In Vienna, Long-Time Haitian AIDS Activist Sits Down With Clinton

President Clinton and Haitian AIDS activist Esther Boucicault.
President Clinton and Haitian AIDS activist Esther Boucicault.

The meeting was last-minute and brief. But today, after months spent fighting to make HIV/AIDS an integral part of Haiti's official earthquake recovery plan, AIDS activist Esther Boucicault achieved a major breakthrough in her battle: She was able to speak directly with President Clinton at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, as well as his top deputy in Haiti, Paul Farmer and convince them that they need to create a more effective response to Haiti's post-earthquake AIDS epidemic.

"This is a real, concrete step," she said. "It's a materialization of all these months of hard work, just trying to get someone's attention, trying to get someone to listen."

Clinton co-chairs the interim commission on Haitian recovery efforts, so he has a say in the spending of every penny of the billions in international aid flowing into the country. The question now is how Clinton will proceed post-meeting. He told Boucicault he plans to head to Haiti this fall. Boucicault, who has spent more than a decade fighting HIV/AIDS in Haiti, has also worked closely with Farmer, and trusts that Farmer "will seriously follow up with Clinton to make sure something happens."

While 2.2 percent of Haitian adults are HIV positive, Haiti's 115-page post-disaster plan, the country's blueprint for recovery, mentions the nation's HIV/AIDS population only in passing. The hope, said Boucicault, is that Clinton, as UN special envoy to Haiti, will ensure that a comprehensive, robust national AIDS strategy gets put in place.

"In the end a meeting is just a meeting," said Roosevelt Jean-Francois, a Haitian journalist and executive director of the Center for Communication on HIV/AIDS. "But Clinton is committed to Haiti and committed to HIV and AIDS, so I think this is a step, it's a beginning process, and the follow up will be the most important thing."

The vast majority of Haitians with HIV/AIDS live in the three departments hit hardest by the January 12 earthquake, according to a February UNAIDS report. The disaster has fomented an environment ripe for new infections -- sexual violence is common in encampments, for example -- leading AIDS advocates to worry that infection rates could return to the devastating numbers seen in the 1990s.

On the ground, the availability of services for people with HIV/AIDS has diminished to an alarming point, according to Boucicault.

The petite, middle-aged mother of two has fought for social inclusion for people with HIV/AIDS since long before the quake. In 1996, she founded Fondation Esther Boucicault Stanislas (FEBS) a then tiny AIDS service organization in the town of St. Marc. She later became the first person in her country to publicly announce her HIV status, sending shockwaves through a nation that has traditionally shunned those with the disease.

Her nonprofit now provides more than 600 HIV-positive people in Haiti with psychosocial support. It's also is a member of Hati's AIDS coalition, Plateforme Haitienne Des Associations de PVVIH (PHAP+). In 2008, FEBS began a partnership with Housing Works.

After the breakfast meeting, Clinton took the stage in front of a packed exhibition hall. In his speech, he said he wanted to see regional grassroots organizations take a larger leadership role in fighting their own epidemics. He also urged nations around the world to pour money into health care.

"A lot of you," he said, "know where this is not happening."