Impoverished nation has hired law firm to lobby in Washington

WASHINGTON — Haiti, among the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nations, is spending $50,000 per month to improve its image.

The government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has begun paying Patton Boggs ? a high-powered Washington law firm ? to “educate strategically targeted members of Congress” on Capitol Hill about Haiti and perform other tasks.

Aid Sought

One goal of the lobbying effort is to free $500 million in foreign assistance and bank loans to Haiti suspended last year following alleged election irregularities.

A Miami-based lawyer for the Aristide government, Ira Kurzban, said suspension of the assistance and loans is taking a heavy humanitarian toll on Haiti. He said the lobbying effort in Washington is justified to end an aid suspension that “has direct consequences . . . in terms of people dying. There are people not getting health care in Haiti.”

Foreign governments commonly hire lobbying firms in Washington, although it is rare for countries as impoverished as Haiti to do so. Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, is desperately poor. Annual per capita income is less than $500.

Papers filed with the Justice Department show that the Aristide government hired the firm of Patton Boggs for a period of eight months at $50,000 a month. Work began May 1.

The law firm will assist the Haiti government “in its relationships with the U.S. executive branch, U.S. Congress and certain multilateral organizations,” the registration form said.

At any given time, “one or two, maybe three,” lawyers from Patton Boggs will be working on the Haiti account, said Daniel R. Addison of the firm, which he said has about 350 lawyers.

‘Kind of Cynical’

An observer of Haiti, James Morrell of the Center for International Policy, a liberal D.C. think tank, described the lobbying effort as “kind of cynical.”

Morrell said the Aristide government has failed to correct “gross cheating at the top” in last year’s congressional elections, and could have saved the money spent on lobbyists by correcting electoral procedures, a step that would have reassured the international community and unthawed assistance.

“They could have much more easily resolved this problem by following the electoral laws,” Morrell said, adding that sentiment toward Aristide, a one-time populist priest, has soured.

Disappointment Felt

“We’re certainly disappointed in Aristide,” he said. Aristide, first elected president of Haiti in 1991, was deposed in a military coup seven months into his first term. He was returned to power in 1994 by a U.S.-led military intervention and stayed in office until 1996. After sitting out a term, Aristide was re-elected in a November election that was boycotted by the main opposition group. Aristide took office Feb. 7.

The mood in Washington, however, has not been favorable toward Aristide, who says he believes that the formalities of electoral democracy must never trump direct action to favor the poor.

Last Friday, Rep. Clay Shaw, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, began circulating a letter on Capitol Hill calling on the Bush administration to maintain aid to Haiti at $56.9 million next year but to continue guaranteeing that no money goes to the Aristide administration.

“We believe it is best to send the funds through non-governmental organizations,” a draft of the Shaw letter says. The letter notes the “deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, and civil unrest, being experienced by the people of Haiti.”

Another legislator from South Florida, Carrie Meek, a Miami Democrat, said she believes direct aid should be resumed to the Aristide government as long as it meets stringent standards. Channeling money only to outside groups, she said, is tantamount to boycotting the Aristide government.


“I would strongly oppose any intent to undermine the legitimate, democratically elected government of Haiti,” she said in a telephone interview.

The 14-month-old political stalemate in Haiti began when opposition parties and international election monitors said May 2000 congressional election results were tallied in a way that gave Aristide’s Lavalas Family movement victory in several Senate races that should have gone to a runoff.