January 7, 2013

Haiti Prime Minister: Country is safe

Haitian government disputes reports from the U.S. and Canadian governments warning their citizens about travel to Haiti.

Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe is pushing back at suggestions that his nation is unsafe.

“We would like to reassure the tourists, the diaspora, people who want to visit....Haiti is one of the safest destinations that they could visit,” Lamothe said Monday at a press conference in Port-au-Prince, quoting U.N. crime statistics.

The latest figures from U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime show that in 2010 Haiti had a recorded murder rate of 6.9 for every 100,000 persons. The rate is close to one-quarter that of Jamaica and less than half of the neighboring Dominican Republic. Still, U.N. officials note that statistics are always subject to “under-reporting and under-recording.”

Lamothe’s declaration comes after the United States issued a strongly-worded travel warning and Canada modified its advisory. Last week, Canada further irked Haitian officials after new International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino was quoted in a Montreal newspaper as saying that future aid had been put “on ice” because Ottawa wasn’t satisfied with the pace of progress.

“We are not getting the results that Canadians have a right to expect,” said Fantino, who visited Haiti in November where he met with President Michel Martelly.

Lamothe did not address Fantino’s comments, but Haitian officials have said that all Canadian aid goes to non-governmental organizations, not the Haitian government. The warnings come as the country prepares to mark the third anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

A spokesperson for the Canadian International Development Agency, which Fantino heads, said previously committed projects remain unchanged. Still, Canada continues to be concerned “with the slow progress of development in Haiti due to its weak governing institutions and corruption.”

“Canada is reviewing long-term engagement strategy with Haiti to maximize Canadian taxpayer dollars to improve the results achieved and better address the needs and priorities of the Haitian people,” the spokesperson said.

Fantino’s statements have raised concerns about whether other donors would also follow suit.

“The U.S. government is NOT going to stop aid to Haiti and has no intention to slow down assistance,” an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development said in an email. The United States is the largest of Haiti’s donors.

But just days after Christmas, the U.S. government made its own headlines when it warned against travel to Haiti.

A U.S. State Department official told The Miami Herald that protecting U.S. citizens overseas is one of the U.S. government’s highest priorities and that travel warnings “do not reflect the nature of our bilateral relations with a country.”

The travel advisory warned that travelers arriving from the U.S. “were attacked and robbed shortly after departing the airport,” and at least two U.S. citizens were shot and killed in robbery and kidnapping incidents in 2012.

“U.S. citizens have been victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, predominantly in the Port-au-Prince area. No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age.”

On Jan. 2, Canada updated its Haiti travel advisory, saying Canadians “should exercise a high degree of caution due to high crime rates,” especially in certain slum neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. However, a spokeswoman for Canada’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Office said that “Canada has not revised its travel report to any significant degree.”

Haiti observers accuse the U.S. and Canada of sending mixed messages. In October, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, visited the country to inaugurate the Caracol Industrial Park that is touted as evidence of the international community’s commitment to rebuilding Haiti.

U.S. Ambassador Pamela White also has publicly lauded Haiti’s progress.

“Both Clintons went to Caracol and hailed the thing as the ‘New Haiti,’ ” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert and professor of political science at the University of Virginia. “The secretary of state says, ‘Go to Haiti,’ and they present it to us as the ‘Great breakthrough’ that will change the country and then two months after, you have a warning that you shouldn’t go to Haiti? If you tell tourists they shouldn’t go, why would businessmen go to Haiti?”

“I don’t understand what is the policy of the international community vis-a-vis Haiti,” said Fatton. “I don’t think they know what to do with the country. They are kind of reckless with Haiti.”

Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general for the Organization of American States, said “generally when we look at the whole hemisphere, the security situation in Haiti is far less than in other countries.

“We have to be careful that by taking certain action we are not becoming counterproductive to what we want to achieve,’’ he said. “Haiti needs tourists, Haiti needs investors and anything that can limit or become a deterrent is going to be a negative.”

Ramdin said members of the international community also need to reevaluate their own efforts to help Haiti, which also must do its part.

“I have found a lack of willingness on the part of the international community to coordinate better in Haiti because everybody wants to plant their flags. They want to be recognized,” Ramdin said. “Haiti’s government, despite its goodwill, has been distracted by domestic issues and also by natural disaster.”

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