Haitian President Rene Preval, who heads the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere, began his first official US visit yesterday at the invitation of US President George W. Bush.
As the centerpiece of the four-day visit, Preval is expected to meet Bush tomorrow for talks on a range of issues including UN efforts to stabilize Haiti, as well as the fight against poverty and the illegal drug trade.
In addition to the Bush talks, "I will have working meetings with members of his administration including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice" and the commerce and homeland security chiefs, Preval said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week that the Bush-Preval meeting would focus on UN attempts to bring stability to Haiti and on ways to increase prosperity in the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation.
Bush's invitation was announced last Thursday, one day before 22 Haitians died trying to escape their violence-torn country when their overcrowded boat capsized in shark-infested waters near the Turks and Caicos islands.
The US remains Haiti's largest trading partner and largest donor of humanitarian assistance.
Left-leaning Preval was president of Haiti from 1996 to 2001 and came to power again last year, after an armed uprising in 2004 ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Last year's elections for president and parliament were organized under the auspices of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
Asked about his attendance last month as an observer at a Latin American economic and "anti-imperialist" summit called by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Preval said it should not harm Haiti's ties with Washington.
"The US buys 80 percent of Venezuela's oil," said Preval, who sealed a deal with Caracas to get a significant discount on oil products and get a Venezuelan-built refinery in Haiti that could deliver 180,000 barrels per day.
Asked about Haiti's endemic fight against illegal drug trafficking, Preval said he intended to ask Bush for extra help in this realm since Haiti did not have the means to combat drug lords alone.
"As long as the demand exists, there will be production and Haiti will always be used a country of transit," Preval said, indicating the war on drugs was one of his top priorities.
"Drugs are an essential factor in Haiti's instability and insecurity," he said.
Eighty percent of the Haitian population lives below the poverty line on less than US$2 a day.
Preval is also to meet Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and African-American lawmakers from the Congressional Black Caucus including Congressman Chuck Rangel.
The Haitian leader's trip is to last until Friday and is scheduled to include visits with representatives of the World Bank, IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank.