A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has crafted a package of trade benefits for Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas. The goal is to boost Haiti's moribund economy, improve living conditions, and thereby reduce the impetus for illegal immigration to the United States.
U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, who sits on a Senate subcommittee on immigration, has visited Haiti more than 10 times in recent years.
Senator DeWine, who represents the midwestern state of Ohio, says Haiti's economy is in desperate need of assistance. "I believe that we have a moral obligation, as neighbors of Haiti, to help Haitians help themselves," he says. "This is a country where children are starving, literally."
Haiti's infant mortality rate is the highest in the Western hemisphere. Unemployment in Haiti exceeds 70 percent; the nation's poverty rate is even greater. Foreign investment is virtually non-existent, and the country's economy has been stagnant for years.
A group of U.S. lawmakers has drafted a bill that would grant duty-free status to some clothing made in Haiti, as long as Haiti shows progress in implementing economic and political reforms.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois says the goal is to triple the size of Haiti's garment industry, which currently employs about 30,000 workers. He says the measure would benefit Haiti and could help stem illegal immigration to the United States. "There is a great humanitarian need for this legislation," he says. "But let us look a step beyond: If we want to stop Haiti's boat people from desperately risking their lives to reach the United States, then we have to try to create a better way of life for them in Haiti."
Senator Durbin says no American jobs would be lost as a result of the bill, since Haitian-assembled garments would compete with imports from other developing nations, not garments made in the United States.
Miami attorney Steven Forester, a long-time advocate for Haitian immigrants, agrees the bill would benefit Haiti. "There are garment manufacturers in Haiti whose factories are idle," he says. "People desperately need work in Haiti. This Haiti trade bill will have the effect of making it possible for these manufacturers almost overnight to put people to work."
But some see an irony in U.S. efforts to boost Haiti's exports. For years, the United States and other foreign aid donors have withheld assistance to pressure Haiti to resolve a festering political crisis and strengthen its democratic institutions. Since 1998, Haiti has lost more than half-a-billion dollars in aid, as the international community has become increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of reform in the country, most recently under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
American University international relations Professor Robert Pastor helped broker an end to military rule in Haiti in 1994, while he was with the Atlanta-based Carter Center, headed by former President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Pastor says the international community is torn when it comes to Haiti, eager to boost economic conditions, without appearing to reward what it sees as the intransigence of the government in Port-au-Prince. "President Aristide has not been willing to accept any of the political reforms that would permit democratization to take root," he says. "The international community has united in saying 'we really do not want to put up any additional funding' [for Haiti]. But then it says, 'Haiti is so desperate that we need to do something -- how about giving it greater access to textile markets?' These two tendencies are contradictory in some fashion. But they are also a statement by the international community that it cannot afford to do nothing in Haiti."
The Haiti trade bill has the backing of lawmakers spanning America's political spectrum, and is expected to pass through Congress with little opposition. The Bush administration has not yet taken a position on the measure.