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Michelle Obama Makes Surprise Haiti Visit to Support Humanitarian Effort

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MEXICO CITY -- First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise stop in earthquake-ravaged Haiti on Tuesday morning en route to Mexico, on an added leg of her first solo diplomatic mission. Joining her was Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president.

Mrs. Obama's visit to Haiti, expected to last only a few hours, was a closely guarded East Wing secret.

The purpose of the stop is to support humanitarian efforts there, an East Wing spokesman said.

Upon landing, the White House released a statement: "First lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden are visiting Haiti to underscore to the Haitian people and the Haitian government the enduring U.S. 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 U.S. government for their extraordinary efforts in Haiti during the past three months. They will also reach out to the U.N. and international relief communities in recognition of the truly global effort under way to help Haiti."

Mrs. Obama's plane landed at 10:40 a.m. local time; the women took a helicopter to Haiti's capital, where she met with Haiti President Rene Preval and his wife, Elizabeth, the first lady of Haiti. Mrs. Obama's first comments on the massive earthquake damage: "It's powerful. The devastation is definitely powerful".

Mrs. Obama earlier met with Mrs. Preval in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House on March 10, in connection with a White House visit by President Preval, who traveled to Washington to discuss recovery and reconstruction programs in his country since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Obama's proposed FY 2011 budget has $2.8 billion in it for those relief efforts.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government is anxiously awaiting Mrs. Obama's arrival.

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico called Mrs. Obama's visit "a very significant gesture of friendship that Mexico appreciates for all its value." He was quoted in Tuesday's Excelsior, a Mexican daily, while in Washington for the nuclear security summit. He will fly back to Mexico on Tuesday afternoon to host, with his wife, first lady Margarita Zavala, Mrs. Obama's visit, which will last through Thursday morning.

On Wednesday morning, Mrs. Obama will meet with Mrs. Zavala in Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential residence, and cap the day with dinner there with the Mexican first couple. Mrs. Obama's main event on Wednesday will be a speech about "youth engagement" at a Mexico City University.

On the Web site Ojinaga Hoy on Tuesday morning, James Jones, U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1993 to 1997, said Mrs. Obama's visit "reiterates one more time the importance that the Obama administration assigns to U.S.-Mexico relations," adding that the two first ladies are "consummate professionals who understand that attention to children in both countries is the most important aspect of the consolidation of a growing economy and society sustainable in the future."

Jones, co-chair of the Task Force for the Southwest Border National Security Advisory Board of the United States, said childhood obesity has become a serious problem in Mexico. "By showing what she is doing in the U.S., Mexico can draw some important ideas on how to tackle the problem in its own country," he said.

On the BBC World's Mexico Web site, Alberto Najar wrote in a piece headlined "Obama and Zavala: Model First Ladies?" that both women have an important influence on their husbands, and quoted political communications expert Ana Vasquez-Colmenares: "Michelle supports various causes, while Margarita influences above all the political agenda."

With Haiti and Mexico, the number of foreign countries Mrs. Obama has visited as First Lady now numbers 11. In previous travels, she has been to the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Ghana, Denmark, Norway, Czech Republic, Italy and Germany.

Contributing: Emily Schmall

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