(Politico) – Sunday, January 30, 2011. Two hundred thousand people occupied Egypt’s Tahrir Square, defying a military curfew to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia’s authoritarian leader had just been overthrown, unleashing a wave of anti-government protests from Yemen to Syria to Morocco. South Sudan’s provisional president announced his people had voted overwhelmingly for independence, clearing the way for the breakup of Africa’s largest country. Yet as Hillary Clinton rushed to Andrews Air Force Base to catch her battered government-issue 727, the secretary of state was not headed to Cairo, Tunis or Juba. She was going to Haiti.
Haiti doesn’t seem like a place that would be central to a U.S. presidential candidate’s foreign policy. It’s a small country, whose 10.3 million people inhabit the western third of a Caribbean island the size of South Carolina. They are the poorest people in the hemisphere when you average their country’s meager $8.5 billion GDP among them, and would seem poorer still if you ignored the huge share held by the country’s tiny elite—which controls virtually everything worth controlling, from the banks and ports, to agriculture and, often, politics. It is not a major exporter of anything. Even its location, 500 nautical miles from the Florida Keys, has been of only passing strategic importance to the United States since a brutal 1915-1934 U.S. occupation assured no European power would surpass its influence there.
Yet the world’s most powerful couple have an abiding interest in this out-of-the-way place; the island where Bill Clinton four decades ago recommitted himself to politics after an eye-opening journey and an evening with a Vodou priest. During her tenure at State, Hillary traveled to Haiti four times, as often as she did Japan, Afghanistan or Russia. Bill Clinton continues to visit even as her presidential campaign starts up. He attended the February dedication of Port-au-Prince’s new luxury Marriott hotel, a trip on which he reaffirmed, once again, that his work in Haiti represented “one of the great joys of my life.”
Over the past two decades, the once-and-perhaps-future first couple repeatedly played a key role in Haiti’s politics, helping to pick its national leaders and driving hundreds of millions of dollars in private aid, investment and U.S. taxpayer money toward its development. They’ve brought with them a network of friends and global corporations that never would’ve been here otherwise. Together, this network of power and money has left indelible marks on almost every aspect of the Haitian economy. The island nation, in many ways, represents ground zero for the confusing and often conflict-ridden intersection of her State Department, the Clinton family’s foundation and both of their foreign policies.