They came in pinstripes and clutched BlackBerrys that surprised them by going off the same way they did back home. Some said they were taken aback, on the way from the airport to their luxury hotel, by the commotion on the streets and by the obvious poverty of the place. “Don’t worry,” one of them said he told his wife. “It’s no picnic here, but it’s not as bad as I thought.”It did not appear that a single new deal was signed last week at a two-day investment conference in Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere. But the simple fact that hundreds of potential investors showed up to network and discuss possible projects created hope in a country that has been long shunned as too unsafe to visit, never mind invest in.
Haiti is used to well-meaning foreigners, most of them relief workers, peacekeepers and missionaries. But this was a new group: profit-minded people assessing Haiti based on its bottom line — and in the midst of an economic crisis, no less.
In one conference room, a group of businessmen in dark suits was discussing how brassieres could be made at low cost and high profit here. One room over, mangos were the topic at hand. Investors insisted that money-making opportunities were everywhere in Haiti.“The investment climate is much warmer than the temperature in this room,” said Gilles Rivard, the Canadian ambassador to Haiti.There were big names, too. Gap, Levi Strauss and American Eagle Outfitters were here, all interested in the potential of American trade legislation that wipes out duties on apparel assembled in Haiti. Citibank and Scotiabank were on hand to discuss loans.
Former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, gave his stamp of approval as he visited last week, declaring the country as safe as it has been in years and pledging to help investors navigate Haiti’s notorious red tape.
“We’re coming out of the paradigm of humanitarian help and brotherly love and moving to the creation of wealth and business,” said Patrick Delatour, the minister of tourism.
That Haiti needs the attention cannot be overstated. Unemployment hovers at around 70 percent, experts say, and over half of the population lives in extreme poverty. Violence broke out in June as students demanded an increase in the minimum wage to $5 from $1.75 — which were daily rates, not hourly ones. Haiti’s extremely low labor costs, comparable to those in Bangladesh, make it so appealing.
Still, investing in Haiti, those who operate in the country say, is not for the faint of heart. Water and power are off as much as they are on. The government, despite its overtures to investors, can tie up deliveries at the ports. Bribes are common. So are street protests. With 19 political parties jockeying for power, a deep rich-poor divide and legislative and presidential elections looming in the next two years, United Nations soldiers are an essential element in keeping the country from becoming unhinged.
Haiti, so used to suffering, is caught in a paradox. Jobs are an essential element to quelling the country’s social tensions. But companies require stability before they will create any jobs.
“There’s no opportunity here,” said Albert Hygens, 27, an unemployed college graduate. “I’m always looking for work. I look all day long. Nobody calls me back. They won’t even listen to me.”
At last week’s conference, it was obvious from the sales pitches that this was no typical business gathering.
“Don’t be afraid,” Maxime D. Charles, the head of Haiti’s banking association, told investors.
“Not everything is roses,” warned Fabricio Opertti, a loan program coordinator at the Inter-American Development Bank who helped organize the event.
“Major security issues have been addressed, but there does seem to be a fragile state,” said Mark D’sa, a production manager for Gap.
The State Department in July downgraded its travel warning for Haiti, which no longer advises Americans to avoid nonessential travel to the country. Whether that means Haiti is safe remains a matter of interpretation.
The State Department’s only other travel warning in this hemisphere is for Colombia, where terrorists and drug traffickers are the threat. Even as Mr. Clinton noted the improvements in Haiti’s stability, soldiers supplemented the Secret Service.
Part of the task at hand, organizers of the conference said, is improving Haiti’s reputation. “You don’t change reputations overnight in countries or human beings,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, who said he, as a Colombian, knew how long it took to change perceptions of a troubled place.
The Haitian economy has been reeling from a number of setbacks over many years.
Just last year, a string of hurricanes cost the country $1 billion in damages, or 15 percent of its gross domestic product.
The number of assembly jobs in the capital, which exceeded 100,000 before economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries in the early 1990s, now hovers around 20,000.
“I hated it,” Mr. Clinton said of the economic sanctions he enforced during his presidency. “But when you have people being burned to death with tires around their necks, that’s important, too. We had to bring an end to that.”
As for the conference, Haitian officials hoped all the talk would result in signatures, joint ventures, profits and jobs. “We don’t want this to be just talk,” said Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, Haiti’s prime minister. “We want concrete proposals. By the end of the year, we want to feel the effects of this meeting.”
To the restless population, who struggle to get by and doubt their leaders care much, she said simply, “Patience.”