Haiti still in need of assistance

While progress is being made in a hurricane-ravaged Haiti, the country remains in need of assistance, including temporary relief from deportation for thousands of undocumented Haitians living in the United States, a South Florida’s congressional delegation said Monday after a daylong visit to the Caribbean nation.

Led by Miami Democrat Kendrick Meek, the group met with President Rene Preval, key Haitian business leaders, U.S. embassy personnel and U.S. Coast Guard officials. It included Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, along with Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, all on their first visit to Haiti.

“There are so many wonderful things that are happening in Haiti,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who highlighted the University of Miami’s Project Medishare Program that is training Haitian doctors and health professionals in the country.

“There’s a lot that we can do. There’s a lot that we can do together. Haiti’s problems must be paid attention to. We can be part of that solution,” said Ros-Lehtinen, ranking minority member of the foreign affairs committee.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart said in addition to granting an estimated 30,000 Haitians Temporary Protected Status, the Obama administration can further help Haiti by revising the State Department’s travel warning to American citizens.

Haitians and U.S. business owners have long complained that the travel warning is an impediment to attracting critical investments to the country.

“It’s a beautiful country, Haiti, with an extraordinary history and one of the ways in which they are going to lift themselves up from poverty is with tourism,” he said. “I would urge and I will, the Obama administration, the State Department to review that policy because security ? the lack of security that has been at the cause of the warning to U.S. tourists ? has been improved. The Haitian government has made tremendous strides in improving security.”

The brief but historic visit from the South Florida delegation came a day after Haiti held runoff elections for 11 out of 12 vacant Senate seats. It also came two days after Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis ended her first official visit to South Florida where she called on Haitians in the Diaspora to invest in their homeland despite its difficulties.

Delegation members said they discussed a myriad of issues during their visit, including the need for TPS, the 11,000 jobs created under a U.S.-congressional back HOPE II legislation and the efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard in curtailing illegal smuggling operations.

Wasserman Schultz said after visiting the U.S. embassy, she wants to assure Haitians that there is a legal way to migrate and that the waiting time has now been seriously reduced. The one disappointment, Wasserman Schultz said, was Sunday’s low voter turnout for the elections.

“The political strife that seems to have existed in Haiti for quite some time, still seems to exist. That appears to be a major obstacle to Haiti’s progress. It’s one thing for us to be able to provide aid and to pass wonderful legislation like the HOPE legislation … but if Haiti isn’t able to get their political act together, then it’s sort of gotta get out of its own way first before others around the world will be able to effectively help them,” she said. “That is the message we brought to President Preval and the leadership.”

Meek, who shares the concerns, said at the same time he was happy Haiti’s long-delayed senate elections took place. They are critical, he said, for the country to move forward and get the international assistance it needs.

Meek also said he plans to ask for the appropriate Haitian authorities to look into the death of a mourner attending Haitian community activist Gerard Jean-Juste’s funeral last week in Port-au-Prince. Peacekeepers with the U.N. Stabilization mission in Haiti, known by the French acronym MINUSTAH, are accused of firing into the crowd and killing a mourner. South Florida activists have asked Meek to demand answers.

“It’s an international issue because the U.N. was involved … but I think it’s very, very important for the future of security and also relations between MINUSTAH and the Haitian people that there is some conclusive evidence to show what really happened,” Meek said.

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.