Bill Clinton applauded the large turnout at an investor conference in Haiti's capital Thursday, calling it a sign of hope for economic growth and job creation in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Bill Clinton applauded the large turnout at an investor conference in Haiti’s capital Thursday, calling it a sign of hope for economic growth and job creation in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
At least 200 representatives of U.S., Latin American and other foreign businesses crowded into an upscale hotel for the conference. Organizers with the Inter-American Development Bank said so many people signed up that they abandoned registration and opened the doors to all comers.
Clinton, making his third visit to Haiti this year and second since being named U.N. special envoy to the impoverished country in May, headlined the gathering aimed at encouraging investment to expand the country’s garment, agriculture and energy industries.
“I’ve been working very hard on this. I personally recruited a lot of people to come here,” Clinton told reporters. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, of course, but I think you’ll see a lot of quite impressive new investment coming out of this.”
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Haiti was once home to productive farms as well as factories where low-wage workers sewed clothes for export, but years of political and social turmoil have destroyed its environment and economy.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon picked Clinton last spring to help restore the economy, and thus halt upheaval. The choice sparked some optimism here, though debate over raising the minimum wage in garment factories – currently less than $2 a day – has brought street protests and clashes with police and U.N. peacekeepers in recent months.
In a lunchtime speech, Clinton said the garment industry could create as many as 100,000 jobs. He also called for the construction of a new international airport in the north to bring visitors to the historic Sans Souci Palace, which he is scheduled to visit Friday, and nearby Citadelle Laferriere fortress.
“In the end all of our efforts will have to be judged by how many jobs we create, how much we swell the middle class and whether we perform for the investors and make them a profit for doing the right thing,” he said.
The former U.S. president said an important development is increased attention from Latin America, whose mostly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations have not always shown interest in their poor French- and Creole-speaking neighbor.
“We have more people from Latin America and the Caribbean here than we do from the U.S., Canada and Europe combined,” Clinton said of the conference. “That was always going to be essential for Haiti’s success: having your neighbors embrace you.”
The morning session had a corporate, glad-handing energy rarely seen in a country better known for raucous carnival celebrations and tire-burning street demonstrations. Blackberry-toting representatives of companies such as Citibank and Wal-Mart traded business cards with local shipping magnates.
“Haiti is open for business,” Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis told a packed ballroom. “And as you know, time is of the essence.”
Later the former president traveled to the eastern edge of the capital to tout a fish farm to potential investors. The project is seeking $800,000 in funding with the goal of being able to raise enough tilapia to feed 2 million people a year, director Valentin Abe said.
Representatives from George Soros’ Open Society Institute told The Associated Press about a planned partnership with Haitian shipper Gregory Mevs and help from the IADB to build a $50 million free-trade zone of clothing factories near the Cite Soleil slum.
Clinton also signed an agreement with President Rene Preval to open a country office of his Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative in Haiti and provide assistance to the country in what has been a successful effort to lower one of the region’s highest HIV rates, now estimated at 2.2 percent.
Following a tumultuous 2008 that saw hurricanes kill hundreds and violent food riots that toppled the last prime minister, this year’s relative calm is seen as a window to rebuild and invest, especially taking advantage of a U.S. deal that sharply reduces tariffs on Haitian-made textiles.
But a sense of fragility remains, underscored by the assault rifle-toting U.N. peacekeepers standing guard on the cratered street outside the hotel. Hedi Annabi, head of the 9,000-member mission expected to be approved for a sixth year Oct. 15, warned Thursday of “undue risk” if the troops left before a new president takes office in 2011.