But the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee couldn’t have felt more at home when he and two colleagues spent three days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, earlier this month. In fact, Oberstar knows the impoverished Caribbean nation of 9 million people almost as well as his northern Minnesota district.
The 75-year-old Oberstar, who was accompanied by Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Corinne Brown (D-Fla.), has been back to Haiti many times since, but his latest visit was like a homecoming.
Oberstar was the guest of honor at a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of his time in Haiti that was sponsored by the Haitian Military Academy. It was attended by President Rene Preval and some 250 other people, including many Haitian government officials and military officers who were among his 50 former students.
All had survived three decades of the Duvalier family’s brutal dictatorship, which ended in 1986, and the political turmoil and violent coups that have plagued Haiti, which is the size of Maryland, ever since.
“It was quite a nostalgic evening,” Oberstar said in a recent interview. “It was fascinating to hear what happened to some of [the students] following their military careers. Only 31 of them are left — 19 died, and some were shot or jailed. But eight of them became generals and two were ambassadors to the U.S., and others were ambassadors to France and other countries.”
Oberstar said one former student, a retired general named Haraid Abraham, “recalled how I had walked them through the Kennedy-Nixon election and told them what it meant. He had done a live translation of JFK’s inaugural address on Haitian radio and then mimeographed it and brought it to class. Then he proceeded to recite it from memory. It was so powerful and touching.”
Asked if there is hope for Haiti, which remains one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world and has been plagued by political instability, widespread corruption, failed economic policies and mass migration of its people in search of a better life, Oberstar gave a qualified affirmative answer.
“There are hopeful signs,” he said, declaring that President Preval’s “conduct in office” has created an atmosphere of stability and integrity, and that he’s “chasing down and driving out corruption.”
He noted that the next presidential election is scheduled for 2011 and that Preval has promised to abide by the constitutional requirement that he serve only one term — he was elected in 2006 after an armed uprising forced Jean Bertrand Aristide from office and served an earlier term as president from 1996 to 2001.
“If the election is honest and goes off successfully without disruption, it will be an expression of the people’s will, and Haiti will then have the stability it needs to implement the changes in government structure, and attract back the Haitian diaspora” that has seen thousands of engineers, doctors and teachers leave the country.
“They’d come home if there were no reprisals and opportunities for them. But there are some things we need to do,” beginning with halting the deforestation caused by burning trees to produce charcoal fuel for heating and cooking, he said. “The erosion of the countryside is worse than when I was there because of deforestation of the countryside for charcoal and erosion from hurricanes and tropical storms.”
Asked what could be done to help Haiti, Oberstar said, “My solution is to distribute U.S.-produced charcoal” that would come from sustainable forests in the U.S. and elsewhere and sold at low prices. He noted that the U.S. once distributed 130 million trees to Haiti, “which grew and flourished, but in the chaos, people went back to cutting them down.”
He said there were similar problems with an aid program for raising chickens. “Haitians love poultry,” he said.
Then, slipping into Creole, Oberstar said, “A white guy gave us these chickens but we don’t have food for them. If we had the feed, we’d eat it ourselves.
“Time and again, our efforts, even deforestation, were well-intended, misguided and misdirected. But give them the charcoal and you’ll wean them away from cutting down trees. We’ve got to reforest the countryside” and help Haiti regain its self-sufficiency as a producer of rice and coffee, he said.
“That’s the starting point,” he said. “Then we and the international community have to support the government and encourage outside investment.” Oberstar added that he and his two colleagues met with President Preval for two hours and “discussed trade and investment and reforestation and professionalizing the civil service.”
Oberstar arrived in Haiti in May 1959, leaving in December 1962 to join the Ford Foundation and teach English in Kaduna, Nigeria. But he stopped off in Washington to see his congressman, Rep. John Blatnik (D-Minn.), who persuaded him to join his staff. He later became chief of staff to Blatnik, who chaired the House Public Works Committee, which Oberstar now heads under its new name. He was elected as Blatnik’s successor in 1974 and has been in Congress ever since.
This story was updated at 10:41 a.m.