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Posted Friday, March 14, 2008
In Lagging Haiti, First Lady Finds Positive Signs


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Most Haitians are unemployed, but the first lady, Laura Bush, spoke to some of the fortunate few who do have jobs here in the poorest country in the hemisphere during her visit on Thursday.

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U.S. first lady Laura Bush, left, and Haiti's President Rene Preval wave during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Thursday, March 13, 2008.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Her visit was aimed at putting a positive face on some of the country’s social ills, though Haitian officials point to signs of progress on some fronts.

A young man who had dropped out of school told Mrs. Bush how he had learned to repair automobile fuel systems through an American-supported jobs program and now earned a living wage. Several women who have received microloans talked about the small businesses that they had managed to build. Along the motorcade route, however, were thousands of jobless Haitians.

The first lady heard a classroom of barely literate teenagers in one of the capital’s poor neighborhoods reciting a Creole phrase meaning “I can read and write.” But that is true for only about half of Haiti’s population.

Mrs. Bush, who stopped briefly in Haiti on her way to Mexico, also met with youngsters who had been infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, but were receiving treatment and training.

“Study hard and keep going,” Mrs. Bush told the students in the elementary Creole class.

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U.S. First Lady Bush (R) listens to an H.I.V.-infected Haitian girl during her visit to the GHESKIO, a public health organization. Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

With AIDS ravaging the populations of many Caribbean islands, Mrs. Bush sought to draw attention to the Bush administration’s AIDS relief initiative, which has funneled billions of dollars to Haiti and other affected countries, mostly in Africa. With the backing of the White House, Congress is considering an expansion of the plan.

“It’s important for young people to know if they do get tested and are H.I.V. positive, there are good things they can do,” Mrs. Bush said after meeting with two young women and a young man who had tested positive and are now receiving help from a public health organization called Gheskio, which is supported by Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Haiti’s infection rate has dropped significantly, from double digits to around 3 percent today. “It’s a real miracle,” said Dr. Jean William Pape, director of Gheskio, calling the AIDS fight a bright spot in a country that struggles with everything from environmental degradation to illiteracy.

The fact that the security situation in Port-au-Prince, the capital, allowed Mrs. Bush to visit at all was seen as a sign of progress here. The last White House visit to Haiti was by the previous first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in 1998.

“In Haiti the situation is improving,” said Jacques-Edouard Alexis, the prime minister. “We think it is important for foreigners to come here and see that improvement.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Friday, March 14, 2008.

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