PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti’s president on Tuesday condemned “arrogant” U.S. criticism of corruption in his government, and said the Haitian presidency should have final veto power over donor-funded reconstruction projects following January’s catastrophic earthquake.
President Rene Preval’s anger was directed at a U.S. State Department Human Rights report on Haiti for 2009, released last week, which said “corruption remained widespread in all branches and at all levels of government”.
His reaction threatened to sour Haiti’s ties with its main relief partner as the Caribbean state’s government and foreign donors drafted a plan for the country’s recovery and long-term reconstruction following the devastating Jan. 12 quake.
Preval told Reuters in an interview the U.S. government report alleging serious corruption was “arrogant”. “There is nothing to reject or accept. It is an arbitrary judgment to which we won’t respond,” he said in an interview in a temporary office behind the quake-damaged presidential palace.
The report, part of a batch issued annually by the State Department for countries around the world, was prepared before the Jan. 12 quake that shattered many parts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns, wiping out at least half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Preval said government employees had counted 217,000 dead but the final death toll was probably more than 300,000.
The Haitian president, a 67-year-old agronomist who took office in 2006, said the U.S. State Department practice of judging human rights in other states “hurt” the United States’ partners, and he hoped President Barack Obama would end it.
Last week, in a visit to Washington, Preval personally thanked Obama for U.S. assistance to Haiti following the earthquake, described by some experts as the deadliest natural disaster in modern times.
“Is there corruption in the United States? Yes. Is there corruption in Haiti? Yes. Is the U.S. government fighting corruption? Yes. Is the Haitian government fighting corruption? Yes,” said Preval, who has been praised by the international community for seeking economic reform and cleaner government.
On Obama’s instructions, the U.S. government and military became Haiti’s leading emergency relief provider in the weeks after the quake, playing a major role in bringing in aid supplies, maintaining security and dispensing medical help.
However, most analysts and development experts agree that corruption has been deeply entrenched in Haiti for decades, part of a stubborn cycle of economic underdevelopment and political instability that has kept the small Caribbean state the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The corruption issue has become acutely sensitive as foreign donors prepare to commit to a planned Haiti Reconstruction Fund that will help to repair quake damage estimated at up to $14 billion by some economists, and also to finance the country’s medium- and long-term development.
Preval said Haiti was proposing that the fund, to be finally agreed at a high-level meeting of donors in New York on March 31, would initially be jointly administered for 18 months by representatives of the donors and of the Haitian state, sitting in a governing board.
“This governing board will analyze the projects proposed by the Haitian government and there will be an executive council for the execution of the projects once they have been approved by the governing board, and finally by the president, who has right of veto,” he said.
After 18 months, the administration of the reconstruction fund would revert to the Haitian state alone, he said.
Besides the rebuilding fund, which Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez has said could consist of at least $10 billion, Preval said Haiti urgently needed donors to quickly deliver $350 million in direct budgetary support to help his government provide key services and pay salaries.
Donor commitments existed for $375 million in budget support, but most of this had not been disbursed, he said.
Preval said Haiti also needed $38 million to prepare for the hurricane season, starting on June 1, which aid workers fear could threaten hundreds of thousands of quake survivors camped out in the open in the capital and elsewhere.
Other requirements were $8 million to buy seeds and $68 million for fertilizers, to try to boost food output, he said.
Preval added that he hoped donors at the upcoming New York meeting would understand the importance of putting decentralization at the heart of reconstruction, by backing the building of roads and schools outside the crowded capital.
Port-au-Prince, which houses well over a third of Haiti’s nearly 10 million population, sits near a geological fault line and experts have warned of the risk of more earthquakes.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Anthony Boadle)