PORT-AU-PRINCE – Hundreds of foreign investors gathered in Haiti for a two-day conference which organizers hope will attract much needed capital to the country and improve its image in the eyes of the international business community.

The Inter-American Development Bank organized the conference on Thursday and Friday with U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton at the request of the Haitian government.

The first day of the gathering took place at the Caribe Hotel and Convention Center. There, 200 foreign investors and 300 local entrepreneurs took part in a day of seminars, on agribusiness, textiles, and renewable energy, and mingled over cocktails.

The gathering, which was a major topic of discussion all week in the Haitian press, is said to be the largest of its kind held in the country. The Haitian Government and its international partners are seeking opportunities to capitalize on Haiti’s newfound political stability and improved security.

“We need to take advantage of the new situation to create more jobs in agriculture, subcontracting, public works and tourism,” said President Rene Preval, underscoring the country’s 70 percent unemployment rate.

The President cited the creation of three new power plants, in Port-au-Prince, Gonaives and Cap Haitien as signs of his government’s efforts to create better investment conditions.

Foreign direct investment in Haiti has been low over the past 20 years but has increased to 10 percent of total investment – up from a rate of 3.5 percent at the beginning of the decade according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Local businessmen as well as foreign investors with experience in the country say a number of factors have discouraged greater private investment.

The President of the Haitian Association of Industry, Gregor Avril, said a cumbersome bureaucracy makes starting up a new company a difficult and drawn out process. Though he noted that the government has set up a special office tasked with helping new businesses cut through red tape.

He also says that even with good interests rates these days, credit is hard to come by. “It’s still considered a risky business environment and the guarantees aren’t there,” Avril said.

Henry Thevenin, a Haitian American developer based in Orlando, came to the conference seeking investors for his 560-acre property on the north side of Port-au-Prince, which he wants to turn into a resort.

Thevenin said he’s been trying to develop properties in Haiti since 1996, but so far without much success. He looks at the Dominican Republic next door and is dismayed that Haiti has not been able to achieve the same level of development.

He faults a culture of nepotism. “To talk to an official you have to know people,” he said. Another problem, he added, is Haiti’s image overseas. Thevenin hopes that President Clinton’s star power will help change people’s views of the country and spur the government to greater action.

Clinton’s role appeared to be that of cheerleader and motivational speak on Thursday.
In a lunchtime speech he extolled local business opportunities and said the “political risk in Haiti is lower than it’s been in my lifetime.” He also noted the unprecedented interest in Haiti from Latin American governments and investors, joking that helping Haiti was the only thing the U.S. could agree on with Cuba and Venezuela.

Clinton highlighted the success of Haitians living in the United States. “The Haitian people are doing great everywhere else and they’ll do great in Haiti if we help them,” he said.

Citing his recent meetings with members of the Haitian Diaspora, he welcomed any ideas from Haitians living overseas on ways to get more of them involved in Haiti.

In addition to the improved political climate, one of the biggest draws for investors is trade legislation passed by the US Congress last year that gives garments exported from Haiti preferential access to the American market in the form of lower tariffs.

Avril says the effects of HOPE II, as the bill is called, are already being felt in the form of 11,000 new textile jobs. Supporters of the initiative are hoping for 100,000 new jobs – the same number of Haitians employed in the textile sector at its height in the 1980s.

The CEO of the Brazilian Textile Industry and Garment Association, Fernando Pimentel says the new rules made him take notice of Haiti. “It’s very important. You can access the American market,” says Pimentel. “You have the economic crisis, but its still the biggest market in the world.”

Pimentel is part of a 10-person delegation that’s been touring Haiti, exploring opportunities in the textile sector since Sunday. He says while he’s interested in investing, there are also a number of challenges; chief among them energy costs and water treatment.

In anticipation of these needs, local businessmen are developing projects to accommodate increased industrial production.

Richard Lebrun was at Hotel Karibe hoping to secure tenants for the West Indies Free Zone, a new industrial complex with 1.2 million square feet of rental space in Chancerelles a neighborhood near Cite Soleil.

But Lebrun and others stressed that the conference is a beginning and is as much about sending a message to the international community as it is about inking many deals.

“It’s going to create contact,” Lebrun said. “It won’t have an immediate impact, and hopefully it will attract enough attention that people will feel confident to invest in Haiti.”

In the afternoon, Clinton led a small group of investors on a tour of Caribbean Harvest, a fish farm in Croix des Bouquets. The farm is a self-sustaining project that provides small fish to villagers on the banks of Lake Azuei where they are raised in cages and sold to restaurants and street vendors.

Aess Xavier, 55, a fisherman from the village of Belize Medan says raising fish has helped his family of eight overcome the effects of over fishing in lake Azuei.

Caribbean Harvest founder Dr. Valentin Abe is seeking an investment of $770,000. He says that would allow him to double the number of people benefiting from the program to 3,000 and would increase production from 150,000 to 400,000 lbs of fish a year.

The first day of the conference wrapped up with a signing ceremony between President Preval and President Clinton. The deal, brokered by the Clinton Foundation, will supply Haiti with reduced cost drugs to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child.

On Friday President Clinton traveled to the northern coast of Haiti to highlight tourism opportunities with visits to the Sans Souci Palace and the Citadelle.

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