Background Briefing: Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Haiti

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
October 5, 2015


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, I’m not sure you guys, any of you, are that familiar with Haiti, but I’ve been working on Haiti for – on and off for the past 27 years. You’re coming to a place that is – I honestly see a lot of progress here, a lot of progress on many levels in terms of reconstruction. The whole town is being rebuilt, still rough around the edges, but – and there’s still a lot of work to be done, and we’re committed to doing that. But things are probably as good here as they’ve been for a long time.

These elections are important, though, because there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, and we need a partner across the table from us in terms of a fully elected, legitimate parliament and an elected president when Martelly’s term is up. He’ll be replaced in February of this year. So we continue doing that work both for the Haitian people and for the American taxpayers, who’s kicked in a lot of money since the earthquake – about $4 billion both in immediate aid and reconstruction assistance.

So I think the Secretary is coming to show that we continue, we want to continue to partner with the Haitian people, we still are interested and still support them, and to emphasize how important these elections are and to emphasize to all the actors here – number one, the Haitian people – that they need to get out and vote. Number two, to the political actors here in Haiti, that this is a moment for them to take seriously and encourage their partisans to support but in a nonviolent and organized way. And, I guess, three, to the other members of the international community, that we are – we and several other important allies of Haiti are committed to Haiti’s success in the long term.

I don't know, (inaudible). Maybe you each have some questions if you’d like to ask, I don't know.

QUESTION: Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah, [Senior State Department Official], Dave Clark from AFP. Does the sheer number of candidates pose a problem for the elections coming up? I don't know how as a Haitian I’d be able to make my mind up because scores of potential presidents.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It doesn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure. I mean, I think the last election, we maxed out, I think, at 17 candidates. In this election, I believe there are 53. It certainly doesn’t make it easier, but I think it shows you that there’s a great deal of interest here in the process amongst the Haitian people, and people have gotten used to the idea of voting here. And they do vote, and so I think it’s important for people and they’re like – they want to have a say in who leads their country.

QUESTION: This is Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. What do you think this vote is about? Is this about continuing reform and reconstruction, about corruption? Is it about the future of the international community, the UN specifically, in Haiti? What would you say this is about?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I actually don’t think it’s about any of those things. I think it’s about the future. I think when this current president and – who came into office back five years ago, Haiti was – had begun to see a turnaround after the earthquake, reconstruction had just begun. Haiti has seen a good deal compared to what they’ve seen over the previous 30 years, a good deal of inward investment. This has created jobs not only in the manufacturing sector, but in the agriculture sector. And I think for the average Haitian person, what they are most interested in is someone who they believe is going to help get this country moving even faster uphill than it has. And I think for most people, that’s what it’s about. I don’t think they focus on the international community, I don’t think they even – for many of these folks, I don’t think they really focus so much on the earthquake anymore. I think they’re mostly focused on the future and who is going to be best for them.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Brad Klapper from AP. How concerned are you about the democratic process given the Haitians have struggled in just about every election they’ve ever had to do it truly --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- fairly and freely? And we have Jacky Lumarque, who was booted out of the election. Does that already taint this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: At the end of the day, I think it’s important for us to remember that this is a Haitian election and they run it, they are in charge of it. We help them in this process in terms of providing things like – covering things like logistics and providing them some technical expertise where it’s needed. But this is their project.

Jacky Lumarque is not the only candidate that was excluded. There are several others. Some of them claim to have a – claim that they have very compelling reasons why they should be included. I think that one of the reasons the Secretary is coming is, again, to reinforce this message that we support the democratic process, we won’t – excuse me, we want to see – as partners with Haiti, we want to see somebody who is elected that is reflected not just in the presidency but also in the parliament, people who reflect to the greatest extent possible under these circumstances the will of the Haitian people. And that’s why I think he’s coming. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we support this process. But at the end of the day, it is a Haitian process.

QUESTION: Right. But --

QUESTION: What’s President Martelly’s role in this process now? Is he – should he just get out of the way, or does he have to oversee it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, he has a role in heading the executive branch of government here. His mechanical or real responsibility, if you will, is to ensure that the Haitian police and other law enforcement officials have the wherewithal necessary to make people feel safe to go out and vote on election day. There were some problems on August 9th due to some disorganization for a variety of reasons, largely because of the fact there were so many representatives of so many political parties in some of these polling stations that were quite small that intimidated people.

One message that Martelly has heard from us and every executive branch principal has heard from us is that on the security side we would encourage them and we really hope to see them step it up to make sure that this kind of disorganization doesn’t keep people away from the polls on October 25th. But our message also is to the electoral council, which is the effective independent government body which organizes the elections, they need to get out with their voter education campaign, give their instructions to the polling workers and so forth to make sure that they do their part to make sure that we don’t see the kind of disorder we saw on August 9th. So there are two messages there. Martelly’s role is, strictly speaking, to ensure that there is an environment in which people can go and cast their ballots.

QUESTION: So when you say it’s going to be – this is a Haitian-run process, does that mean you’re willing to accept and bless the result no matter how messy, undemocratic, or inconsistent it is with democratic norms?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, there are a lot of observers here on the ground from the OAS, from the European Union, IFES, NDI, you name it. So there are a lot of folks here on the ground to observe this. And I think, first of all, we’re going to be doing our own analysis when we look at this as to – and comparing notes with all our international partners as to what we’ve all seen. I don’t – it’s certainly not safe to say that we are going to accept any result. We would like to see a result -- and are telling everybody we’re expecting to see an election that produces votes that the Haitian – that produces results that the Haitian people can feel confident in. But we will be doing our own analysis of how that works once the election is over and the counting has begun.

QUESTION: And given that the U.S. has incredible leverage in Haiti as its overwhelmingly biggest investor and aid provider, how are – what are you telling the Haitian authorities? Are you warning them about the risks if this doesn’t go as democratically as you hope?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think what we’re telling them is that for the first time in many, many years Haiti has been on an upward trajectory. Obviously, we would like to have seen it on a faster upward trajectory, but it’s been an upward trajectory nevertheless. That’s important to keep that momentum.

We have a process here that if it doesn’t pan out well, if we have elections that either are marked by violence or are somehow manipulated, that puts all that at risk. That’s a huge risk for the Haitian people, and I think Haitians are smart enough to know that they don’t want that. So part of what we’re doing is making sure that the Haitians know that we are standing with them, and hopefully that some of the spoilers in this won’t ruin an event which is key to continuing to make progress here in Haiti. And I think we – everybody is hearing from us that this is a key moment; you need to really focus and really do your very best for your own fellow citizens and for your international partners who want to work with you to make this country succeed.

QUESTION: I have one more and then I’ll cede.

QUESTION: How confident are you that it’ll go ahead on the day as planned on October the 25th? Obviously, lots of elections have been delayed in Haiti over the past three years, and the senate ones weren’t very conclusive even when they did take place.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I’m reasonably confident, I’m quite confident they will take place on October 28th, but I’ve been around long enough to know, as you say, that there have been delays and such before. But I think we have been, again, talking to all parties who are part of this, whether it’s the CBP, whether it’s the executive branch, whether it’s the political parties that support Martelly, whether it’s political parties that are opposing Martelly and his groups, encouraging them to all – to participate in this process, to work towards making it happen on time, on schedule, so that Haiti has people who are leading the country in a direction where its people want to go and that we, the international community, have interlocutors across the table from us who we have confidence in, and who we can actually work with and help this place make progress and continue the momentum that it’s shown over the past five years.

That’s really it in a nutshell. We’ve been telling everybody the same message: This is election time. Take it seriously, make it happen, and go out and participate.

QUESTION: After four years of Martelly, do you think the next leader should continue along the path he has plowed, or do you need a break and kind of new policy set?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, obviously, that’s for the Haitian people to choose what direction they want their country to go in. But I think there are some chronic, they – you who follow Haiti a little, there are some chronic problems which have existed here for many, many years. One of them, I would say, is lack of economic development and a lack of economic opportunity. One of the things that has happened over the past few years is that there has been an increase in investment in Haiti. That has created some opportunities; that has created some economic growth here. I think what Haiti needs is to develop significantly more of that so that more people feel that they have a stake in their society.

There are obviously other challenges as well and that we continue to work and hope to continue to be working. There’s – there are problems in the health realm, for example. HIV is – HIV rates have come down a huge amount over the past 15 years, and we want to continue to work to help them stay there. Combating cholera is going to remain important; just the general health issues here, the health challenges that people face with lack of clean water and so forth – these kind of things remain important, remain stuff – remain things that we want to remain engaged in.

Providing a climate where rule of law – where people feel reasonably secure in their own country – that’s important. We’ve – the United States has been instrumental in helping create a Haitian and train a Haitian police force that is civilian, that respects human rights, that is – has a gender mix where you have men and women police agents, police officers. This – Haiti has now the best police force that it has ever had in its history: 12,000 men and women, civilians, all of whom have been trained, all of whom have been instructed in human rights or how not to abuse human rights. These are the kind of things that we want to remain engaged in, and hopefully the Haitian people will appreciate that – what has happened here over the past several years and that they will want us to remain engaged on.

But obviously, in terms of where they want the country to go, that is the choice of the Haitian people at the end of the day.

QUESTION: But you don’t feel that under Martelly, that these were lost years for Haiti?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t. Again, I come at this with a 27-year perspective. And would we have liked to have seen a lot more progress here? Yes, we would, but I think it’s important to realize that other areas that have been struck by natural disasters take longer than five years to get over them. And let’s not forget, before the earthquake, Haiti was in a very difficult position as well, and it was just starting to see some improvements back there in 2009, and then in January 2010 the earthquake hit, which had set Haiti back a long way.

But they’ve done, I think, a good job, considering the challenges that they faced before the earthquake in terms of infrastructure, lack of equipment here in country to do the rebuilding, and so forth. I think they’ve done a good job, and I think, again, it’s not just in terms of reconstructing roads and buildings; it’s in terms of building institutions like a police force, like a health ministry, that can address a pretty high percentage of the population’s need.

You’ve actually seen poverty rates – absolute poverty rates – fall here in Haiti. The numbers are still not where we would like them to be, but they’ve gone down, I believe, from the mid-30s down to the mid-20s in the past five years. These are not bad things. These are good things, and it’s this kind of momentum which we would like to see continue and ideally accelerate moving forward.

MODERATOR: Okay. You guys good?

QUESTION: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Thanks very much, [Senior State Department Official].

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. We appreciate your time. We’ll see you tomorrow.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: My pleasure. We’ll see you tomorrow.