations from Cuba, Venezuela and France and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the leader of Rainbow/Push Coalition. Though Haiti will get an infusion of cash, Préval is renewing his calls for greater assistance, including more help to deal with drug-trafficking gangs, quick passage of a textile trade bill by the U.S. Congress and temporary protected status for its migrants in the United States.

AGRICULTURAL AID

Préval is also requesting fertilizer and other equipment to bolster agricultural production and wants about $60 million from the United States to help subsidize the purchase of rice, flour and cooking oil and maintain steady prices for the next six months.

The Bush administration has released $200 million for emergency food aid worldwide, though it is not clear how much will be for Haiti. Meek wants Bush to earmark at least $15 million for the Caribbean nation.

''We want to show support and hold discussions on how we can help in the emergency,'' Insulza said in a telephone interview just before boarding the flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince.

Insulza called the Haitian situation ''sad'' given the country's recent progress after decades of instability and decay, but he considered the government to be stable. ''We have to show we support Préval,'' he said.

While some are pushing to erase Haiti's debt, Insulza said, ``there is a lot of debt that has been wiped out, and not being collected at this moment. No one is pressing Haiti to pay debt. It is not the most pressing problem Préval has today.''

Indeed Préval's biggest challenge is rebuilding the coalition government, and staving off political challenges from Haitian senators, who orchestrated the April 12 firing of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.

There is growing concern over not just whether the new government will continue with the reforms put in place over the past two years -- anti-corruption, tax collection and economic growth -- but whether it will be able to do so while meeting the basic needs of a population increasingly unable to afford even a $4 pound of rice.

`SAFETY NET'

Joel Boutroue, the United Nations Development Program resident representative in Haiti, said international donors need to have a serious dialogue on how to create ''a much stronger safety net'' in the country especially in the area of development.

Many activists say the international community should pardon payments this year totaling more than $40 million owed to international financial institutions.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) should ''in essence place a moratorium on the debt service payment,'' said Neil Watkins, with the Jubilee USA Network, a coalition of religious denominations, human rights organizations and other groups that lobby for debt forgiveness. ``It's unconscionable for Haiti to make those payments right now.''

In November 2006, Haiti signed a multi-year program with the IMF that would culminate with a pardon of nearly $1 billion of the $1.6 billion the country owes multilateral institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank.

According to that program, IMF officials say, Haiti is not eligible for the bulk of the debt pardon until November of this year, so the country will have to make a $44 million payment to its multilateral debtors this year.

But officials also point out that Haiti's debt payment would have been even higher and that if powerful countries like the United States agree, the payment could be written off.

Andreas Bauer, the IMF official who traveled to Haiti to evaluate the situation, said the economic outlook was ''a challenge'' for a country that had to import large quantities of food and oil.

Before the food riots, Haiti's economy appeared to be turning the corner after years of stagnation. The IMF estimated a growth rate of 3.2 percent in 2007, against an average of 1.8 percent in 1995-2004. Inflation was also on the decline.

Some aid is coming in.

The IDB plans to approve next week a $12.5 million grant for Haiti and has agreed to redirect an additional $14.5 million soft loan originally earmarked for tax reforms to emergency food subsidy programs and other needs, said IDB spokesman Peter Bates.

EMERGENCY CASH

The World Bank is also rushing a $10 million grant for Haiti. Yvonne Tsikata, the country director for Haiti, says the approval process usual takes several months, but she hopes to get everything ready in three or four weeks.

In a meeting Monday in Haiti, Préval told Meek he needs 30,000 metric tons of rice, 15,000 tons of wheat and 7,000 tons of cooking oil every month. He also urged Congress to pass a bill that would give Haiti greater access to the U.S. textile market, and for the Bush administration to expand its anti-drug trafficking assistance and provide temporary protected status for Haitians in the United States illegally.

''To sit by and watch this government get to the point where it can't function and that we have unrest in the street is not an option,'' Meek said.

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