Reconstruction gives local businesses hope
Miami merchants deal with drop in Haitian trade during recession
Haiti may be 700 miles away but South Florida is home to one of the largest Haitian communities in the United States, nearly 300,000 strong, according to the U.S. Census.
Haiti and South Florida connections go beyond cultural ties. They depend on each other economically through trading and business relations. When the earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12 this year, some South Florida businesses also felt the ground shaking under their feet.
“A lot of people in Florida may own a small business in Haiti,” said Francois Guillaume, executive director of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce. “[Businesses owners] were paralyzed when they lost their buildings.”
Boca Raton-based Linbar Group Inc. makes uniforms for different companies in the United States. Their plants are located in Haiti, about 20 minutes from the capital, Port-au-Prince. The earthquake caused minor damage to the buildings, but a quarter of its staff were killed.
Linbar was up and running 10 days after the earthquake, but did not have to replace the lost workers.
“We don’t have an adequate amount of orders,” said Barry Horowitz, senior vice president of Linbar. “A lot of the companies [we work with] are scared to work with Haiti because of the negative press.”
Although there are troubles now, the pieces were set in place for reconstruction even before Jan. 12.
One of those pieces is the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE), which was passed by Congress in 2006. It was created to provide garments manufactured in Haiti duty-free entry to the United States. Its aim is to strengthen Haiti’s progress toward a market-based economy and increased employment.
In 2008, Congress passed the HOPE II Act, which extended duty-free access for the next 10 years.
“HOPE gives Haiti an edge in developing business and trade,” Horowitz said.
While HOPE was established before the earthquake, the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund was created soon after. A charitable organization created by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the fund has focused on immediate relief and emergency assistance.
Six months after the earthquake, the fund’s goal is shifting toward long-term reconstruction, job creation and the promotion of economic opportunity.
The international community has pledged more than $5 billion toward recovery and reconstruction, which includes clearing rubble, building shelter for 1.5 million people still living in tent camps, and stoking trade. So far, however, little of that money has gone to Haiti.
Transamerica Purchasing Agency owner Reginald Issa isn’t thrilled about that.
“Only about 10 percent of pledges have been received so far,” Issa said.
Miami-based Transamerica ships industrial equipment to businesses in Haiti. Their Port-au-Prince office, which distributes the equipment, was leveled in the disaster, along with its business.
“We practically had no business for three weeks,” Issa said.
Orders are still slow, even with a temporary office. Because the city’s streets remain covered in rubble, running a small business in Haiti remains difficult.
Although the situation is improving, sales are still down significantly compared with last year, Issa said, noting that the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund went to emergencies only, not to business, as it claims.
Fran Bohnsack, the executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, says that a major indication of a failing economy is the lack of prosperity in the shipping industry.
“We’ve been slow here,” Bohnsack said.
Once the earthquake struck, port business suffered.
“I thought we’d actually be the first line of relief,” Bohnsack said. “We know the place better than the big cargo carriers.”
Relief agencies didn’t come to the Miami River first, however. Many negotiated with larger cargo carriers, agreeing on terms that allowed for free shipments. The Miami River Port couldn’t make that promise.
“We can’t do a huge shipload for free because these are small businesses,” Bohnsack said.
Bohnsack predicts that once Haiti moves into structural repair, the port will be seeing more business.
“There are many cost effective solutions that we have on the river that can’t be imposed anywhere else,” Bohnsack said. “There’s going to be a huge demand to replace those goods.”
The earthquake might have looked like the end to an already dismantled country, but many, including South Florida business owners, have not lost hope.
“Anything that rebuilds Haiti is going to strengthen us,” Issa said.