MONTREAL – The disastrous Jan. 12 earthquake has also shaken Haiti’s political standing in the world, catapulting its prime minister to a meeting in Montreal to face an unfamiliar treatment – the international spotlight.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive will represent Haiti’s bloodied but unbowed government at the Canada-hosted talks.
Politicians and analysts say he must emerge from Monday’s six-hour meeting as a strong figure, nothing short of a symbol of his devastated country’s resolve to rebuild itself.
Bellerive received a warm welcome Sunday afternoon from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill.
Harper told Bellerive “you’re not alone” as he greeted him in front of Haiti’s blue and red colours and the Maple Leaf.
Afterwards, Bellerive told The Canadian Press he was up to the job of leading the discussion in Montreal.
“First, we need to explain that, even with all our problems, we still want to have the leadership when deciding the vision of what should be done in Haiti’s future,” the Haitian prime minister said.
Six weeks ago, Bellerive was virtually unnoticed in Ottawa as he accompanied Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon to a short media briefing. “Right now, the needs of Haiti are enormous,” Bellerive uttered in French. He was largely ignored and Cannon was peppered with questions on Afghanistan.
On Sunday, Cannon shifted the focus to Bellerive: “Obviously the government of Haiti will have a very large say in this … I think it’s going to be extremely important to get the input from President (Rene) Preval’s team as well as the Prime Minister, Bellerive.”
Cannon called the talks a “critical step on the road to recovery” that would lead to a larger donor’s conference in the near future, when actual dollars would be pledged.
Bellerive will help lead Montreal talks, where foreign ministers from more than a dozen countries, notably U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, eight international bodies, including banks, and six major non-governmental organizations will convene. Harper is expected to address the gathering.
Experts agree that keeping Haiti’s political leaders front and centre is the best way to ensure two key reconstruction goals are met: that international aid dollars aren’t squandered, and that Haitians can one day take control of their future after what has essentially been two centuries of rudderless despair.
“In the current crisis, we should be going out of our way to respect and work with its leaders,” said Fen Hampson, the director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
“The Haitian people also need to know that their own government is getting its own handle on the crisis and moving forward. The country’s political stability will ultimately rest on Haiti’s government’s ability to deal with this crisis – not simply on what we and other donors do.”
Haiti’s legislative branch was in session when the quake struck, smashing the National Assembly building. The government was forced to relocate to a local police academy.
David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and a Haiti author, said Haitians prize their sovereignty even though it has been elusive during their long history of violence and political dysfunction.
“No matter how energetic our humanitarian and reconstruction efforts of the past or the present, ultimately Haitians, led by their own political community, need to come together to meet the serious challenges the country constantly faces.”
That means supporting President Rene Preval, “a man of integrity with sound policy instincts, and the energetic Prime Minister, Mr. Bellerive,” Malone said.
Robert Fox, executive director Oxfam Canada, said that Bellerive needs to return to Port-au-Prince after Monday’s talks with “ownership and leadership” of the international rebuilding strategy for his country.
“It needs to be clear that he is the representative of Haiti and that they should be in the driver’s seat in the process.”
Haiti is the second-largest recipient of Canadian aid spending, after Afghanistan, with $555 million earmarked over five years to 2011, and many expect that number to rise once the international roadmap for Haiti emerges after Monday’s opening round of talks. Canada earmarked $1.9 billion to Afghanistan for 2001-2011.
Fox said it is not farfetched for Canada to consider committing “serious bucks” to make Haiti its top aid recipient.
“The Canadian government has said it wants to provide more of a priority to the Americas. There’s no question which country of the Americas desperately deserves our greatest attention.”
Because of the large Haitian Diaspora in Canada, mainly in Montreal, the Harper government was keen to show international leadership. But senior Canadian officials are extremely sensitive to the accountability of the Haitian government – one more reason to begin strengthening its hand so that money isn’t squandered or stolen.
Senior government officials said Sunday that representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank will be “in the room, at the table” during Monday’s talks in an advisory capacity.
The Canadian death toll in Haiti has risen to 20 and is expected to rise, Cannon said in Ottawa on Sunday. Another 207 Canadians remain unaccounted for. “Our focus is now on the repatriation of the remains of Canadian victims of the earthquake,” said the minister.
Cannon also said he wanted to strengthen Haiti’s accountability and its political power at the Montreal conference.
“We must and we need to arrive at a common understanding and commitment on certain basic principles of responsibility, accountability and long-term engagement,” Cannon said.
There won’t be any money pledged at Monday’s talks, Cannon said, so that means it is “premature” to specifically address calls for Haiti’s debt to be forgiven.
The government said Sunday that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced in July that Canada intended to forgive the $2.3 million owed by Haiti through its Canadian Debt Initiative and that the process was completed in September. Haiti’s overall debt totalled US$1.8 billion, according to September 2008 figures from the International Monetary Fund.
Cannon said he is committed to the development principle called “build back better,” which means building a stronger infrastructure, tougher roads and buildings, to withstand Haiti’s geographical and climate challenges – being close to earthquake faults and in the path of hurricanes.