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Inside Politics

The lobbying war for Haiti

By Tim Padgett and Kathie Klarreich

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Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. But with the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it is becoming clear how much money both he and his chief foe, the Bush Administration, spent not on alleviating that poverty but on politicking against each other.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Last year alone, they collectively spent more than $2 million -- equivalent to almost 1% of Haiti's federal budget --on such efforts. The total funneled into these causes since the late-1990s exceeds $10 million. "It seems a selfish waste for both sides to focus their money in this way," says Robert Maguire, Haiti expert at Trinity College in Washington.

Before Aristide left Haiti last month, his government spent more than $1 million a year on an army of U.S. lawyers and lobbyists. (Nations of similar population and economic means, like Cambodia, typically spend less than a tenth as much on Beltway lobbyists.) Many of the recipients of Aristide's funds, like former California Congressman Ron Dellums, have close ties to the black congressional caucus, which has accused Bush of engineering a "coup" against Aristide.

The ousted President's supporters say the largesse was necessary: the Clinton and Bush Administrations withheld $500 million in aid for Haiti as retribution for the autocratic practices of Aristide and his left-leaning Lavalas Party, making lobbying more essential. In the end, says Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, U.S. general counsel for Aristide's government, "we collected more money [for Haiti] than [Aristide] paid us."

The Bush Administration, for its part, disbursed more than $1 million last year to groups like the International Republican Institute (I.R.I.), ostensibly to promote democracy in Haiti.

Critics say that was simply aid to Aristide's opponents. Spokesman Thayer Scott concedes that the I.R.I.'s work "had a political party-building component" but insists that "it created positive democratic space." If Washington really hopes to rebuild Haiti, Maguire points out, the space it should first focus on is the country's squalid streets.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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