By: Jonathan M. Katz
ABOVE PHOTO: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, second left, shakes hands with UN and NGO workers during a visit to the United Nations base in Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, April 13, 2010. Obama is on a one-day visit to Haiti.
(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — First lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit last Tuesday to the ruins of the Haitian capital, a high-profile reminder that hundreds of thousands remain in desperate straits three months after the earthquake.
The first lady and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, took a helicopter tour of Port-au-Prince, where many people are still homeless, before landing at the destroyed national palace to meet President Rene Preval. They later talked with students whose lives have been upended by the disaster and walked along a vast, squalid encampment of families living under bed sheets and tents.
“It’s powerful,” Obama told reporters. “The devastation is definitely powerful.”
A number of past and present world leaders have visited since the earthquake, including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But few have the star power here of the American first lady, whose husband is widely popular in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.
“It was important for Jill and I to come now because we’re at the point where the relief efforts are under way, but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit,” she said. “As we enter the rainy season and the hurricane season…the issues are just going to become more compounded.”
The U.S. government historically has had a troubled relationship with Haiti, occupying the country for nearly two decades early in the 20th century and later backing brutal dictators, but many Haitians are grateful for the aid and security that the U.S. has provided since the earthquake.
The U.S. has provided nearly $1 billion in humanitarian aid and pledged more than $1 billion in additional aid to the impoverished country.
Obama and Biden’s visit is intended to underscore U.S. commitment to the Haitian reconstruction effort and to thank American officials who have worked in the country for the past three months, the administration said in a statement.
It is Obama’s first solo trip as first lady, and she flew on to Mexico City on last Tuesday night for a two-day visit. Haiti was included when the trip was planned a month ago but not announced for security reasons.
The first lady praised U.N. peacekeepers and the Haitian people for their strength and resiliency during the quake and its aftermath. Building part of her speech around a Haitian proverb, “little by little the bird makes its nest,” she assured the audience that the U.S. will stand with them during reconstruction.
“Little by little Haiti will move forward,” she said in a speech to U.N. peacekeepers and workers for humanitarian groups gathered at the U.N. base. “Little by little we’re going to keep making tomorrow better than today.”
Obama smiled and waved her way through the wrecked center of Haiti’s capital.
After greeting Preval with a kiss at the crushed national palace, she set off with Biden and Haiti’s first lady, Elisabeth Debrosse Preval to a post-quake child care center where 450 boys and girls are participating in art therapy classes in converted city buses donated from Santo Domingo.
Obama jumped, danced and clapped with the singing children. Then the delegation entered one of the green buses for a painting session. Biden made a blue house, Preval a green and yellow sun. Obama painted a purple fish in the ocean.
“It was a request, the kids asked me to,” she said. The children’s paintings were harder to read, a mix of letters and symbols. Asked what they represented, Obama said “their lives.”
People were eager for a glimpse of the first ladies at the huge Champ de Mars camp and hopeful that they would be seen as well.
“Make sure you ….. get a good look at us!” a man living in the camp yelled at a passing press bus.
Obama said she felt that Haitians deeply appreciated the outpouring of help from the international community, but some Haitians felt more could be done.
Frenel Pierre, who was living in a tent pitched on the grounds of a collapsed school with her husband and six children, said they needed more food and water.
“I hope this visit will bring us help, because they’ve brought us practically nothing,” she said.