Despite Years of Crushing Poverty, Hope Grows in Haiti

January 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the next installment of a series on fragile states, special correspondent Kira Kay reports on Haiti's struggle to overcome years of political turmoil and severe poverty.

KIRA KAY: In a small garment factory in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, a class of new recruits is being taught how to lockstitch.

American Wanda Bianchini is here to help tackle the learning curve.

WANDA BIANCHINI, training consultant: What we have are a lot of students that have never worked at all any place. They need to learn everything, from the work ethic, to running the machines, to sewing, to threading. The very first day, they were a little intimidated by it.

KIRA KAY: This initiative is being funded with U.S. government dollars. It represents a significant rethink of foreign aid, harnessing the potential of the private sector to rebuild a fragile country alongside more traditional humanitarian assistance.

Twenty-year-old Roseline Minord never went to school and can’t read. But she’s hoping a job in Haiti’s garment industry will change her life and improve her country, too.

ROSELINE MINORD, student: I like what they are teaching us. And I hope they can keep doing it for a long time, because there are a lot of young people in the streets without jobs.

KIRA KAY: Haiti is still a struggling country, to be sure. But, for the first time in years, there is a palpable feeling of hope here. And ground zero is this industrial park, where factories mothballed during years of instability are now being brought back to life.

The goal is to create tens of thousands of jobs as fast as possible. From the 1960s to the 1980s, under the dictators Papa Doc and his son, Baby Doc Duvalier, Haiti was known for assembling garments for the U.S. market, including stores like Sears and J.C. Penney.

But after the ouster of the Duvaliers, the country spiraled into chaos, coups and street violence from within, and a United Nations economic embargo enforced by U.S. warships. Investors fled. So did thousands of Haitians, many heading for U.S. shores in rickety boats. By 2006, Haiti had hit a miserable low point.

GEORGES SASSINE, factory owner: It was really a war zone.

KIRA KAY: Factory owner Georges Sassine remembers the gang violence that spread from a nearby slum to his factory walls.

GEORGES SASSINE: Bullets coming through the roof hitting workers. The last one was sitting right here, as a matter of fact. And we just fixed the hole. And every time, it was a panic and production suffered. And, after a while, I could not — I was losing too much money, so I had to close.

KIRA KAY: But, just as Sassine was closing his doors, the tide started to turn. The election of President Rene Preval reduced political strife and brought in a series of reforms.

With Preval’s blessing, a United Nations peacekeeping force already in the country resolved to get tough on the crippling gang violence, even taking casualties. Within months, the urban warfare had largely stopped. Haiti’s population has mostly accepted the peacekeepers, especially the Brazilians, whose own experience with city slums helped them understand the job here.

MAN: It is the poorest area of Port-au-Prince.

KIRA KAY: They still patrol the slum of Cite Soleil, which, just a few years ago, was perhaps the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere. Outside what used to be a main gang headquarters, still pockmarked with bullet holes, Brazilian peacekeepers today serve more as crossing guards than warriors.

KENNETH MERTEN, U.S. ambassador, Haiti: Haiti was no longer the place where people are kidnapped by the score every month. It is no longer a place where armed people drive around in vehicles shooting up the town.

KIRA KAY: U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten is back in Haiti for the third time in his diplomatic career. He says U.S. government policy in Haiti is now being reshaped to take advantage of this moment of stability.

KENNETH MERTEN: We need a partner here to work with. And that partner can’t only be other NGOs. It needs to be the Haitian state.

KIRA KAY: The task of rebuilding Haiti is undeniably huge. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. More than half its people live on just a dollar a day. Public services like health care and a free education are almost nonexistent.

JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE, Prime Minister, Haiti: Somebody say that we just want to get out of misery to get into poverty. And I believe that is a beautiful sentence for Haiti, because it is exactly what we are aiming for right now.

KIRA KAY: Jean-Max Bellerive is Haiti’s prime minister.

JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE: We are a country where 70 percent of the people are not working. The capacity to increase your internal revenue is almost zero. I believe creating an environment to create jobs is my main concern as a prime minister today. Attracting new investors coming from Haiti or coming from abroad, but mainly creating jobs, creating a better environment for investments, from there, I believe you can tackle all the problems.

KIRA KAY: And, so, as part of its new initiative to partner with Haiti’s government and spur the return of investors, the United States Congress last year passed what is called the HOPE II Act. It allows garments assembled in Haiti to be sold duty-free in the U.S.

And Haiti’s investment push is getting some heavyweight help. Former President Bill Clinton was recently appointed the U.N. special envoy to Haiti. He’s come to the country with scores of potential investors in tow. They looked at Haiti’s garment industry and fledgling agriculture and tourism sites as well.

BILL CLINTON: We know that this is a great opportunity not only for investors to come and make a profit, but for the people of Haiti to have a more secure and a more broadly shared, prosperous future.

GEORGES SASSINE: The whole of Haiti’s budget wouldn’t have brought that kind of support, as advertising, as exposure. President Clinton’s knocks on somebody’s door and tells them, why don’t you put 1 percent of your business in Haiti, that person is going to listen.

KIRA KAY: Clinton’s support and the HOPE legislation are keeping Haitian Georges Sassine businessman busy.

GEORGES SASSINE: Wait for me. Wait for me in Mr. Oscar’s office.

KIRA KAY: He’s now the official local point person for this new investment, and his phones haven’t stopped ringing, even during our interview.

GEORGES SASSINE: We have five different people who have five different potential industrial park sites. So, I have to — 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 — it’s a good problem to have.

KIRA KAY: But all this promise of Haiti’s expanding garment industry, even if lasts, isn’t enough to pull this country entirely back from the brink. That’s in large part because more than 60 percent of the population here lives in the countryside and risks being left out of Haiti’s moment of hope, as investment money gets funneled into the city.

Yolette Etienne is a longtime grassroots organizer in Haiti.

YOLETTE ETIENNE: Everything should be done to improve the land and to see how that can be used and that can be developed in more a rational way.

KIRA KAY: Etienne says she wants to make sure the tougher, but ultimately more promising area of agricultural development doesn’t get sidelined in favor of quick-fix garment jobs.

YOLETTE ETIENNE: It will be important for the international community and the government to negotiate or to give more priority to more sustainable job creation.

KIRA KAY: And even that urban factory work offers little more than a subsistence living. The minimum wage here was just raised to $3 a day. That’s still less than half what similar jobs pay just across the border in the Dominican Republic. But it isn’t stopping Haitians from lining up for interviews.

KENNETH MERTEN: Right now, the needs are so great here in terms of employment, any employment, really. I understand the needs that people see in terms of making sure that workers are treated fairly and compensated fairly. Those are part of the provisions that are in the HOPE bill, where Haiti has agreed to allow representatives from foreign labor organizations into the factories to look to make an assessment at how these workers are being treated.

KIRA KAY: Any development, be it urban or rural, will rely on continued stability. And there are worries.

The United Nations peacekeeping force won’t stay here forever. So, it’s focusing on rehabilitating and expanding Haiti’s police force, to one day, perhaps soon, take its place. It’s a tall order to find, vet and educate the 14,000 new officers needed, and there currently aren’t enough weapons for them anyway.

A recent training exercise focused on protecting the country’s political leaders from potential attack. The exercise highlights fears of political instability here. And tensions have indeed heightened recently. Fifteen political parties, including that of deposed, but still popular former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, were banned from elections coming up next February.

KENNETH MERTEN: The election periods in Haiti have often been turbulent periods. If we have serious problems with election results that give to, say, potential investors the problem — the perception that Haiti is perhaps entering another period of instability, that will cost Haitians dearly, I’m afraid.

KIRA KAY: U.S. Ambassador Merten says, bluntly, Haiti doesn’t have many more chances to get this right.

KENNETH MERTEN: We really need them to — to understand that this may be the last time that they are going to have this level of international community interest and willingness to help out, particularly financially, quite honestly.

KIRA KAY: This may be the last time donors are really going to put so much effort into Haiti.

YOLETTE ETIENNE: I think so. I think so. The situation has become so critical. Now something needs to be done.

KIRA KAY: It’s a race against time for Haiti to convince its people and the world that this moment of promise can be made permanent.

GWEN IFILL: Our “Fragile States” series is produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.