Why Michelle Obama is on a surprise visit to Haiti

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden arrived in Haiti today on a surprise visit. Mrs. Obama toured the area near Port-au-Prince by helicopter and was scheduled to visit schools under reconstruction, before heading for Mexico.

Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS
A survivor of the Haiti earthquake slips while walking along a mud-covered path at the Petionville Golf Club in Port-au-Prince Monday. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden arrived in Haiti today on a surprise visit.

First lady Michelle Obama is making a surprise visit to Haiti Tuesday, on her first solo international trip that includes a previously announced three-day visit to Mexico.

According to the US Embassy, Ms. Obama, who is traveling with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is to meet with Haitian President Rene Preval and his wife, as well as visit schools, including one under reconstruction. Obama will also visit with UN officials and thank those involved in the massive relief effort.

Symbolically, the visit will resonate. “By and large Haitians, as well as Haitian-Americans, view her as breaking through the glass ceiling. She represents that there are no bounds,” says Demian Pasquarelli, the executive director of the non-profit Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean who was in Haiti last week. “Michelle Obama, with her connection to women’s programs and education, will raise awareness and the bar for people to make sure [reconstruction] programs are effective.”

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The visit comes at a critical time in Haiti's reconstruction, as the rainy season comes and many remain in large camps, says Patrick Johns, director for staff safety and security for Catholic Relief Services, who just returned from Haiti before Easter. "The more people of influence that come in and understand the challenges the better. ... [Her visit] sends the message that we do in fact care dearly about their welfare ... and this kind of thing can reinforce the efforts that are needed."

But many Haitians on the ground are still burdened by survival after the 7.0 earthquake decimated the capital, Port-au-Prince and outlying towns exactly three months ago yesterday, killing over 220,00 people.

Francoise Valentin, a. beneficiary of one of the cash-for-work programs underway, says most Haitians probably know little about Obama's visit, nor will likely benefit from it. "It’s probably a good thing that she’s here but it would be better if I could get something out of it," she says. Ms. Valentin is still living in a tent, as are a million others throughout the capital.

Ms. Obama arrived with Ms. Biden in the capital Tuesday morning, in a visit that was previously unannounced. The Obama administration released the following statement upon their arrival: “First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden are visiting Haiti to underscore to the Haitian people and the Haitian government the enduring US commitment to help Haiti recover and rebuild, especially as we enter the rainy and hurricane seasons, and to thank the women and men across the whole of the US government for their extraordinary efforts in Haiti during the past three months. They will also reach out to the UN and international relief communities in recognition of the truly global effort underway to help Haiti.”

Ms. Biden has been an educator for 29 years, has a doctorate in education, and still teaches English at a Washington, D.C. community college.

Their trip follows an international donors conference held in New York that generated $10 billion in long-term aid pledges to help Haiti recover.

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