PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton clasped hands with residents of one of Haiti’s massive tent cities Monday on a tour of its quake-devastated capital – a visit intended to remind donors of the immense needs facing the recovery effort.
The two former leaders made their first joint visit to Haiti. They spotlighted the dramatic need for help ahead of a March 31 U.N. donors conference in New York where Haitian officials will ask for $11.5 billion in reconstruction help.
At a news conference with President Rene Preval on the grounds of the collapsed national palace, Bush said he was struck by the devastation caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“It’s one thing to see it on TV, it’s another to see it firsthand,” said Bush, who was making his first visit to Haiti. “Hopefully our visit will remind people that Haiti needs help.”
Clinton and Bush later greeted quake survivors camped on the Champ de Mars, the national mall filled with 60,000 homeless people. Secret Service agents and Haitian police surrounded the men as they waded into a fenced-in section of the mall where dozens of families have pitched tarps.
Clinton and Bush visited the country as it 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.
The former presidents also visited the Maxima SA woodworking plant where manager Evelien Degier, a native of the Netherlands, said they can build houses for $2,000. She said she hopes the presidents help direct investment to companies like hers that employ Haitians as part of the reconstruction effort.
“It’s wonderful to have the handouts and the food,” she said. “But now people need to go back to work to real life to earn real money.”
The chairman of Haiti’s chamber of commerce, Reginald Boulos, said Monday that Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive will co-chair a task force overseeing the large amounts of international aid expected to pour in next month.
Clinton said he had not been formally offered the position but was open to helping in any way.Named U.N. special envoy to Haiti last year, Clinton said the former presidents hoped to get all the aid agencies and the Haitian government working together to make the most of the huge global outpouring of support.