Hope At Last In Haiti

Packing suitcases and cleaning up his Miami apartment, Walter Bussenius is preparing to return to Haiti. Just hours after U.S. troops began landing in his troubled Caribbean nation, he is calling customers of his essential-oils factory. He assures them that the plant, which makes oil for perfumes and has been shuttered for eight months because of the international embargo, will soon be back in business. Having fled the escalating violence in Haiti for Miami two months ago, Bussenius is anxious to return to his factory and 45-room hotel in Cap Haitien. And he's hopeful about the future. "The problems of Haiti are well known, and the opportunities are well known," he qays. "All it takes is a government that will facilitate development."

If only it were that easy. Haiti's strangled economy will get a much-needed boost when the international embargo is lifted. That is a condition of the agreement by which Haiti's military leaders are to cede power to elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And an expected $550 million in international aid in the first year should provide food, health, and infrastructure.

TRADE COLLAPSE. But the daunting task of rebuilding Haiti's economic and political system is complicated by tensions between the popularly elected priest-turned-president and the uneasy business class, which fears retribution for the military's September, 1991, coup. Indeed, the ultimate success of Haiti's recovery lies in the Haitians themselves rather than in the millions in aid about to come their way. Before economic recovery can take root, Haitians say, the cycle of violence and vengeance that has wracked the country for decades must end.

Outsiders agree. Aristide needs to create a system in which an election means "not only the victory of the majority but the protection of the minority," former President Jimmy Carter said in an Atlanta speech two days after returning from his Haiti mission.

The prospect of an Aristide return is something that many wealthy Haitians such as Olivier Nadal, one of the island's biggest importers, are slowly coming to accept. Like many of his counterparts, he distrusts Aristide but recognizes that the elected president must return for Haiti to progress. "We have so many things to do in this country," Nadal says. "We have nothing."

Even before the recent crisis, Haiti was the poorest nation in the hemisphere, with a per-capita income of just $360 annually. That dropped below $250 as Haiti's economy shrank by more than 15% in 1992-93, the World Bank says. The deprivation and political terrorism against Aristide supporters drove thousands of Haitians to flee the island.

Today, Haiti's economy is mind-numbingly bad. The inflation rate has soared to 46%. Trade collapsed with the embargo, decimating the country's coffee, mango, and apparel industries. Total exports fell from $163 million in 1991 to $72 million in 1993. Imports tumbled to $173 million from $300 million during the same period.

The picture for Haiti's 7 million people is just as bleak. More than 100,000 jobs have been lost in the three years since the embargo, and 75% of the country's workforce is unemployed. Some 47% of its adult population is illiterate. In 1993, more than 20% of children suffered from malnutrition, and 1 out of every 10 babies doesn't survive the first year.

The last three years of military rule has left Haiti's infrastructure battered. Electricity is provided for just six hours each day. Some 96% of the country's roads are potholed. The antiquated telephone system is near collapse. Haiti's port is plagued by outdated equipment. Tree-cutting for fuel has deforested all but about 7% of the land while erosion and faulty agricultural practices are shrinking the amount of arable land. As a cable issued by the U.S. officials in Port-au-Prince said earlier this year: "Haiti is not on the way to becoming a basket case. It is one."

The emergency assistance plan won't be a panacea for Haiti's deep-rooted problems. Half of the proposed $550 million to be donated during the next 12 months by the U.S. and the international community will be spent in the first 90 days. An initial recovery program, crafted by a consortium of donor nations, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, focuses on meeting social needs through nutrition, education, and health programs, rebuilding infrastructure, and encouraging growth of the private sector. Other international aid will come later: President Clinton promised in a Mar. 23, 1993, meeting with Aristide to help coordinate a $1 billion, five-year international program.

Analysts say privatization of state-owned interests, including phone, electricity, water, ports, cement, and flour mills--will be critical to restructuring the Haitian economy. Breaking the monopoly that a few powerful Haitian families have on industry is also key. Aristide's advisers emphasize an open foreign-investment policy, decentralization, divestiture of state enterprises, and the need to open the Haitian economy by cutting tariffs.

SKILLED WORKERS. The job of rebuilding Haiti will be difficult--but not impossible, eutsiders say. "On the positive side, [Haiti] has a skilled and hardworking labor force and entrepreneurial talent," says Rainer Steckhan, director of the World Bank's Caribbean office. One of the Haitian government's most important tasks will be to build bridges with the country's business community. "Because there is no formal way [for business] to access influential circles in the government and no rational way of doing that, they do so informally, with bribes. Until they have a mechanism, that will continue," says Yves Savain, a Haitian American businessman.

Indeed, building government institutions, such as a justice department to balance the military's power would win over many members of Haiti's business class. "They see an urgent need to build institutions so they cannot be held hostage by civilians or by people in uniform," says Lionel Delatour, a member of the Center for Free Enterprise & Democracy in Port-au-Prince.

Anthony P. Maingot, a Florida International University professor who has studied Haiti for 25 years, was heartened by the emotional note that Aristide hit to break through the tension and distrust at the opening of a July, 1993, meeting in Miami with Haitian businesspeople. Now, as then, he says, "it is up to Aristide to strike the right chord."

Whatever the chord, the message of reform will be unpopular in some of Haiti's social sectors. Haiti's economy and society "has been based on a tremendous amount of exploitation of blacks by the mulatto class, and they've been reluctant to give up power," says Anthony Bryan, a professor at the University of Miami's North-South Center.

Efforts to improve the lot mf the poor and to expand Haiti's fledgling middle-class will mean paying fair wages, not a popular prospect for industry based on low-wage labor of $1 a day. Marie Cerat, who helped found a nonprofit organization in Brooklyn that aids recent Haitian immigrants, notes that an aunt in Haiti has worked in a factory for 30 years and has no insurance, no pension, and no savings. "If there is no work that day, she does not get paid," she says. "There is no potion the Americans can bring that will change anything overnight."

Nothing, indeed, is very likely to change overnight. Eventually, the establishment of political stability, a resurgence of trade, and a friendly climate for business investment could bring the Haitian economy back from the dead. Until then, the country can only hope that the optimism of Haitians such as Walter Bussenius is well-founded.

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