Face to Face: A Conversation with Kendrick Meek

The Miami congressman talks about Haiti, America's foreign policy toward the island nation and the chance of holding elections there in 2005.

Q. What is the national interest in Haiti? Why should we be so concerned about Haiti, given the many other global concerns?

A. Not only that we have a substantial Haitian-American population, but we've also witnessed horror at sea and also we've witnessed a mishandling of Haitian refugees who are seeking political asylum, here and in Haiti. Those are unfair practices that have violated not only international law but also violated just, fair treatment. In South Florida, we've experienced it more than any other place in the United States as it relates to the "wet foot, dry foot" policy as it pertains to Cuban refugees vs. incarceration for Haitians. I call it incarceration; they call it detainment.

Q. Your district has a large number of Haitian-Americans. Are they as divided as the population in Haiti appears to be?

A. The overriding position of all Haitians is to make sure that their sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers are not being mistreated and that they receive the kind of attention they need to survive in Haiti. As it relates to the political question, there are individuals on both sides of the issue. One, there are a lot of Haitians that are upset with the departure of President Aristide and how it happened. And there is another side that is happy that President Aristide has now left.

I personally have tried to provide the kind of leadership to make sure their family members do not suffer or perish at sea during this time of Haiti having an interim government to get us back to elected, democratic government in Haiti. There is a lot of work that should be done and needs to be done.

Q. From what you can tell now, three months later, was this a coup?

A. Well, I can tell you this. There are two things that would say that it's a coup. One, you could say that because the rebels were allowed to take city after city after city and eventually put pressure on Port-au-Prince, and the U.S. stood idly by and did not provide any assistance whatsoever in trying to stop these rebels that were armed. And, two, as it relates to what took place on that Saturday night. There are different accounts. You have President Aristide saying one thing. You have U.S. officials saying another. That needs further insight.

I think the [United Nations] should put forth some sort of special investigation council on what took place in Haiti as it relates to democracy because it's important. Not only for the future of Haiti, but also for the future of a democracy that the U.S. involves itself in. It's a question mark that's left open.

But it is what it is, right now. We have to work our way through it to get back to democracy. Hopefully, the departure of a duly elected president doesn't happen that way again.

Q. You say "It is what it is," but the Congressional Black Caucus won't recognize the interim government. What obstacles does that present?

A. Let's put it this way. There are members of the Congressional Black Caucus who don't recognize it. There's a letter to that effect, rather. I did not sign that letter. The government is in place and is internationally recognized. It's not recognized by [the Caribbean Community] at this particular time On behalf of 8.1 million Haitians that are now in Haiti, it's important that we work with this interim government to provide the safety that's needed to put forth elections in 2005.

Q. How realistic is it that there will be elections in 2005?

A. It's as realistic as the U.S. involvement in Haiti. If this administration does not put the pedal to the metal not only in its financial involvement but diplomatic involvement, working with the U.N., then we won't have elections in 2005. And then Haiti will be ruled by whoever has the most guns.

The U.N. resolution that was recently passed approving several thousands of police and also troops and diplomatic corps that will work toward elections in Haiti was very, very good. But the U.S., unlike any of the 190 other member countries that are there, has a vested interest in this.

Either they're going to make it as close to an ideal situation for Haitians to stay in Haiti, and that's providing a level of safety, also assistance to meet infrastructure needs such as electricity and water and roads. Or, have our Coast Guard tied up looking for Haitian refugees and going on rescue missions of boats that have tipped over at sea. I'd say the latter is more expensive and counterproductive.

Q. You mentioned safety. A pressing priority here is disarming Haitians and the rebels. What's the plan for this, or is there a plan for this?

A. I don't think there is a real plan to get it done. I think that it's a plan in limbo right now.

What did not work in the early 1990s was the cash-for-guns program. Over $1 million was spent and it built another industry in Haiti -- individuals getting guns from the [Dominican Republic] and then selling the guns to the U.S. military, thinking that they were taking guns off the streets but they were just providing dollars to purchase more guns to sell to us.

I don't know how it can be done, but it should be done. I think time will tell. Many of these individuals see an unstable, interim government. A "gunless" government. A government that is really operated by two individuals

Q. Port security in Port-au-Prince is a pressing need in terms of security and the economy. What's needed to get the port up to standards?

A. Securing the port. Getting a non-corrupt police presence there. Making sure that the integrity of the bonded areas within the port is improved. Also, dollars to make sure they have the dredging for channels, to make sure their channels are deepwater channels for commerce. They would also have to work on their port fees, which are quadruple the amount of fees that other ports charge there in the Caribbean. They have one of the highest fees to port, $50,000, there in Port-au-Prince vs. maybe $5,000 to $7,000 at the Port of Miami.

Q. The key to the safety and security issue is the Haitian police force. What's the plan for putting back together a police force?

A. Well, you have quite a few individuals that have been trained over the years, in the early 1990s, and even before that, as it pertains to Haitian police. The police are going to have to have more than what they have had before. Having an army is out of the question. But [the police were] overthrown by the rebel force in many areas

Q. So what will put them back together?

A. Stability as it relates to pay. Stability in the area of job security is important. And making sure that we get true professionals involved in the Haitian national police. You had a level of corruption that was there, and is evident and documentedbased on the fact that many of the individuals, even within the presidential police, had relationships with known drug dealers and gang members

Q. Prime Minister Gerard Latortue alarmed some people recently when he called some of the rebels freedom fighters. How concerned are you by that statement?

A. I'm very concerned about that. I personally mentioned to the prime minister that that was not good. He was saying that it was interpreted the wrong way, in terms of what he said in Creole and how it came out in English. I told him that it was unacceptable. These are individuals that carried out heinous crimes. Calling them freedom fighters is counterproductive for ushering in elected democracy. And it will hurt international and U.S. aid efforts.

Q. Haiti has a difficult road ahead in terms of economic development. What are the first steps?

A. First step is making sure that we pass the [Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity Act granting Haitian-made apparel duty-free access to the United States under certain conditions] which will provide fair and balanced benefits to Haiti. It will assist Haitians in creating jobs. There are U.S. companies over there now that are providing work for Haitians. It may not be at the pay rate that we would like to see here in the U.S., but as it pertains to Haitian wages, those are very good jobs. I think that would water down the influence of drug dealers and undesirables that are there trying to recruit young men and women to take part in thuggery.

Q. There was $9 million promised in U.S. assistance to Haiti. Why is that money not there, and how would it help if it were?

A. That would be a good question for the State Department. It's a mystery to me. That's $9 million that was already committed to Haiti and was frozen when the Bush administration moved in.

Q. How would that money help?

A. It would help the interim government. It would assist them in paying bills that they have to pay to operate the government, including jobs that they've reorganized and filled; meeting payroll is very, very important. Also, being able to put in motion plans that they would like to carry out for early elections in 2005. One thing the prime minister did mention is that the Aristide government provided uniforms for schoolchildren. It also made sure that they paid their tuition. As you know, 97 percent of the schools in Haiti are private. It would also, I believe, help Haiti fix its infrastructure in providing power for Port-au-Prince. The assessment that was done by the military that is there and by the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] is a little bit under $2 million to repair Port-au-Prince's electric grid.

Q. How vital is it that Caricom recognize this interim government?

A. Caricom's support is going to be helpful to Haiti in the Americas, of being able to help Haiti get to elections. I believe the rubber can meet the road and there can be an agreement between the interim government and Caricom as long as they stick to that agreement and elections taking place and having an environment for the elections to take place. That would do nothing but help Haiti get back to a democratic government.

Q. You mentioned the importance of commitments earlier. How comfortable are you with the international commitment to Haiti right now?

A. On paper, I'm very comfortable. Off paper, I'm not. Actions speak louder than words. When I see resources on the ground I think I'll feel a lot better. The Haitian people are used to broken promises. I believe U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is very committed to seeing the right things happen in Haiti. But with all the other things going on in the world, Iraq and the Middle East, and the focus on security, security at U.N. installations throughout the world, may very well thwart Haiti's needs. I'm hoping that's not the case.

Q. Looking into the crystal ball, in May 2005 has Haiti turned the corner or are we still going to be confronted by the same problems we are now?

A. I hope that a year from now we will see a better picture than what we see now. The U.N. has committed to a long-term presence in Haiti. There will have to be various issues resolved at the World Bank, the [Interamerican Development Bank] has some flexibility of what they can do in Haiti. Haiti is always in the red. Hopefully it will be able to turn around with the Hero Act and with U.S. involvement with appropriations, with agricultural assistance and training. Not necessarily just giving Haiti fish, but giving them the tools to fish, because they already know how to fish.

I personally want to involve myself, and the history of the 17th Congressional District in making sure we play the role of middle person in trying to get resources to Haiti We're looking at starting a Haiti working group between Democrats and Republicans in both chambers [of Congress] to make sure that Haiti continues to get the attention it calls for.

I think a year from now we'll see a different picture of accomplishments. I hope and I pray the prime minister is able to follow through on some of the things he has discussed. I will continue to keep an eye on Haiti, not only trying to assist them in the Congress, but also trying to advise the prime minister as much as possible. The goal is to not see what has happened historically, U.S. assistance cut-off and international assistance cut-off.

BACKGROUND

Kendrick Meek is the first-term congressman from Florida's 17th District, which covers southern Broward and northern Miami-Dade counties. He was elected in 2002 to fill the seat vacated by his mother, Carrie.

Before moving to Capitol Hill, Meek served in the Legislature, where he led opposition to eliminating Florida's affirmative action policies. In the 2002 election, he championed the successful passage of a state constitutional amendment to reduce school classroom sizes. Meek serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Publication Date: Edition: Broward Metro

Section: EDITORIAL Page: 5H

Memo: Informational box at end of text.

Publication: SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

Illustration: PHOTO Caption: U.S. Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, during an Editorial Board meeting at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Staff Photo/Tanga M. Williams Keywords: INTERVIEW Q&A KENDRICK MEEK PROFILE

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