Spain's Queen Sofia visiting aid projects in Haiti

AP News
Posted: Oct 07, 2011 11:27 PM
Spain's Queen Sofia visiting aid projects in Haiti

European royalty arrived in impoverished Haiti on Friday as Spain's Queen Sofia came to check on aid efforts that seek to help the Caribbean nation rebuild after last year's earthquake.

The queen plans to spend her two-day visit touring reconstruction projects that the Spanish government and her own foundation hope will improve housing, education, sanitation and health in Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries.

When the queen arrived on a Spanish government jet, she stepped on to the tarmac where Haitian President Michel Martelly and first lady Sophia Martelly greeted her. Martelly and the queen chatted amicably before and after the National Palace band performed national anthems from both countries. Several dozen Haitian school girls waving Spain's gold-and-red flag greeted the queen, including one who gave her a bouquet.

The queen smiled but didn't speak to reporters before entering a complex for visiting diplomats.

"We talked about our families, her kids, my kids, the king, politics," Martelly told The Associated Press after the 20-minute meeting. "It was a little opportunity for me to meet the queen, thank her, and do what I'm supposed to do: Portray a new Haiti, bring confidence in our partners, our friends _ let them know that this is no longer a country that wants to beg for money."

The queen's arrival comes out of summer trip Martelly took to Spain, his first visit to Europe since he was inaugurated in May. The new president met with King Juan Carlos.

Martelly said he hopes the queen's visit will serve as an example of how Haiti can forge new relations with countries that have long overlooked Haiti as a place to invest and explore as tourists.

Spain and Haiti have not traditionally had strong diplomatic ties but Spain is among the countries that have made the biggest pledges to Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. According to the Office of U.N. Special Envoy, Spain has pledged $359.7 million for 2010 and 2011.

The queen showed her appreciation for Spaniards trying to help Haiti at one of the few modern hotels in the capital Friday night, shaking hands with nuns, peacekeepers with the U.N. mission and aid workers.

At a dinner later hosted by Martelly, she recalled in a brief statement how she visited Haiti two years ago, and said that "Haiti is a special country for me."

"Now, and for all time, Mr. President, Haiti can count on Spain and all Spaniards," the queen said in Haitian Creole as she read from a written script.

On Saturday, the queen will tour several projects financed by the Spanish government and her own charity, the Queen Sofia Foundation.

One of those sites is a water sanitation plant outside Port-au-Prince that removes waste collected from cholera treatment centers. A cholera epidemic has killed more than 6,200 people and sickened almost 440,000 others since it surfaced last year, according to Haitian health officials. Many people who fall ill rely on the improvised health clinics to stay alive.

"It's a key way for us to solve the cholera issue," Martelly told the AP, referring to the Spanish sanitation project in an area north of Port-au-Prince called Titanyen.

Then the queen plans to see a center at the Sisters of Charity in Cite Soleil, a seaside neighborhood that is considered one of the poorest and dangerous areas in Haiti.

The queen will follow that visit with a trip to Leogane, which saw thousands of homes destroyed because of its proximity to the quake's epicenter. The Spanish Red Cross is helping build 1,500 transitional shelters in a housing project funded by the queen's foundation.

After visiting Haiti, the queen travels to Miami to mark the opening of a Spanish cultural center.