Over their many decades of involvement there, the Clintons became two of the leading proponents of a particular approach to improving Haiti’s fortunes, one that relies on making the country an attractive place for multinational companies to do business. They have done this by combining foreign aid with diplomacy, attracting foreign financing to build factories, roads and other infrastructure that, in many cases, Haitian taxpayers must repay. Hillary has called this “economic statecraft”; others have called it a “neoliberal” approach to aid.
The most significant test of this approach in Haiti began on 12 January 2010, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. In a nation of 10 million people, 1.6 million were displaced by the disaster, and as many as 316,000 are estimated to have died. The earthquake also dealt a huge blow to Haiti’s economic development, levelling homes and businesses in the most populous area of the country and destroying crucial infrastructure, including the nation’s biggest port.
Within days of the earthquake, the Clintons stepped up to lead the global response. Bill was selected to co-chair the commission tasked with directing relief spending. As US secretary of state, Hillary helped to oversee $4.4bn that Congress had earmarked for recovery efforts by the US Agency for International Development, or USAid. “At every stage of Haiti’s reconstruction – fundraising, oversight and allocation – a Clinton was now involved,” Jonathan Katz, a journalist who has covered Haiti for more than a decade, wrote in 2015.
There was no greater embodiment of the neoliberal approach to aid in Haiti than the US’s largest post-earthquake project – a $300m, 600-acre industrial park called Caracol, on the country’s northern coast. To make the park more attractive, the US also agreed to finance a power plant, and a new port through which firms operating at Caracol could ship in materials such as cotton, and ship out finished products including T-shirts and jeans.
The Clintons and their allies believed the Caracol project would attract international manufacturers, which they saw as the primary fix to Haiti’s faltering economy. “Haiti has failed, failed and failed again,” wrote the British economist Paul Collier and his colleague Jean-Louis Warnholz, who have both advised the Clintons, in the Financial Times two weeks after the earthquake. By building “critical assets such as ports”, they argued, the US and its allies could help Haiti attract private, foreign investment and create the stable jobs it needed to prosper.
Ten years later, the industrial park is widely considered to have failed to deliver the economic transformation the Clintons promised. But less attention has been paid to the fate of the port. Last year, after sinking tens of millions of dollars into the port project, the US quietly abandoned it. The port is now one of the final failures in an American post-earthquake plan for Haiti that has been characterised by disappointment throughout. It is also the latest in a long line of supposed solutions to Haiti’s woes that have done little – or worse – to serve the country’s interests. “The neoliberal, exploitative economic model currently being imposed” on Haiti “has failed many times before,” Antony Loewenstein, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, has written. The result, he adds, is that many Haitians are living “in a state of despair and daily desperation”.