Haitian President Michel Martelly says aid and fuel shipments from Venezuela are having a big impact in the Caribbean country as it attempts to recover from the devastation of its 2010 earthquake.
President Hugo Chavez's government is providing nearly all the fuel that Haiti consumes under preferential terms, including long-term loans and direct shipping that cuts costs. Martelly said power plants installed by Venezuela after the earthquake supply roughly one-fifth of Haiti's electricity and that Venezuela is also providing key financial support for rice farming and other programs.
"The cooperation with Venezuela is the most important in Haiti right now in terms of impact, direct impact," Martelly told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday night after a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders.
"We are grateful to President Chavez for helping us from the bottom of his heart," Martelly said.
Chavez has made helping Haiti a priority since the magnitude-7 earthquake in January 2010 that reduced much of Port-au-Prince to rubble. His government sent thousands of tons of food aid in the aftermath of the quake, and also set up several camps to temporarily house thousands of displaced Haitians.
Well before the quake, Haiti had already been a major beneficiary of Venezuela's Petrocaribe program, which supplies fuel to Caribbean and Central American countries and allows them to pay part of the bill in goods such as rice and beans rather than cash.
Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said last week that the program now covers 43 percent of the fuel needs of member nations in Petrocaribe, shipping an average of 95,000 barrels of fuel a day at substantial savings to 16 countries.
The deal has helped Chavez cement relationships with a growing group of allies across in the Caribbean.
In Haiti's case, Petrocaribe also provides money to support social programs, including government projects that are building housing and providing food to poor families, Martelly said during a speech at the summit on Saturday.
Martelly told the AP that a 30-megawatt power plant and two other 15-megawatt plants installed by Venezuela now "represent a good 20 percent of our total consumption."
"With such rich support, we can _ he can _ bring some very important change to Haiti," Martelly said.
Venezuela pledged $1.3 billion in recovery aid following the earthquake, the largest amount among 58 donors, according to the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. It says Venezuela has disbursed $118 million so far. The U.S. pledged slightly less than Venezuela, $1.2 billion, but has so far spent more _ $172 million.
Chavez's government also said last year that it was forgiving $395 million in debt through Petrocaribe.
Venezuela provides aid without many of the conditions imposed by the U.S. and other donors, Martelly said.
He said he can't complain about Washington's aid, which is also important for Haiti, but that U.S. assistance often takes more time to come through due to required procedures and controls.
"Sometimes for a simple project, it might take too long for the project to happen," he said. "If you're asking me which one flows better, which one is easier, I'll tell you Venezuela."
The former singer, who took office in May, said the previous Haitian government had neglected and mismanaged portions of the Petrocaribe program, and had apparently decreased the aid flow by failing to form a joint committee with Venezuelan officials to oversee spending. Martelly said he plans to change that.
He said that in addition to rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by the quake, his top priorities also include attracting investment and jobs, and he said that Venezuela is playing a role by helping increase rice farming in Haiti's Artibonite Valley.
"In that program there is a deal where you repay the amount owed with the rice, so this is good for us. Because the main thing for us is to create jobs," Martelly said. "This is one aspect of what Petrocaribe brings to Haitians."
Martelly said he also received promises of help from other leaders at the two-day summit, where they launched a new 33-nation bloc including every nation in the hemisphere except the U.S. and Canada.
Chavez said a "troika" including Chile, Venezuela and Cuba will help coordinate the initial efforts of the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Martelly, who also met with Cuban President Raul Castro, said it remains to be seen what role the new group could play in Haiti's reconstruction efforts.
On another issue, Martelly said he is also seeking money needed to rebuild Haiti's army, which was dismantled in 1995 because of its history of abuses. He did not specify where he is looking for those funds.
Martelly said the new army would probably cost about $25 million to $30 million a year, much less than the thousands of U.N. peacekeepers currently in Haiti. The U.S. and Canada have said the country should instead focus on strengthening its police force and that they would not help pay for a new army.
"Now, if nobody wants to help, then we have to think about a way of getting that money" to re-establish the army, Martelly said. He said he sees education and health care programs as higher priorities.
"But at the same time, why do we need a foreign army to help us? A foreign army that's costing much more money?," he said. "Why not hire young Haitians? Why not regain our sovereignty?"
During the meeting, Chavez pledged to strengthen the Petrocaribe program and denied opponents' accusations that it represents a costly giveaway for his government, saying it makes sense for Venezuela to offer low-interest, flexible loans to its Caribbean neighbors.
"For us, it's a responsibility," Chavez said.
Martelly, who met Chavez for the first time, said he felt a personal connection to the Venezuelan leader and thanked him for his support. During his speech, he gushed to Chavez: "The people of Haiti love you with all their hearts."
Associated Press writer Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap