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Haiti economy shows signs of life after earthquake

Across Port-au-Prince, indicators of a renascent economy after the Haiti earthquake are unmistakable: bustling street markets, reopened clothing shops, and long lines at cellphone providers, remittance-receiving agencies, and banks.

By Staff writer / January 27, 2010

A woman sits in front a people lining up in a bank in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday.

Jorge Silva/Reuters


Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Haitians are buying nails to make initial repairs, searching out “tri-tri” – a powder of tiny dried fish used to season rice – and even getting haircuts: all of which means that, slowly, the economy is showing signs of life after being knocked out by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

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“Business is coming back little by little, despite the damage in the neighborhood, I guess because we Haitians like to keep our hair cut,” says Savien Franciscain, who is running both chairs at the tiny barber shop he operates in Port-au-Prince’s heavily damaged center. “I reopened Sunday, and it’s been pretty good ever since.”

Across the capital, the indicators of a renascent economy are unmistakable: bustling street markets, reopened clothing shops, and lots of long lines – especially at cellphone providers, as customers seek to replace lost or damaged phones, and at remittance-receiving agencies and banks. After the temblor shut down the central bank and choked off the banking system, Haitians found themselves cash-starved.

Plans are in the works among Haitian government and international monetary officials and donor countries to get money circulating through the economy again. The country needs an infusion of cash to get moving, economists say, while the Haitian government is contemplating a stimulus program to jumpstart private-sector activity.

“In the short term, we have to get small business going again, and that means getting money in people’s hands so they buy what the small businesses offer,” says Kisner Pharel, a Harvard-trained Haitian economist. He says Haiti’s central bank has done a good job of getting back on its feet, but what scares him are the country’s banks.

“After this disaster, the massive destruction we’ve had, there are going to be a lot of what…Americans would call toxic assets,” Mr. Pharel says. “The banks are going to be dealing with that while we need them to be lending and getting things moving again.”

Open for business, but short on cash

Even Haiti’s smallest merchants understand the importance of getting money in people’s hands. Yiolene Aristyl operates a tiny vegetable and small-groceries “market” – actually a plot no larger than a square yard – on a busy thoroughfare leading into central Port-au-Prince.

“People don’t have a lot of cash to buy things, and what they do have they are extra-careful with because they fear running out,” she says, selling a couple of onions and some tri-tri to a picky shopper. Another problem is inflation. “Now I have to pay [$10] for what cost me [$2] before the event.” (The “event” is how many Haitians choose to call the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that devastated the country).

Jean-Claude Berjelain is buying a one-pound sack of nails at a small hardware store in the capital’s Javenat neighborhood, but he thinks the aftershocks that occasionally shake Port-au-Prince will discourage major repair and rebuilding for a while yet. “I’m going to nail down some metal sheets where part of my roof fell in, but nothing more than that,” he says. “The earth keeps moving, moving.”