In 2004, shortly after the international community provided Jean Bertrand Aristide with a one-way ticket out of Haiti, the US Southern Command convened a meeting of Haiti experts and journalists to update us on their mission to put down the violence and restore order to the troubled nation.
During the meeting, which included, not only military, but civilians from State and Defense departments, I made the point that while I appreciated the general’s help in Haiti, I would much prefer the intervention of General Mills, General Motors or General Electric.
Everyone smiled and the commander, General James T. Hill, responded firmly but politely that Haiti is not ready for my preferred generals because Haitians in Haiti do not speak the language of business.
It was a frank and sober assessment by a man who had spent considerable time working in Haiti since the 1994 U.S. invasion of the country when nearly 20,000 mostly American soldiers returned Aristide to power following a military coup.
Now, five years after my exchange with General Hill, with Haiti once again trying to recover from another catastrophe–the epic January 12 earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince and much of the southwest coast—the question remains the same: Is Haiti ready to do business with the world?.
The government has unveiled its blueprint for redeveloping the capital and the centerpiece of their plan is to transform Port-au-Prince specifically, and the country in general, into a tourist destination. While I think tourism is a worthwhile industry, Haiti is a long way from competing with the likes of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the other Caribbean destinations.
The reasons are two branches from the same tree; Haiti simply doesn’t have the infrastructure—either the bricks and mortar or flesh and blood variety—to pull off such a project, at least not now. I know that the needs in Haiti are mind boggling, but that makes it all the more urgent to prioritize.
No serious investor is going to set up shop in a country with few good roads, a shoddy electrical grid, and unreliable phones. Before soliciting business from international corporate executives, Haiti’s government should first encourage the donor and foreign aid community to help the country finally become self-sufficient by installing the first pillar of a 21st century business climate.
The second pillar, to be installed soon after the first, if not simultaneously, is a massive campaign to woo Haitians living overseas to return to leadership roles in government and the private sector..
For more than three decades, Haiti has steadily lost its best and brightest. These are people with all the skills, connections and business acumen that Haiti needs to move forward. As Haitian bureaucrats are busy paving the roads and installing power grids, Haitian business leaders will be capitalizing on their business contacts from around the world—from Montreal to Miami, Boston to Paris– to attract badly-needed capital to the country.
This is no idealism; it is quite practical. Instead of sending physicians from aid organizations, and paying them up to $1500 a day, we should recruit Haitian physicians from Brooklyn and Chicago to relocate to the country of their birth where that same amount of money can go a long way. .
In many cases, say banking, expatriate salaries can be paid by U.S. employers such as Chase, or Citi, providing Haiti with a more effective and efficient form of foreign aid or family remittances. In my family alone, there are five top-notch bankers working in New York. I’d shame them if they refused to return.
Banking is just one of many industries where Haitians excel in the U.S. The New York Police Department has more than 200 Haitian American born officers, many of them friends of mine. Their repatriation to Haiti would lessen the country’s reliance on foreign United Nation’s peacekeeping forces. The Haitians are competent in law enforcement so that Haiti would not have to rely on UN troops to assure its security.
The way we’ve been operating in Haiti is bankrupt and we need to stop fooling ourselves that we’re fine. The industrial revolution bypassed Haiti because of a world economic embargo, imposed on us for having the temerity to fight successfully for our freedom from the French.
Many of us seem to want to continue to stand on the sidelines while the global market passes us by. We tend to downplay the fantastic growth in recent years that our neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has undergone while we seem to move ever backward. Some Haitians tell themselves foolishly that the Dominicans don’t own much of the businesses in their own country. I’d venture a guess that not many American banks on Wall Street actually own the mortgages taken out on Main Street USA, but they continue to cash in nonetheless. That reality mocks our pseudo nationalism.
The earthquake exposed the wounds of Haiti that many have tried to hide. We can no longer fool ourselves, thinking people don’t know. Our dirty laundry is out. Isolated from the international community for so long, now is the perfect time to build the leadership that we need to move the country into the modern age, and transform Haiti into the country that Haitians deserve.
Or else we will forever be known, the world over, as the people who don’t speak the language of business.