Bill Clinton Digs In to Speed Haiti's Recovery

Ex-POTUS tours capital, describes recovery in exclusive "Nightline" interview.

Feb. 5, 2010 — -- The numbers in Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake are staggering: An estimated 3 million people displaced and as many as 140,000 dead. International pledges to answer the emergency have grown to more than $800 million.

Into the middle of it all has stepped former President Bill Clinton. The former president has served this past year as the United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti. This week, at the request of the secretary general of the United Nations, he took on a new role: coordinating all international quake assistance.

"Nightline" accompanied Clinton on his second visit to Haiti since the earthquake, as he met with Haitian leaders, visited Gheskio clinic in Port-au-Prince and delivered essential supplies. In a series of exclusive interviews, the former president discussed details of the recovery effort, the status of U.S. missionaries arrested on kidnapping charges earlier this week and more.

Our day started in a helicopter in the Dominican Republic. An hour-and-a-half later, we neared the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. The Hotel Montana, the site of both enormous destruction and stunning rescues, came into view. By now the devastation to the capital is evident everywhere.

We arrived at Port au Prince airport just in time to see the president's plane descend.

Even before Clinton disembarked, boxes of aid start to be offloaded. This was a working trip for Bill Clinton. The plane was packed with supplies, including 1,900 pounds of medical supplies, tents, protein bars, generators ... and 50 laptops earmarked for the Haitian government to get itself back and functioning.

The president stepped off the plane and made some quick hellos to local dignitaries. And then it was off to his first meeting of the day, with Haitian President Rene Preval.

The meeting was held at the police headquarters -- or what's left of it. It now serves as the seat of government. There was a protest outside, local telecom workers calling for the arrest of Preval. The mood grew tense, until the crowd was dispersed with tear gas.

The headquarters where Clinton met Preval is also the location where the 10 Americans accused of kidnapping Haitian children were being held. The Americans were whisked away about a half hour before the former president's arrival.

The 10 defendants had a court date, it turned out ... conveniently timed to avoid any overlap with Clinton.

Clinton spoke to Preval and assembled government officials.

"First I'm glad you all survived, I believe that you have a done a remarkable job, and the people on the ground have done an amazing job," Clinton said. "You lost a lot of people in your agencies, and under the circumstances you have a done a great job."

The former president offered personal condolences to a minister who had lost a son.

'They All Survived'

There is no question the former president sees this as an opportunity buried inside the curse of an earthquake, an opportunity that comes within some decisions that need to be made now. "Build back better" has become the catchphrase.

"Nightline" spoke with Clinton directly after the government meeting.

"It was good," Clinton said.

He said Haiti still has a functioning government.

"Yes, you heard, they all survived," Clinton said. "But they have, they lost all their office space, as you can see." Clinton's new "leadership role," heading up and coordinating international relief, is a formidable one.

"We've still got formidable challenges to house everybody, to deal with sanitary conditions, get enough distribution centers for food," the former president said. "But I think they're really thinking about how they want this to work out in the long run. That's what we talked about a lot today. Make a list of everything you want done today. Where do you want the country to be in a decade?

"You have to decide. I can't do anything really until you make those two decisions. I can help fill in the blanks, and raise money and all that. I think they sense the earthquake has given them an enormous opportunity and an enormous responsibility. There are a lot of talented people in that room. I think they can do it."

In light of his new, expanded role, we asked Clinton if he was going to be running the country.

"No. That's important," he emphasized. "Over time Haiti has been through being abused and exploited by its neighbors, and being ignored, and then being helped in a way that was not designed to enable them to stand on their own two feet and help themselves. We don't want any of those things."

What Clinton does want is a working infrastructure -- and that seems far off. Tent cities and shantytowns stretch along roads carrying aid convoys.

'A Proven Track Record'

Our next stop was Gheskio Hospital. Haiti has the highest AIDS infection rate in the Western hemisphere, and this was the country's first AIDS clinic. It was also the first recipient of any money from the Clinton foundation. It was an emotional visit for the former president.

Today, the hospital is broken, but surviving. Patients receive remarkable care. But the signs of the quake are everywhere, including in damage to the building. Patients and staff sleep outside.

We asked Clinton how much of the $800 million or so in international aid has actually made it to Haiti so far.

"I can't answer that question, but I can say that what I've tried to do with the money that we raised directly through the Clinton-Bush Foundation and the money that I raised before that was established is to do what we did here today," Clinton said.

"There is a proven track record that the money has been well spent. That's why I try to document how we spend the money and that these people all get it, but you should not want it all at once, you should give it out as it can be effectively used."

Asked whether he agreed with estimates that 15 percent of all aid money has been disbursed so far, Clinton said "probably."

"But I think that keep in mind, the needs for the World Food Programme will go up as their capacity to distribute them goes up. The needs for temporary shelter, like the 20,000 tents that I've bought that will be coming here, will go up as we get certification from the national and local governments so that we can actually help to create a community here." It is estimated that at least 200,000 tents are needed.

We also asked the former president about the 10 Americans held for allegedly kidnapping 33 Haitian children, and whether he thought the Americans should be brought back to the United States.

"Well, I think first the State Department and the Haitian government are both on this, and they are going to find a quick and just way to do it," Clinton said. "And they are represented by lawyers, they haven't been mistreated, but the Haitians are very sensitive to what has happened in countless other places around the world in the wake of natural disasters, where people have come and taken children, had parents that still wanted them, or had aunts and uncles that still wanted them.

"It is quite possible that all of these people made an innocent mistake in not following Haitian law, but that is why you have a fact-finding mission. And I think that the Haitian government and the American government will work this out."

Still Much Suffering

In the meantime there is still much suffering. At the hospital the former president held a little 2-month-old named Eneul. What he did not know was that without surgery the baby -- who was stable for the moment -- would in fact die.

A doctor pulled "Nightline" aside and said that a U.S. hospital had agreed to provide the surgery for free, but there was no plane to take the child.

We take Eneul's story to the Clinton team. Dr. Paul Farmer, who is traveling with Clinton and is a legend in Haiti for his 28 years of work here, agreed to help, with the assistance of a young Haitian doctor colleague.

Farmer promised to make sure Eneul got the care she needed and that the former president would know.

But it was a small reminder of the big problem: Nothing quite works in Haiti -- and certainly not easily.

We asked Clinton about the balance of humanitarian and strategic need in the country.

"First of all, what it would cost us to do our part to rebuild Haiti is, given the low cost of living here, is a tiny fraction of what it costs to bring back the economy of any U.S. state. Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, already vulnerable to narco-traffickers and other organized crime, highest AIDS rate in the hemisphere.

"And I work here on that, I know about that, they've got a good program. You don't want a failed state here, that's why Brazil and Argentina [were] sent to run the UN operation here [and are] investing here, making a commitment here -- they know it's important to their national security too. That's why when George W. Bush gave a presentation together in Orlando, he, not I, said we have a national security interest in having Haiti succeed and not be a failed state.

In all, Clinton spent six hours on the ground -- and left with a renewed commitment that he says will pull him back here until the job is done.