US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over the opening of a $300 million industrial park in Haiti on Monday, a venture led by a South Korea textile company that could bring thousands of jobs to the poorest country in the Americas.
"The people of this country have made real progress in a short time, and we've reached a critical moment," Clinton told an investor lunch for 50 people after touring the 600-acre park.
"We have a chance to keep moving forward together, but it's going to take partnership and support from the private sector - from all of you," she told the audience, which included US actor-activists Sean Penn and Ben Stiller, British airline mogul Richard Branson and New York fashion designer Donna Karan.
Located between Haiti's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, and the northern border with the Dominican Republic, the Caracol industrial park is seen as one of the few visible signs of progress in the multibillion-dollar international effort to rebuild Haiti after a devastating earthquake in January 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people.
"In the past, sad images of Haiti have been shown around the world, but Haiti is not just about these images," he said. "We are committed to taking all appropriate measures to make it easier for you to invest in Haiti."
The park's promoters cite long-term estimates of 130,000 new jobs in the region, about half of those in the park itself.
Some 1,000 people already work at the park's first factory. Operated by South Korean textile and apparel firm Sae-A Trading Co Ltd, it makes T-shirts for Wal-Mart.
A paint factory is set to open next month. The number of jobs is due to grow to 5,400 by the end of 2013 as the facilities expand and more companies move in.
Critics say a return to factory-based economic initiatives will not help pull Haitians out of poverty.
They cite promises of factory jobs in the 1970s that lured thousands of people from the countryside to the capital. Most wound up living in swelling slums, which fueled political instability that caused many factories to close.
The Inter-American Development Bank committed an initial $55 million investment for the park's construction. The lead investor, Sae-A Trading Co Ltd, said it plans to build 12 factories with a total investment of $90 million providing jobs for 20,000 Haitians.
Starting pay for Caracol's workers is the minimum wage of $5 per day.
Linose Joseph, 29, a Sae-A sewing machine operator, said she is now better able to feed her three children even though she thinks her salary is too low.
She said the company charges employees $1.25 for lunch and that many workers spend $1.25 per day on transport to and from the factory.
But "we never thought we would have this in our country," Joseph said, referring to manufacturing jobs.
Meanwhile, farmers complain they were displaced from their fields to make way for the park and have protested their lost income.
"No one should be under any illusions that this is a perfect project. What development project anywhere in the world is?" said Hillary Clinton. Despite "the inevitable challenges ... the development here represents a new opportunity for Haiti."