Business goes bust in Haiti as unrest grinds on

Haiti's rocky emergence from dictatorship has been bad for business. A Miami businessman here to explore the possibility of starting a small assembly plant in the northern city of Port-de-Paix never made it out of his hotel here last month. Burning tires lit by demonstrators and immobilizing strikes sent him packing home within two days. And, almost certainly closing the door for good on his possible investment, a vicious machete battle was reported last week near where he hoped to locate.

An American garment assembly plant owner lost two of his three contracts in May because political unrest made it impossible to meet delivery deadlines. Consequently, he had to lay off 115 workers.

Another American garment plant owner says it's increasingly tough to win contracts when bidding against plants in Mexico or the Dominican Republic. Even though Haitian plants offer cheap labor rates, American companies are wary of granting contracts to firms here, he says, because ``whenever Haiti is on the evening news it's AIDS or burning tires.''

Plants for assembly of clothes, electronics, and baseballs - 70 percent of them wholly or partly United States-owned - provide the largest amount of full-time employment in Haiti, or about 60,000 jobs at the peak in 1984. These plants earn about $200 million of the nation's total $250 million annual export earnings.

As many as 20,000 jobs may have been lost since 1985, and as plants pull out of Haiti or lose contracts, jobs continue to be lost, assembly industry officials say. The US electronics slump in 1985 started the layoffs, but Haitian political unrest that began that year and eventually forced the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February 1986 has been responsible for the further loss of jobs, they say.

The average assembly worker earns $4.50 to $5 a day and supports a family of five, statistics show. So in a nation of 50 percent unemployment, the assembly business is considered integral to social welfare. Since labor is Haiti's only exploitable natural resource, economists say, it is important to try to protect these businesses from the effects of political unrest.

But long faces have replaced the buoyant promotional attitude at the Haitian Association of Industries (ADIH) that had kept an optimistic attitude during most of the past 17 months of unrest.

Work stoppages in the past month in which opposition groups have called for the ouster of the provisional military government have been the worst since the Duvalier government fell, says Jean Edouard Baker, a garment factory owner who is president of ADIH's 250 members.

Many employees haven't been able to get to work because of the transportation strikes so orders haven't been shipped on time.

Contracts have been lost and in turn more than 500 employees have been laid off in just the past month, he says.

Workers who do manage to get to work these days are usually so preoccupied with the political unrest that they find it hard to concentrate on their work and end up milling about chatting, the manager of a rattan factory says.

Al Denunzio started a garment assembly factory here at about the time of Duvalier's ouster. Interviewed by The Monitor in May 1986, he was optimistic about his business and reported no disruption of business despite strikes and political unrest.

But today Mr. Denunzio, who had to call in the military to help quell union violence in his factory in May, says, ``There's absolutely no way, if we were deciding again, that we would come here. As far as US businessmen coming here are concerned, it's deader than a doornail - no American is going to come,'' he says.

Another small American garment factory owner who has been here for three years says, ``When we first came down, even though it was a dictatorship, everyone knew what it meant and what the rules were. Now there are no rules; you don't know who is shepherding things.''

Indeed, says a Western diplomat, the transitional government of Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy has been so preoccupied with the technicalities of governing that little has been done to promote or protect businesses here.

``Government officials are saying they can't sign deals because of the fear of being called Macoutes,'' the diplomat says of the rampant suspicion that the government is run by Tonton Macoutes, members of Duvalier's paramilitary squads who were the ringleaders of widespread corruption.

Assembly plants for US products - and increasingly, goods from Korea and Hong Kong - have found Haiti an ideal location because it has the largest labor pool in the Caribbean and is fairly close to the US. Because of the poverty, businesses can get eager workers for very cheap wage rates.

And up until the fall of Duvalier, unions had not organized here. Businessmen here say if it weren't for delays, Haiti would remain the best place for them to do business.

Though a government industrial promotions council was set up under General Namphy and funded by the US Agency for International Development, it has had little success. One group of prospective US investors brought here by the council in January was witness to a strike and shootings.

An official involved in the program recalled that one of the visiting businessmen said, ``Call me when you have a new president.''

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