MIAMI – Haiti’s Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis made an urgent pitch to Haitian-American and other potential investors during a visit last week, telling them “the time is now” to launch new ventures in one of the Caribbean’s largest markets.
“The time has come and Haiti is open to business,” Pierre-Louis said to about 200 guests at a fundraising dinner. “We strongly believe that Haiti is at a turning point– a critical point, indeed– where we can either seize the opportunities of this moment and move forward rapidly or fall back again in the vicious cycle of insecurity, violence and isolation of the country.
“Timing is of extreme importance,” she said. “Haiti will not develop through humanitarian aid. Growth will come from investment.”
Haiti’s population of 9 million needs goods and services of all kind — from toilets to roads, electricity to hospitals. With an estimated 80 percent of the people living in poverty, the country has more than enough industries to build, and create jobs in the process that would improve the standard of living for the majority of Haitians.
Past efforts by the Diaspora, going as far back as after Jean-Claude Duvalier’s 1986 ouster, have failed because of the “pay-to-play” nature of the government, debilitating bureaucracy and lack of security, among other factors. Such experiences, development experts have said, has left some doubtful about giving Haiti another chance.
“The reality is that most of the country is still closed,” said Salusa Basquin, an adjunct professor who operates an online directory of Haitian businesses meant to increase networking among them. “The government is a closed window”
The country has survived for decades mainly on foreign aid, small-scale grassroots enterprises and the help of émigrés who send money to families left behind in the poverty-stricken island nation. Pierre-Louis is now echoing the strategy many development experts have long recommended, saying the road to real growth and revamping of the country is through far-reaching investments.
Pierre-Louis, named to her position in July after deadly food riots in 2008 forced the ouster of her predecessor, has met with various government officials and media in the United States, calling for long-term business ventures in Haiti.
Thursday, during the dinner at the swank Doubletree dining room overlooking Biscayne Bay, she reiterated that message, saying long-term investments are needed to create jobs, build infrastructure and otherwise fuel other sectors of Haiti’s economy.
Only by forming what Pierre-Louis called a “solid partnership”– between the Haitian Diaspora, investors, friends of the country, and the Haitian government— will the country reduce its poverty and have sustainable growth, she said.
Education, healthcare and public works are the sectors most ripe for investment, she said. Sectors such as tourism, which reinvigorated the economic landscape of neighboring Dominican Republic and Jamaica, offer particularly appeal to developers.
Pierre-Louis’ 30-minute address resonated with attendees, most of them Haitian-American business owners in South Florida and young entrepreneurs. Still, they met the message with some skepticism, because the steps for investors to take were not clearly laid out. Pierre-Louis’ sincerity and devotion to developing Haiti came across and was inspiring, some said, but a few had reservations about Haiti’s readiness to receive large-scale investment.
Basic efforts such as consistent outreach to the Diaspora have not been established, but should be for those interested in taking advantage of markets there, Basquin said.
Fred St.Armand, owner of Pax Villa Funeral Homes, said he attended the dinner in hopes of hearing some specifics, like the first step potential investors should take in Haiti. He said the family-operated business is “anxious and ready” to work in Haiti, but there is no clear path for them to follow in replicating their successful business there.
“We are anxious, ready, willing, and able to invest in the funeral industry in Haiti. But the most difficult thing is the first step,” said St. Armand, whose family operates four funeral homes in South Florida and Orlando and ships bodies to and from Haiti. “What I really want to see her [Pierre-Louis] do is for her to have a team get in touch with the people who can invest.
“I want to do just like I do here– I want to go to a place, pay my fees, get my license and I start operating,” St. Armand said, adding that Pierre-Louis struck him and genuine. “If Haiti’s door is open to us, show us the door.”
An exploratory trip for potential investors of all nationalities to get a firsthand look at Haiti is to be organized by the fundraising dinner’s co-sponsor, the Association of Bi-National Chambers of Commerce in Florida, the group’s president Lita Haeger said.
The nascent non-profit Haitian American Center for Economic and Public Affairs in Miami belongs to the chambers of commerce association. It organized the fundraiser, partly because the umbrella trade association requires its members to hold events promoting trade with home countries.
“Haiti is the last frontier in the Americas for those looking for virgin opportunities,” Haeger said. “Sending money to families back home by Western Union is ok, but it’s not enough. Bringing know-how and professional management is vital for the development of the country, helping it to sustain itself.
“The business community in Miami has a moral obligation to give a hand to our neighbor that needs so much by providing Haitians with the tools to succeed,” Haeger added.
Well-known fixtures in South Florida’s Haitian community attended the $55-per-plate dinner, to benefit HACEPA, among them prominent activists, physicians, small business owners, political operatives and young entrepreneurs.
Dr. Rudolph Moise, a prominent physician and Haitian films actor, said he and others are working on a conference to discuss business opportunities in more depth. The Prime Minister’s updates on efforts to improve security bolstered his sense that pursuing business is worthwhile venture.
“I wanted to see what progress Haitians were making,” Dr. Moise said. “At least now you have some sense and you might take a trip to see how things really are. Before, because of the insecurity, you would never think of that [investing].”
Pierre-Louis said the Haitian government has improved security—partly to convince the United States and Canada to remove travel warnings that keep people from visiting or investing in Haiti. Her government is working to increase efficiency in its workforce and continues to apply new practices in a move to ready the country for development.
But, she admits, things are not where they need to be, she said.
“Ill-advised policies, repeated mismanagement practices – these can no longer be accepted,” Pierre-Louis said. “Unfortunately, the repercussions of those bad policies… will take years to be reversed. However, it is imperative that we start now.
“The world needs institution that are well-regulated, and serves all people with dignity and respect.”