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Clinton, Bush visit Haiti capital

Hope to shine spotlight on need before UN summit

Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton toured Port-au-Prince yesterday with Haiti’s leader, René Préval. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has raised $37 million for quake relief. Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton toured Port-au-Prince yesterday with Haiti’s leader, René Préval. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has raised $37 million for quake relief. (Jorge Saenz/Associated Press)
By Jonathan M. Katz
Associated Press / March 23, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton toured Haiti’s rubble-filled capital yesterday to raise aid and investment for a country still reeling from the Jan. 12 earthquake.

It is the first joint visit to the impoverished Caribbean nation for the two former leaders, whom President Obama asked to lead the US fund-raising effort.

After meeting with President René Préval on the grounds of the collapsed national palace, they walked through the tarpaulin-and-tent city on the adjacent Champ de Mars, the national mall filled with 60,000 homeless quake survivors living in squalor.

Both men, surrounded by Secret Service agents, Haitian police, and UN peacekeepers, waded into the giant encampment to shake hands with earthquake survivors.

Clinton said they hoped to get all the aid agencies working together to make the most of the huge global outpouring of support. “We have to get the whole universe of people who want to help Haiti operating on the same page,’’ he said.

Bush told reporters their purpose was to see the devastation firsthand and “remind the American people there is still suffering and work to be done here.’’ He said they also wanted to encourage entrepreneurship in Haiti to create jobs and grow the economy.

“Hopefully, our visit will remind people that Haiti needs help,’’ Bush said.

The visit looks to shine a spotlight on the dramatic need before a crucial March 31 UN donors conference in New York, at which Haitian officials will ask for $11.5 billion in reconstruction help.

Aid was already being announced yesterday.

The Inter-American Development Bank said it had agreed to forgive its $479 million share of Haiti’s $1.2 billion in foreign debt while offering $2 billion in new financing. The European Union said it will donate $1.36 billion in development aid to Haiti in the years ahead.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela announced that he will cancel Haiti’s debt to his country, which the International Monetary Fund had listed at more than $200 million.

Clinton and Bush visited as the country struggles to feed and shelter victims of the magnitude-7 quake, which killed an estimated 230,000 people. Another 1.3 million quake survivors are homeless, with many living in camps prone to dangerous flooding in the April rainy season.

While the government and business leaders hail their appearance as a signal of America’s commitment, the visit by two former presidents who have played major roles in Haiti’s recent political trajectory is also reminding the country of its tumultuous past.

Supporters of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide staged a protest outside the national palace of about 100 participants, burning tires and demanding the return of their exiled leader.