One year has passed since Haiti was rocked by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010. In just three minutes, a nation already suffering from hunger and neglect was hit with a seemingly decisive blow.
The media’s coverage of Haiti is as insightful today as it was in the weeks immediately following the earthquake. Then, as now, there is a cache of grim photos and figures that find their way into each segment. Running down a list of casualties—supposedly to paint a picture of the situation plaguing Haiti—tends to oversimplify an unnervingly complicated situation. At the same time however, it’s important to take stock of what has been lost in just a year: more than 250,000 killed in the earthquake alone; 1 million displaced persons; 3,500 dead by Cholera with 400,000 more cases estimated to surface in 2012; upwards of $10 billion in damages; and political violence rampant surrounding the political election. As they say, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.
But amidst the cripplingly slow reconstruction effort, some progress has been made. The most symbolic achievement—and perhaps the most dramatic as well—is the presidential election that took place on November 28, 2010. Why would a fraud-ridden election that played out like a telenovela be so key? Because the single most important entity in post-earthquake Haiti will be an established, well-funded Haitian government. Not only will this government be in charge of delivering social services the government has failed to provide for decades, but the legitimacy of the government (and I use the word legitimacy optimistically) will determine how much of the $10 billion in donations and foreign aid actually makes its way to Haiti, and from that point, how effectively it is invested.
Granted, it will be several months before Haiti’s next president comes into power, let alone establishes him or herself. But the Organization of American States (OAS) took a crucial step on Monday when it published a review of the hotly contested election results. The outcome: disqualification of 17,220 votes for ruling-party candidate Jude Celestin and 7,150 votes for kompa star Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly. The OAS put an end to the back and forth about who will participate in the run-off next month (assuming President Préval accepts the report, which he should given that he invited the 10-man OAS team in the first place). With Martelly likely to earn a second-place victory with 22.2 percent of the vote, he would face undisputed first-place finisher Mirlande Manigat for perhaps the most important presidential post in Haiti since the 1960s.
As if President Barack Obama didn't have enough on his plate—the Mexico drug war has really come up and brought the administration's focus back into this hemisphere. Besides grappling with a global financial meltdown, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the stunning severity of narcoviolence—and the "spillover" into the U.S.—is demanding immediate attention from the U.S. government, perhaps sooner than people would have thought or certainly hoped.
Congress is paying attention, holding several hearings and questioning officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice, among other agencies. Unfortunately, the hearings have demonstrated there is no comprehensive strategy or clear coordination, or direction, in confronting the drug problem. In all fairness, it's still quite early in the Obama administration and people who would otherwise be working on this issue have yet to be installed in the government. And, the Merida Initiative—the $1.4 billion, three-year counternarcotics program for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and Dominican Republic initiated under the Bush administration—has only recently gone into effect.
After Congress made a big enough stink, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico last month, and President Barack Obama is due to visit Mexico City on April 16, before he goes to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. (Actually he’s arriving the evening of the 15th and leaving the 17th.)
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa and its Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhán were at Mexico City’s airport at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning to great the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration’s new era of bilateral relations. Both Clinton and Espinosa were ready to discuss areas of cooperation and move beyond the recent trade dispute—where Mexico imposed $2.4 billion of tariffs in response to the U.S. ending a pilot program (and caving into the Teamsters) allowing Mexican trucks to operate on U.S. roads—that had clouded bilateral relations in recent weeks.
But the excitement over Clinton’s visit extended far beyond her official meetings. Currently in Mexico City for a conference on immigration, I was able to coincide with the Secretary’s visit. And I can report that people around town had high expectations for what would come of her talks and those of future U.S. officials. Mexicans are rightly weary not just of the narco-violence but of U.S. media sensationalism of their country’s plight and the inaccurate label of a failed state.
There’s a lot on the agendas of the three cabinet members and President Obama when they travel to Mexico this month to meet with Mexican officials, including President Felipe Calderon. First it’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (March 25-26), then Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (April 1 and 2), and then the President—on his way to the Summit of the Americas.
For the first time in U.S. history the full complexity and proximity of our relationship with Mexico is being dealt with at the level it deserves. Everything from drug-cartel related violence, the economic crisis, trade, security, intra-regional relations, trade, NAFTA, and immigration will be on the list of items to be discussed. And the best part is that, at a rhetorical level, the administration is approaching this with the appropriate level of partnership that the relationship deserves—a trend started with President Bush’s Plan Merida program to support Mexico’s war on narcotics trafficking.
My concern? That immigration will slip through the cracks. To be sure, the context is set to deal with it in the right way: bilaterally. But the risk is that issues like the drug violence, trade spats and the economic crisis that have dominated the media coverage (particularly the former) will crowd out one of the most important bilateral issues we face: the flow of humans across our borders that serve the U.S. labor market and—through remittances back home—provide a crucial social safety net to poor communities in Mexico.