The Boston Globe Joseph P. Kennedy II Today’s inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide serves to remind us of how far Haitian democracy has come and how far the economy has to go in order to establish peace and prosperity in our hemisphere’s poorest nation. The average Haitian lives on less than $1 a day -- the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Malnutrition is three times the national average. More than 65 percent of Haitians cannot read or write. The same percentage survive on subsistence slash-and-burn farming that strips the landscape. The legacy of deforestation has left the mountainous countryside barren and the coastal waters muddy with topsoil runoff. Clean water and working sewage systems are largely inaccessible. In a country suffering from dangerous outbreaks of polio and drug-resistant tuberculosis, health care is a luxury. Housing in rural Haiti is crowded and inadequate. In the cardboard shacks and plastic villages of the urban slums, it’s downright dangerous. Americans have an interest in keeping Haitians in Haiti. Those who take to rafts to risk ocean crossings either die along the way or end up as refugees on our shores. The United States also has an interest in stemming the flow of drugs coming from South America by way of Haiti. Some critics call Aristide a threat. In my work with him over the past decade, I have found him to be an honorable man who looks out for the poor and the vulnerable. It is time to end a debate based on rumor and focus instead on Aristide’s commitment to use his new term of office to reform Haitian institutions, fix the worst aspects of the last elections, and reach out to the opposition. This commitment was made in a solemn agreement with the US government last December. Haiti agreed to implement a number of important political, judicial, and economic reforms, including: • Holding runoff elections to settle disputes over 10 Senate races. • Establishing an electoral council with opposition parties. • Increasing cooperation with the United States to fight drug-trafficking and money-laundering. • Strengthening the judicial system and protecting human rights. • Launching discussions with international financial institutions to craft strategies to achieve budgetary and economic reforms. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell should accept the pact signed by the Clinton administration. In addition, opposition leaders ought to work with and not obstruct the Artistide administration. A key factor in raising the standard of living for ordinary Haitians is private-sector investments in Haiti. In the last year, Fusion Telecommunications, whose board I serve on, assisted the Haitian national phone company, Teleco. I was proud to help bring more than $1 million in private investment form Fusion into Haiti. Of course, there are hurdles investing in developing countries, but these challenges should not translate into abandonment, political or economic. The alternative to abandonment is engagement. We can help Haiti overcome its brutal history and enter a new period of peace and prosperity. It will not happen overnight, but without the commitment of the private and public sectors, it will not happen at all. Ten years ago, the poor of Port-au-Prince whitewashed their city walls, emblazoned them with the insignia of President Aristide’s party, and cheered as their president-elect rode to his inauguration. The second Aristide government is poised to accept the world’s help to build a new Haiti. Turning our backs will simply create a new crisis. The Haitian people possess vast resources of spirit and ingenuity. Unleashing their economic potential will build a stronger nation, create new partnerships in the region, and redeem the promise of democracy so long denied to Haiti. Joseph P. Kennedy II is president and chairman of Citizens Energy Corp.
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