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US Lawmakers Press Bush Administration on Haiti

Congressional lawmakers have pressed a Bush administration official on U.S. assistance to Haiti, saying Washington needs to do more to help the island nation climb out of poverty. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

The United States remains Haiti's single largest aid donor and has helped the people there through such programs as President Bush's HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment program.

In the president's fiscal 2008 budget, Haiti receives a $36-million increase to $83 million for AIDS as part of an overall boost in assistance to $223 million.

But Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, is concerned about reductions in all other areas not related to AIDS.

The United States, says Engel, is in a position to help the government of Haitian President Rene Preval to make some progress:

"For the first time in years, there is a window of opportunity in Haiti, and a bipartisan consensus here on Capitol Hill, but that window is small and we must act quickly," said Eliot Engel. "With a stable political situation in place, we must turn our attention to Haiti's development needs and the role that the international community can play in supporting the Haitian government's efforts to curb poverty."

Adolfo Franco is Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He says Haiti's political situation under President Preval provides reasons for some optimism, adding that President Bush remains committed to helping Haiti:

"President Bush has told us from the beginning that we are committed for the long haul in Haiti," said Adolfo Franco. "He believes in Haiti, he believes in democracy for the country and committed to do whatever we need to do to continue to demonstrate the leadership of the U.S."

Franco acknowledges, however, that security problems continue to hamper development efforts in Haiti, adding that the country suffers from endemic problems preventing it from moving forward.

Congressman William Delahunt believes the continuing presence of a United Nations force in Haiti will be crucial to maintaining security:

"I think we need the U.N. there to provide security for years, so that the Democratic institutions can prosper," said Congressman Delahunt.

The other witness at Tuesday's hearing was Wyclef Jean, musician, entrepreneur and founder of Yele Haiti, a foundation supporting education, health, environmental and other projects in Haiti.

He also advocates a continuing United Nations presence, and says programs are needed to address the problem of gang violence.

"Seventeen-year-old kids, 18-year-old kids, the kids look at me in the eyes and I say to them, you know you're going to die tomorrow," said Wyclef Jean. "And they said we know, but what do we [have] to live for ? And I think what we need to do is we need to start providing programs for kids that want to change their life and go from negative to positive."

Jean also supports dual citizenship for Haitian-Americans, currently not permitted under Haitian law, and is involved in efforts aimed at encouraging Haitians in the U.S. to send more money back to their country of origin.

The congressional focus on Haiti came a day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stopped in Haiti at the end of a trip to Latin American and Caribbean nations.

The Venezuelan leader, who continued to criticize President Bush U.S. Latin America policies during his regional tour, met Haitian President Preval and promised more assistance for Haitian electricity generation and social services.