The Clintons in Haiti: Can an Industrial Park Save the Country?

In their first joint trip to Haiti since their honeymoon, the Clintons help inaugurate an industrial park in the country's north that many hope will jumpstart the economy.

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Larry Downing / AFP / Getty Images

From left: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is joined by U.S. Senator Pat Leahy, and her husband, former U.S. president Bill Clinton while receiving a briefing about a new power plant during their visit to Caracol, Haiti, on Oct. 22, 2012.

In Haiti, the western hemisphere’s most underdeveloped nation, the north is one of the most neglected regions, snubbed for centuries by a political and economic elite entrenched mainly in the country’s southern capital, Port-au-Prince. But Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake, which wrecked Port-au-Prince and killed more than 200,000 people, made domestic leaders and international donors alike realize that Haiti has to start developing away from its overpopulated, quake-vulnerable south and tap the potential of northern cities like Cap Haitien.

That strategy, part of a “build Haiti back better” vision, took a crowning if controversial step this week. On Monday, Haitian President Michel Martelly, joined by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a host of political and business luminaries that included her husband (and U.N. special envoy to Haiti) former U.S. President Bill Clinton, inaugurated the Caracol Industrial Park, a $300 million, 600-acre (246-hectare) facility near the country’s north coast, east of the seaport city of Cap Haitien. The Caracol inauguration was the first joint trip to Haiti by the Clintons since they visited the Caribbean nation shortly after they wed in the 1970s. Now they’re hoping Caracol will be the start of a more productive marriage between Haiti and the international donors and investors it so desperately needs just to build back, let alone build back better.

A mock Haitian village was erected for the occasion, as celebrities like British tycoon Richard Branson looked on beneath banners proclaiming “A New Day in Haiti.” Martelly, whom Hillary Clinton gushingly praised as the “chief dreamer and believer,” declared the modern plant and the 130,000 jobs it’s expected to create as proof that despite the usual “sad images of Haiti,” the country “is open for business, and that’s not just a slogan.”

Like Martelly, the U.S., which is leading the international effort to rebuild Haiti, has been eager to present an accomplishment of Caracol’s magnitude amidst what critics have called a slow reconstruction effort. Reassuring evidence of progress is crucial to getting the billions of dollars that international donors have pledged to Haiti—but half of which has yet to be delivered, largely because of the uncertainties on the ground—into the pipeline. “The people of this country have made real progress in a short time,” Hillary Clinton told investors after touring the park, “and we’ve reached a critical moment.”

(MORE: Haiti’s Quake, One Year Later: It’s the Rubble, Stupid!)

The Caracol park had actually been in the works since 2008. But the earthquake gave the project—a joint effort by the Haitian government, the U.S. State Department and the International Development Bank, which committed an initial $55 million for construction—a more urgent impetus. What’s more, it has become a hub for broader development in the north. Cap Haitien’s airport is undergoing an expansion, funded by Venezuela and Cuba, which allowed it to receive its first large international carrier this month. A gleaming, $30 million campus of Roi Henri Christophe University, built by the Dominican Republic, is set to enroll its first students in two weeks. A new port is planned for nearby Fort-Liberte, though it is currently on hold due to environmental and political tensions.

Caracol’s founding private investor, South Korean textile company Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd., which planted $78 million into the park, has already begun production—and the 1,000 Haitians it has so far employed sent their first order, a batch of 76,000 T-shirts for Walmart, last week. “The easiest job to create is [in] textile garment manufacturing,” says George Sassine, general director of SONAPI, Haiti’s national governing body for industrial parks and one of Caracol’s earliest backers. “It’s a very light investment, but it influences a lot of people.” Caracol “is not the panacea for Haiti’s economy,” he adds. But “we want to show this as a showcase of what can be done.” Says Josepha Gauthier, Haiti’s Works and Social Affairs Minister, agrees: “I always believe that Haiti’s development will come through its countryside” and provinces, not Port-au-Prince.

But development rarely comes without disputes, and for many Haitians and foreigners alike, Caracol is also a reminder of the pitfalls to building Haiti back better. For starters, there is concern that while Sae-A has promised to create 20,000 jobs, it has had labor troubles in other developing countries and may not be the world’s most employee-friendly enterprise. Late Monday afternoon, after rain began to fall at Caracol and Hillary Clinton had stepped into her car to leave, many workers filed out of the Sae-A factory after a shift and complained that they make only Haiti’s daily minimum wage of 200 gourdes, just under $5. Sae-A says pay will rise after six months of training.

There are also tensions between industrial developments like Caracol and the just as urgent, if not more critical, need to foster agriculture in Haiti, which imports more than half its food. Gabriel Charles, 45, had employed as many as 30 people at a time to farm corn, sweet potatoes and beans on the fertile land around the town of Caracol. “I had a hectare [2.5 acres] and that hectare took care of my family,” says Charles, who had to give it up for the park but says the compensation he received for it was inadequate. “I agree with the industrial park,” he says. “But you [also] have to take care of the peasants.” Other displaced farmers, still awaiting alternate plots of land that were promised them, are protesting what they call the park’s adverse economic effects, including the recent doubling of the price of beans, due in part to reduced harvests.

Environmental issues loom large as well: experts fear increased industry could harm Haiti’s ecologically important yet fragile northern coastline, including coral reefs. So do concerns that while developing the north is a good thing in the long run, it doesn’t solve the more immediate post-quake suffering in the south—including the nagging tragedy of hundreds of thousands of homeless Haitians still living in squalid tent camps. Critics also point out that the lure of industrial jobs in the 20th century was a cause of Port-au-Prince’s overcrowding and the proliferation of its notorious slums. They warn Martelly and international donors to avoid the same phenomenon in northern urban areas like Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city.

All of which has helped stoke recent anti-government protests in the north. “We say bravo to the investments,” says Garry Denis, spokesman for the Citizen’s Initiative. But he insists that “so far foreigners and people from Port-au-Prince are the ones who are benefitting.” His group also wants Martelly to address the high cost of living and overdue municipal elections. The unrest comes at a rocky time for Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, whose government faces corruption allegations (they deny them) and other political crises that have hampered reconstruction. Hillary Clinton hinted at Haiti’s dysfunction in her Caracol comments. “In addition to effective government,” she said, “Haiti needs a strong justice sector, free and fair elections, housing, energy, schools, health care.”

(MORE: Haiti Without a Prime Minister Again: Is This Reconstruction or ‘Deconstruction’?)