Haitian Czar Clinton? Shady Past Portends Massive Corruption in Haiti Releif

January 25, 2010 08:22

If the country is ever to develop it will need less cronyism and more transparency. That would disqualify Bill Clinton


In the news from Haiti over the past two weeks, images of a grieving Bill Clinton have been almost as constant as the pictures of the earthquake victims themselves. Everywhere you look, the former president seems to appear—expressing his sorrow and pledging to make his foundation the cornerstone of a vast rebuilding effort.

When Mr. Clinton toured the devastation last week, the Miami Herald described him as “teary eyed.” But teary eyed is a more apt description of how Haitians could end up if Mr. Clinton takes charge of Haiti’s recovery, as it now appears he would like to do.

According to sources familiar with the issue, word has already gone out that Mr. Clinton has been unofficially designated by the multilateral aid community as the conduit through which anyone who wants to participate in the country’s reconstruction will have to go. “That means,” one individual told me, “if you don’t have Clinton connections, you won’t be in the game.”

A person entrusted with this much power should have an impeccable track record. Mr. Clinton’s record doesn’t come close. Indeed, the last time he offered to “help” the country, he propped up a corrupt despot who proceeded to go into business with key Democrats and left the country poorer, institutionally bereft and riddled with political violence.

In 1991, eight months after he took office, Jean Bertrand Aristide was removed from power in a military coup. The action was precipitated by Mr. Aristide’s disregard for Haiti’s fragile rule of law—including the use of mob violence to intimidate and kill his political opponents.

After his ouster, Mr. Aristide needed money. He got it when President George H.W. Bush released to him Haitian assets held in the U.S. on the grounds that he was the government in exile.

The main source of those funds were the payments that U.S. telecom companies were making to the state telephone monopoly, Teleco, to terminate calls to Haiti. From his exile perch in Georgetown, Mr. Aristide proceeded to draw on those government revenues—by some estimates $50 million—to lobby for his return to power. Among his most important contacts was Michael Barnes, a former Democratic congressman whose law firm at one point was raking in $55,000 a month from his Haitian client.

A couple of years of spreading Haitian money around Washington did the trick: In 1994 Mr. Clinton called up the U.S. military to restore Mr. Aristide to the presidency. When his term was up in 1996 and René Préval took over as president, Mr. Aristide remained the power behind the throne.

Haitians complained bitterly for years about his human rights abuses and corruption, and many of his educated supporters broke with him as his tactics became clearer. But the Clinton administration never did anything to bring him to heel.

In February 2001 Mr. Aristide claimed to have been re-elected in a process that international observers cited for pervasive fraud, and that the Organization of American States refused to certify. Haitians were angry, but it took three more years for that discontent to bubble over. Finally, in February 2004, he was run out of the country.

Hoping to retrieve stolen assets, the interim government that took over filed a 2005 civil action in a southern Florida federal court against Mr. Aristide. It alleged that he had rifled the treasury and set up schemes with “certain” U.S. telecommunications carriers, “granting them significantly reduced rates for services provided by Teleco in exchange for kickbacks, which further reduced those rates.” It alleged that one of the companies that made payments “to certain off-shore companies” was Fusion Telecommunications.

Fusion’s contract should have been public, but the company tried to block its release from the Federal Communications Commission when I asked for it. No wonder. It revealed that Fusion had a sweetheart deal with Teleco of 12 cents a minute when the official rate was 50 cents.

The Fusion deal is interesting because the company was run by Marvin Rosen, the former finance chair of the Democratic Party. Board members included Joseph P. Kennedy II and Mr. Clinton’s former chief of staff, Mack McLarty.

The U.S.-Haiti telecom route is one of the busiest in the Western Hemisphere, and this contract that undercut the competition was remarkably lucrative. It also deprived the Haitian treasury of important resources. As the lawsuit states: “Teleco revenues were the principal source of urgently needed foreign currency for Haiti.”

The upshot here is that clintonista activity in Haiti was not the work of foreigners deeply committed to the well-being of a long-suffering people. Instead, it capitalized on the chance to make money using government power.

Now is time to break that habit. As one Haitian told me, if the country is ever to develop it needs “to rely less on cronyism and more on transparency and the vast resources of the Haitian expat community.” That would disqualify Bill Clinton.

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