TOPICS > Economy

With Businesses Destroyed, Haiti’s Capital a ‘Cashless City’

January 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The realities of the Port-au-Prince economy have become brutally simple. With most businesses now gone, banks still closed, and thousands jobless, the city is virtually cashless. Ray Suarez reports from Haiti.
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JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, more on the Haiti earthquake.

Ray Suarez has been reporting from there all week. And, tonight, he looks at rebuilding Haitian businesses and the economy.

RAY SUAREZ: The realities of the Port-au-Prince economy are brutally simple: Hundreds of thousands of workers have had no wages for weeks. The banks are mostly closed. The wire transfer businesses can’t give Haitians money wired in from abroad fast enough.

This is uncomfortably close to a cashless city, which is why this was such a welcome sight. Factories getting ready to open for the first time since the quake threw open the gates, and workers anxious for salaries poured in — 28,000 workers generate 10 percent of the country’s entire GDP. Even at $5 a day, these jobs are highly prized.

So, what are we making?

CHARLES BAKER, Baker’s World Wide Apparel: Uniforms.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Baker’s factory makes lab coats, surgical scrubs, food service whites, and uniforms, mostly for export to North America. He says his workers started filtering back to the factory from damaged neighborhoods last week. They wanted to get back to cutting, sewing, and packing

CHARLES BAKER: What they need right now is what’s happening on the other side. They’re back at work. I would say 90 percent of them have lost their homes, are sleeping outside. And, for them, this is home.

RAY SUAREZ: Of his 750 workers, Baker doesn’t think any were killed. Most factory workers survived because they were still at the job when the quake hit. But many have endured losses.

CHARLES BAKER: Forty-three-year-old Annette Frederic lost her 20-year-old son, a university student.

ANNETTE FREDERIC (through translator): He died sitting up. A piece of cement fell on him with his bag right by him and everything. Lots of kids died. Teachers died. So, my child died, but I’m not discouraged, because God gave me strength. I still have life.

RAY SUAREZ: Mechanic Canege Ganette still has his home, though it’s damaged. His sister died January 12. Many at this factory lost someone. But he said he had to get back to work.

CANEGE GANETTE (through translator): We cannot just sit there and not do anything. For me, it’s preferable that we come to work, so we can see each other and provide support for one another.

RAY SUAREZ: Baker’s World Wide Apparel can’t get back to full production until his second building gets some repairs and reinforcement after earthquake damage.

He’s less sure about getting what clothing he can produce out through the country’s damaged ports. Pacific Sports is putting its stock on the road for shipment through the Dominican Republic. The company could get even more product out if the cargo planes bringing all the aid from the U.S., instead of flying back empty, headed back loaded with Haitian-made clothing.

Georges Sassine is trying to get around Haitian customs authorities he says are gumming up an easy solution to a tough problem. He’s president of the Association of Haitian Industries. His own factory is too damaged to resume production. Repairs are under way.

GEORGES SASSINE: Now it’s just a question of cleaning — cleaning it up, digging it out, fixing the wires, and find some other way to put — some other place to put my office. But we can do it. It’s OK. No problem here.

RAY SUAREZ: But fixing up his factory is going to take longer than he first thought. Meanwhile, his machines are silent and his workers idle. Normally, they turn out workout apparel for Russell Athletic and New Balance sold at large U.S. retailers. But what if those stores turn elsewhere?

GEORGES SASSINE: It’s nothing personal. It’s not like these people are heartless or anything like that. It’s just business. The shelf is going to be empty. It cannot be empty. So, they will have to have — to make that decision. We don’t want them to be facing that decision. We just want to be back online, so that that shelf is occupied by these same people.

RAY SUAREZ: Sassine was profiled on the “NewsHour” just before the earthquake. We broadcast a report on how the economy here was finally looking up.

GEORGES SASSINE: I have to be like a dispatcher, investors from Brazil, from Ireland, and from Korea coming one after the other. So, it’s been very hectic, believe me. But it’s a good problem to have.

RAY SUAREZ: And Sassine saw better times ahead. Now he scrambles to help his members reopen and uses his influence to get things done. On this morning, he’s helping road crews assigned to demolition duty in the quake rubble who now have sadder duties thrust upon them.

GEORGES SASSINE: I’m here to pick up more body bags.

RAY SUAREZ: Crews are still finding victims as they clear building sites. Sassine is trying to hustle up aid for his workers, and losing big money every day his factory doesn’t sew a single garment.

While industrialists struggle to get exports to America, poorer Haitians are waiting for wealth to flow out of America. Haitians rely on relatives abroad for financial help, making remittances the country’s single largest source of income.

But now, when those dollars wired from worried family are most critical, people can’t get their money. The cash transfer businesses were destroyed along with everything else.

Pierre Marie Orlean had been in line since 5:00 a.m., waiting to get a transfer.

PIERRE MARIE ORLEAN (through translator): We don’t have anything since the earthquake. Our house fell down. We don’t have any food. We haven’t — we don’t have anything.

RAY SUAREZ: With so many jobs simply gone, and other sources of cash blocked, countless thousands of Haitians are forced to rely on each other, as they do in the makeshift camps that have sprung up all around Port-au-Prince, and rely on foreign aid.

When rumors spread through a crowd waiting outside factory gates for work that aid was being given out at a nearby warehouse, hundreds rushed the truck and the gates to see if they could get any.

A very few procured water and bundles of something, anything. The rest rush forward, looking for an equal or better haul, but the gates close. Haitian police and Peruvian peacekeepers might have gotten the crowd’s hopes up by having them get in line. They were just using the gesture as crowd control.

When everything else is running out, it seems, there’s still enough patience.