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Chavez courts Haiti with aid to broaden anti-U.S. kingdom

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondant
Published March 22, 2007


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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has opened a new front in his anti-American offensive: Haiti.

Long overlooked by Venezuela's burgeoning foreign aid program in Latin America, Haiti received a visit last week by Chavez. It was the first time he had set foot in the Caribbean nation.

He left after signing a $100-million assistance package, including cheap oil, medical support, airport construction and electricity generation.

The announcement is part of Chavez's aggressive effort to use his country's oil wealth to wean countries in the hemisphere off Washington's influence.

U.S. officials don't sound too worried about Chavez's latest push. The United States is Haiti's largest foreign aid donor, handing out $600-million since 2004. American aid programs provide food to 335,000 poor Haitians, as well as funding for school textbooks, HIV-AIDS treatment and other things.

In a major boost to Haitian clothing manufacturers, President Bush signed into law this week a measure giving Haiti duty-free entry into the United States for locally sewn apparel.

But Venezuela's aid package is far from insignificant. Haitian officials say the oil deal, offered at concessionary rates, will save Haiti about $150-million a year.

Chavez's visit came just as Bush was finishing up his own six-day tour of the region, bird-dogged every step of the way by his Venezuelan nemesis.

Bush is expected to make his first trip to Haiti next month amid growing concern over a surge in drug trafficking through Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic.

U.S. officials may be wary of the close ties between Castro and Haiti's left-leaning president, Rene Preval. But Washington has no reservations about Preval's democratic credentials.

The Haitian leader is widely considered to be a moderate. His relationship with Cuba is as much ideological as personal, stemming from his treatment for prostate cancer in Cuba for a number of years.

Pragmatic policy

"Haitian foreign policy under Preval has shown a lot of pragmatism," said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. "He's not putting his eggs in one basket."

While relations between Preval and the Bush administration are good, Haiti is upset over the number of Haitians being deported from the United States to Haiti. Some are hardened criminals accused of violence and kidnapping in Haiti's slums.

Besides receiving international economic aid valued at $1.3-billion in the last three years, Haiti hosts a U.N. security force of troops from Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

While outside help has helped Haiti get back on its feet, the country remains highly vulnerable to political instability.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. One out of two is illiterate. Life expectancy is 51 years.

Keeping a distance

Despite their geographic proximity to Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela have never gotten deeply involved the French-speaking country, which has long-standing ties to the United States, France and Canada.

During a previous term in office in the 1990s, Preval signed a cooperation agreement with Cuba to provide doctors in rural communities lacking primary health care. Cuba has since sent hundreds of doctors to Haiti, as well as offering free education for 800 Haitian students at Cuba's Latin American School for Medicine in Havana.

During his daylong visit to Haiti last week, Chavez was accompanied by a high-level Cuban delegation, including Cuban Vice President Esteban Lazo. Cuba's ailing president, Fidel Castro, also checked in on the trilateral talks, reportedly making four phone calls to Haiti's presidential palace.

Haiti's 'atomic' youth

In a transcript of one of the calls released by Cuba, Chavez described the crowds who thronged his motorcade on the drive from Haiti's airport to the presidential palace.

Chavez compared Haiti's youths to "an atomic bomb" needing social workers "to organize this force."

Later in the day Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba signed an agreement to open a joint "cooperation office" in Haiti to administer a new trilateral aid program. This includes a $21-million humanitarian fund for medical support as well as improving Haiti's electrical generating capacity.

About $57-million was pledged for improvements to Haiti's airports to boost tourism. Venezuela also agreed to double its petroleum supplies to Haiti, to 14,000 barrels a day.

In a press conference Chavez blasted the United States, describing it as "the cruelest, most terrible, most cynical, most murderous empire to have existed in the entire history."

In his remarks moments later, Preval thanked Cuba and Venezuela for their support while making no mention of his relations with Washington.

Haiti's foreign policy had always been "timid," he said, but that is changing as his government seeks cooperation with any country whose help might benefit the Haitian people.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 06:14:58]


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