Chattanooga Times Free Press: Corker returns to Haiti, hopes to increase trade

Oct 30, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The Haiti that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., visited 25 years ago was a poverty-stricken country, torn by gang violence and widespread corruption.

The poverty remains, but Sen. Corker, who returned Sunday from a weekend trip there, said the political situation is much improved, leading to more hope for the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

"It was tremendously moving to me to be able to be in Haiti in the capacity that I was," Sen. Corker said. "It is a place where, now, with some degree of stability, we need to continue to enhance our efforts there (and) to make sure we understand the issues there are complex and deep-rooted."

Sen. Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, visited Haiti as part of a delegation that included Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

While there, the senators met with Haitian government officials, including President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.

They also toured various sites, including an AIDS clinic, inner-city slums, an apparel factory, a school and storm-ravaged areas, to see humanitarian, economic and environmental preservation initiatives.

"I believe there is a real window of opportunity to build a new future for this long-neglected country," Sen. Bingaman said. "Under President Preval, political violence has subsided and efforts at national reconciliation are gaining momentum. Over the coming months, Senators Corker and Harkin and I we will be looking for opportunities to help Haiti build its infrastructure and improve living standards."

Peter Wright, a doctor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, accompanied the senators on their tour of the AIDS clinic and said much work remains to be done in eradicating the disease, as well as the poverty, in Haiti. The country has the highest rate of HIV outside Subsaharan Africa, he said.

"People are doing amazing things, and those of us attached to and fascinated by this country remain optimistic about what might be done," Dr. Wright, who has worked on the island since 1974, said in an e-mail. "Hopefully, Senator Corker captured a bit of that during his visit and can become an advocate for this country."

This was Sen. Corker's first trip back to Haiti since a church mission trip 25 years ago, when he accompanied his First-Centenary United Methodist Church to help build a schoolhouse.

He has said his experience inspired his founding in 1986 of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit, public-private partnership that helps revitalize neighborhoods and place low-income residents in affordable housing. He also credits the mission with pushing him into public service.

"It meant so much just to be there, offering help and seeing the effect it had on them and on us," Sen. Corker said.

Like Sen. Bingaman, Sen. Corker praised President Preval.

"For the first time in many, many years, it appears we have a government there that is stable and committed to democracy and has been willing to take on very directly many of the challenges that Haiti faces," Sen. Corker said. "There are some things that I specifically want to begin talking to my colleagues about to open trade with Haiti even more."

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