Attracting trade now focus for Haiti's president

 

The post-earthquake devastation remains but President Martelly says “things are moving”

HAITI’S PRESIDENT Michel Martelly came to Ireland for the first time at the weekend to say thank you for the efforts of Irish aid workers in the Caribbean country and to deliver a “we’re open for business” message to potential investors.

Wherever Martelly went, his country’s biggest taxpayer, businessman Denis O’Brien, was never far behind.

O’Brien, whose mobile phone company Digicel controls 70 per cent of the Haitian market, flew Martelly from the Caribbean to the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. From Switzerland, where he met Taoiseach Enda Kenny, his private jet took the president to Dublin, where the Irish businessman hosted a press conference for his guest in the offices of his radio station, Newstalk. After a gala ball held as a finale to Haiti Week, Martelly was jetted back to London for his return home.

At a time of shrinking aid budgets and recession-induced donor fatigue, Haiti stands out as a remarkable success story in fundraising and volunteer commitment. After the horrific earthquake that killed 230,000 people and made 1.2 million homeless, the Irish public donated almost €30 million and the Government pledged €13 million.

Irish involvement in the Caribbean nation has deepened rather than fallen off since then largely due to the passionate advocacy of O’Brien. The ball held last Friday sold out, and is expected to raise €100,000 for Haven, the charity set up by O’Brien’s business associate, Lesley Buckley. The businessman himself stumped up $16.5 million to restore the historic Iron Gate market in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and vies with former US president Bill Clinton as the country’s greatest friend internationally.

Martelly, unsurprisingly, lauds the work done by O’Brien to sell Haiti to would-be investors. “It has become a passion for him. He has it in his soul and in his heart to protect Haiti and invite others to support it.” He delivers a resoundingly pro-business message on his international travels. “We’re moving towards a Haiti where we’re less interested in aid and handouts than in trade,” he told The Irish Times. “We want hands up over hand-outs, and invitations to investors who will create jobs over donations.” Haiti, he says, offers great opportunities to investors – plenty of labour, proximity to big markets, a warm climate. Martelly assures businesses their investments will be protected and the government will provide financial incentives, security and land for development.

Despite its grinding poverty and chaotic history, the country is beginning to attract big business. A Korean conglomerate plans to create 20,000 clothing jobs in the north of the country. Heineken has taken over the local brewery. Digicel is building a hotel in Port-au-Prince with Marriott.

Martelly is something of a political virgin with an interesting back-story. Under the stage name of “Sweet Micky” he was one of the country’s leading kompa (Haitian dance music) singers, best known for his bad-boy antics and ribald lyrics. After the earthquake, he put his rock-star past behind him to enter politics and emerged as a surprise winner of the presidential elections.

“I’m not a politician,” he continues to insist, “I’m more about social development.” At times, his inexperience shows; it took seven months for him to overcome opposition to his choice of prime minister and he spent part of his current tour denying reports that he intended to pardon former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

The devastation caused by the earthquake remains a fact of life in Haiti but Martelly says “things are moving”.

“When I came to power last year, Haiti still looked like the earthquake had happened the day before. Now we’ve returned almost one million children to school and we’re building thousands of homes. It’s nothing compared to what is needed, but it send strong signals when you compare it to what wasn’t done in the past.” The building of schools is being financed by a tax on mobile phone calls which has raised $20 million. Though most of this has come from Digicel’s bottom line, O’Brien happily supported the proposal.

Half of the rubble caused by the quake has not yet been moved and 600,000 people remain in camps, illustrating the scale of the reconstruction challenge remaining.

Critics have alighted on his proposal to establish an army in a country where bitter memories remain of the notorious Tonton Macoutes militias used by the Duvalier regimes to quell dissent. Martelly says “you cannot blame the institution for the bad behaviour” and points out that he has refrained from criticising UN peacekeeping soldiers for the misdeeds of some among them.

Though these are early days for his leadership, Martelly says “things are on the right track”. Improving the lot of ordinary Haitians will take time: “It won’t happen in one day. If you want to enjoy the shadow of a tree, you have to plant the seed and wait some years.”