US Business Poised to Reenter Haiti

Foreign investors are eager to return, despite volatility, in move that may help democracy

WITH Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return from exile this past weekend and the lifting of the United Nations economic embargo, many Americans who have well-established business ties with the island economy are returning to set up shop.

Haitians could use the work, too.

When the UN imposed a complete economic embargo against Haiti last May, unemployment there shot up to 70 percent. Already suffering from acute poverty and political turmoil, Haitians seemed to have lost their last remaining hope for development - foreign investment.

The embargo left a vacuum due largely to the forced exodus of American entrepreneurs, who, up until just six months ago, were the single largest provider of private-sector jobs.

Those business people came back to the United States, and then watched from the sidelines as US troops have tried to stabilize the situation and establish democracy. The group of some 200 investors, including farmers, baseball manufacturers, garment producers, and marketers of handicrafts, spurn warnings about the volatile environment.

Until last week, when commercial flight service was restored, handicraft manufacturer Robert Antoniadis called the airlines every day to arrange for the earliest travel opportunity. The Williston, Vt., businessman invests $1 million a year in labor and materials in Haiti to produce artisan giftware for high-end US catalog companies.

Since May, when he could no longer export from the island, Mr. Antoniadis has taken what he calls a ``tremendous hit'' - $500,000 in lost revenues and the prospect of canceled contracts. Yet, he remains ``committed to Haiti because in terms of the Haitians' use of color and manual dexterity, their products can't be duplicated anywhere.'' Proximity to the US market is a plus, too.

Antoniadis echoes what other US entrepreneurs say about Haitian workers - that they're hardworking, reliable, and grateful for the income. Like many of his colleagues, Antoniadis pays his workers from 5 to 20 times the dollar-a-day minimum wage.

If the pay is poor, so is the outlook for rapid industrial and agricultural development in a country lacking clean water, proper sanitation, and adequate roads and energy supplies. US firms have accepted the limits of of Haiti's poverty, requiring only basic skills from a largely illiterate workforce.

Raymond Lafontant, executive director of the Association of Haitian Industries, says US investors are a ``key element'' of an economic recovery plan he has been working on with the Aristide government. In the mid-1980s, the country had 100,000 manufacturing jobs, many in textile assembly plants; today the number is 5,000.

``What could be revamped immediately is the baseball industry, which employed 900 people before the May embargo,'' says Mr. Lafontant. But the largest firm, St. Louis-based Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, pulled out and went to Puerto Rico.

Every little bit helps

Even the smallest-scale US business involvement makes an impact on this poor country. Jim Gibbons, head of Haitian Tropical Management, a mango-packing plant, employs 215 Haitians picking and packaging produce. His operation helps small Haitian farmers earn modest incomes from backyard harvests.

Some 60 percent of his export volume comes from subsistence farmers - families who may have just one mango tree on their property. The remaining 40 percent comes from groves Mr. Gibbon's company has planted. Based in Vero Beach, Fla., Gibbons says he has been working with Haitians for 20 years. But he hasn't visited his operations since December 1993. ``It's been too rough down there,'' he says.

Violence downplayed

``The press has tried to show Haiti as a violent society,'' says a Haitian minister in the Aristide government. ``When you have a country with 70 percent unemployed, you have a lot of tension.''

Speaking by phone from his office in Port-au-Prince, Lafontant discounted recent incidents of violence as signs of an unstable society. Instead, he sees evidence of stability: schools opening this week, people returning to jobs.

But Antoniadis says he is under no illusion that Haiti will become calm and predictable any time soon. ``There's going to be upheaval for a long time, but the country should be left alone to manage itself,'' he says. ``Our biggest concern is that the US is going to dominate Haiti'' and impose embargoes that wreak havoc on the economy and damage US business prospects there.

The White House is encouraging US businesses to quickly reestablish links in Haiti. Sally Yearwood, a business advocate who attended a meeting at the White House last week, says Washington policymakers recognize the need to beef up Haiti's private sector.

``We can keep Haitians in Haiti by investing there and giving them jobs,'' Antoniadis says. ``It's a lot smarter than the US government spending $1 million a day [to keep Haitian refugees at the US base] at Guantanamo.''

But even heavy foreign investment wouldn't be enough. Fundamental reforms are needed to transform the economy from a bloated bureaucracy to a commercial success, the Haitian minister says. One of Aristide's first thrusts will be to end political patronage. The minister says sweeping measures should also be taken to privatize the economy. He points, for instance, to utilities such as the phone company. It can now take three to four years to hook up a telephone line.

Once the public sees the benefits of less intrusive government, they will demand democratic reforms, he predicts. If Aristide's plans to slash government succeed, private-sector development will become all the more important. Still, the minister is realistic. ``The political situation is very fragile,'' he says.

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