Opportunity Knocks: Some US Firms Greet End to Haiti Embargo

GIVEN Haiti's unstable situation, it sounds peculiar: several US-based companies can't wait to start business in the Caribbean nation.

``I can't think why they are making us wait another month,'' says Robert Antoniadis, president of GCP Inc., which makes hand-crafted giftware in Williston, Vt. ``The embargo that's still in place ... is a tremendous source of frustration.''

``Yes, we'll be back,'' adds Jim Gibbons of Haitian Tropical Management, which imports Haitian mangoes into Florida. ``We are very anxious to go back to work.''

Surprisingly, for such a politically troubled nation, Haitian goods and labor are in demand. This pent-up demand is not enough to reverse three years of an increasingly punishing United-Nations approved embargo. But it is part of an expected first wave of United States investment that could help reenergize Haiti's moribund economy.

``You don't have to teach Haitians anything about capitalism,'' says Anthony Bryan, director of Caribbean studies at the University of Miami's North-South Center. ``Immediately [after] the embargo is rescinded, you will find there will be a minor economic boom in Haiti.''

With foreign aid, which is expected to total $550 million over the next year, and private-sector companies reentering its market, Haiti has an opportunity to begin rebuilding itself.

US investment is key. On Friday, the Clinton administration let it be known that it plans to pump about $200 million this year into Haiti. Much of the aid is expected to help rebuild roads, bridges, schools, and other infrastructure. In addition, several US-based companies are pushing for a lifting of the embargo so they can reenter the country.

The US private sector is important. In 1990, the year before the embargo, an estimated 84 percent of Haitian exports came to the US. Attracted by the country's cheap labor, US apparel, electronics, and other manufacturing firms brought goods into Haiti, assembled them, and then reexported the goods to the US. Liberal economists doubt such operations can really rebuild a poor nation like Haiti. Nevertheless, the Bush and Clinton administrations believed these companies were so vital to Haiti that they allowed them to continue operating during the embargo.

In May of this year, however, the White House went along with a tighter clamp-down on Haiti's military rulers and ended the special exemption. US companies, which had already cut back operations, closed down completely. ``I was there the last day,'' says Jim Carroll, owner of Jeremie Corporation, an Atlanta-based handicraft company. ``I saw the look on my people's faces. And there was nothing I could do.''

At its height, more than 200 foreign companies were involved in assembling goods in Haiti. They employed more than 100,000 Haitians. Not all of the companies will return - at least, not immediately.

Some companies ``have to get back into business right away or shut down completely,'' says Sally Yearwood of Caribbean Latin American Action, a nonprofit group promoting private-sector development. But ``there are other companies that will sit back and wait.... It's obviously going to depend on what happens'' in Haiti.

Those firms heavily dependent on Haiti or with large investments there will return soonest of all.

Mr. Gibbons of Haitian Tropical Management expects to export his mango harvest in November. Mr. Antoniadis, the Vermont handicraft manufacturer, is on pins and needles. ``The quality of the workmanship is unrivaled. Their colors are bright, lively.'' When the embargo is lifted, he says he'll return ``in a heartbeat.''

Yet even those companies most eager to return are hedging their bets. Carroll, who manufactures handicrafts, moved production from Haiti to the Philippines. When the embargo is lifted, he says, he'll reemploy 200 Haitians, half the pre-embargo number. But he's keeping the Philippines operation too.

Yesterday, President Clinton announced at the UN plans to support the immediate lifting of most sanctions. That would come none too soon for US companies.

``We were rapidly replacing everything in Haiti,'' Carroll says. ``In another three months ... there would not have been a lot left in Haiti.''

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