Corker returns to Haiti

Tuesday, October 30, 2007
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker greets children in the streets of Cité Soleil, Haiti. (Submitted photo)

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker credits a church mission trip to Haiti a quarter of a century ago with leading him towards public service, and so he says his return trip there last week was not only informative but meaningful.

Corker, a Republican and former mayor of Chattanooga, was involved in the real estate and construction businesses before entering politics. He went on a mission trip with First Centenary Methodist to Haiti, generally acknowledged to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, to build an addition to a church. He said he was deeply moved by the poverty he saw there in the early 1980s.

"This trip really affected me in a deep way," he recalled from his office in Chattanooga during a conference call Monday with Tennessee reporters. The demands of business prevented him from going on more international trips, but in an effort to give something back he began working with inner-city housing projects in Chattanooga, helping to create the non-profit Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise. Eventually, then-Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him to a state task force on housing, and that led to his involvement in politics, as Tennessee Commissioner of Finance and Administration and then later as mayor of Chattanooga.

His return to Haiti last week was as part of a fact-finding mission with two other senators. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.Mex., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Bingaman chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Harkin chairs the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. Corker himself is ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Bingaman.

Corker said that Haiti has its first stable, democratic government in years, one that is ready to face the island's many problems. But those problems are severe and long-term, and will not go away overnight.

"I doubt you've seen poverty like exists in Port-au-Prince," said Corker. The typical family lives on the equivalent of $400 U.S. dollars a year, in what Corker calls "extreme, extreme poverty."

"The people will become very restless if ... economic gains do not occur," said Corker.

The delegation saw an AIDS clinic in Port-au-Prince, where Dr. Peter Wright of Vanderbilt has worked with ways to keep babies from developing the disease carried by their mothers.

Corker praised the work of MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) Force Commander Major General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz. He said Santos, a Brazilian, is doing "a tremendous job" in reducing violence and the influence of gangs. He said Haiti and Brazil have cultural similarities including a love of football -- the game we Americans call soccer.

They toured an apparel factory which is a subcontractor for Hanes.

Infrastructure is severely lacking. The power system rarely produces power for more than eight hours a day -- not consecutive, but intermittent -- and most factories have to have their own generators in order to operate for any amount of time. Severe deforestation and land management issues have worsened the problem of flash flooding.

Although education is clearly a key to long-term solutions, Corker said a more urgent short-term need is investment. He said the U.S. needs to open up trade with Haiti even more and partner even more closely now, while there is a cooperative government in place.

"There are many, many needs in Haiti and the difficulties are complex and deeply rooted, but I think where we have to focus is on stimulating economic growth," said Corker in a news release. "That's what can most immediately impact their standard of living and ensure that Haiti continues to have a democratically elected, stable government."