Trade bill for Haiti hailed as trigger for turning around its economy
By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — A trade preference bill included in one of the last bits of legislation passed before the end of the 109th congressional session Dec. 9 is being hailed as having the potential to help start a turnaround in the bedraggled economy of the Caribbean nation of Haiti.
In a late-night vote the Senate passed a bill that will give Haiti duty-free access to U.S. markets for products that include materials made from beyond the U.S. or the Caribbean. The bill also included provisions to normalize trade relations with Vietnam and extend trade benefits to four Andean nations and sub-Saharan Africa.
Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy, said the break on tariffs "will go a long way toward helping Haiti in its present crisis."
Haiti had been left out of recent free trade pacts — including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement — that opened up markets in the Western Hemisphere, Bishop Wenski explained in a Dec. 11 telephone interview with Catholic News Service.
By allowing Haiti duty-free access to sell goods that are made with fabric manufactured outside the United States or the Caribbean, the bill is expected to immediately trigger the reopening of factories that have closed over the last 20 years, he said.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with an estimated 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line, and a per-capita annual income of about $440. An estimated 70 percent of the workforce is unemployed.
The U.S. bishops and other church leaders had been pushing Congress for the last two years to approve trade-preference legislation for Haiti.
In a Dec. 5 letter to members of Congress, Bishop Wenski and leaders of the Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist churches and the United Church of Christ urged them not to be persuaded by arguments against the bill. A handful of senators from textile-producing states had tried to block the bill, arguing that it would hurt their constituents. But the religious leaders’ letter rebutted those claims.
"According to a recent study by the U.S. Agency for International Development, trade preferences would have no adverse impact on U.S. manufacturers," the letter said. "In fact, Haiti is an important importer of American products, ranging from rice and chickens to automobiles and computers. For every dollar sent to Haiti, $1.34 comes back."
The letter stressed a moral obligation to help Haiti, "to be good neighbors to those in need."
The Haitian ambassador to the United States, Roy Joseph, said the religious leaders’ coalition was a powerful force in the bill’s success.
"From a moral point of view, it was very strong, helping a sister nation only 800 miles from Miami, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere," and historically "the second independent nation in the hemisphere" after the United States, Joseph told CNS.
He said that within six months to a year the number of jobs in the textile industry in Haiti could double, to nearly 40,000.
"Our hope is not really just for the trade bill, but for the positive signal it sends to the world about Haiti," Joseph said.
In the early 1980s, there were as many as 150,000 textile industry jobs in Haiti, he said. But amid turbulent political times, many factories closed, leaving fewer than 20,000 textile jobs today. Joseph said many of those companies will reopen almost immediately. Estimates are that within two years the textile plants will employ 40,000 new workers.
Even more important is that those jobs will have a "multiplier" effect, Bishop Wenski said, from the food vendors who will have new customers able to pay for lunches outside the factories to the calming influence on a population that has been racked with civil unrest for decades, in part because of the limited opportunities there.
"If the economy is stronger, we look with some hope that the political situation will become a little less volatile," he said.
Joseph sees it as a signal to the world: "Investors will see that Haiti is open for business again."