Foreign aid for Haiti's ailing economy -- Florida style

Jutting like a beckoning finger toward the Caribbean, Florida has been the conduit through which Haitian and Cuban refugees flow toward the economic promise of the US.

But the state is now trying to stem that flow with some foreign diplomacy of its own. The congestion of refugees in the South Florida area, unemployment, crime, and their attendant social problems have forced Florida officials to go to the root of the problem. With respect to Haiti, it is the economy -- the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

So Florida spearheaded a trade mission to Haiti last fall in which 30 of the state's businessmen and farmers investigated the possibilities for investment in Haiti. It has evolved into a permanent US State Department-sponsored mission in Port-au-Prince, coordinating volunteer aid to that country as well as acting as a broker for private investment there.

Joe Thomas, a Florida official hired by the State Department to oversee the project, says two major investment projects are in the making: an agribusiness venture to grow, pack, and ship fruits and vegetables for US markets; and a fishing project in which a major Florida-based restaurant chain will contract with boats and packing facilities in Haiti.

Lt. Gov. Wayne Mixson, who headed the Florida mission last fall, says that there is still a long haul ahead in making Haiti an attractive place to stay. But, he says, each new job created goes a long way in the Haitian economy: ''One job might feed six or eight or ten people.''

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