Haitian business is eager to get back in full swing U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 21, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The other morning, Paul Bonhomme, a Haitian businessman, was awakened by a phone call from Paris. It was from the French fish merchant he used to supply with live lobsters.

Twice a week he would ship $70,000 worth of the crustaceans to France's fastidious consumers. But then, in May of last year, the United Nations imposed its economic embargo on Haiti. That was bad enough. It made gasoline and diesel fuel almost too expensive to send the lobster boats out from Les Cayes and Petit Guave.

Worse was to come. In June of this year, the last commercial flight left Port-au-Prince. It was an Air France plane, the airline Mr. Bonhomme used for freighting his lobsters.

Like hundreds of other Haitian entrepreneurs, he was forced out of business, not by inexperience or ineptitude, but by international determination to apply economic pressure on the ruling generals to resign.

The generals are now packing their bags. Under an agreement between former President Jimmy Carter and Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army commander, the military dictators will be out of power by Oct. 15.

The agreement also calls for the lifting of the U.N. embargo once democratic government is restored here. This will take action by the Security Council.

In the meantime, the Clinton administration is seeking ways to ease restrictions on humanitarian items while keeping the embargo in place as a continuing form of pressure on the generals to leave.

Anticipating that Haiti is about to open up again, the French fish merchant got Mr. Bonhomme out of bed.

"He called and asked do we have lobsters. I said, 'Yes we have a lot of lobsters.' . . . I said, 'I am ready.' I am very optimistic."

Mr. Bonhomme was in the home front grocery store his wife ran until his business failed and he also lost his other job, as a car salesman for the now-shuttered Renault-Peugeot dealership here.

The store shelves were lined with goods: soap, batteries, cereals, most of them from the United States. The shop looked well enough stocked, but it was an illusion.

Most of the display was only one or two items deep instead of a half-dozen deep.

Mr. Bonhomme's wife, Carole, was in the living room making decorated baskets for sale. The kindergarten she ran for 20 local children, at $50 a month, has closed. Parents are now either too financially strapped or too fearful to bring their children round.

"When the embargo is lifted, we should be able to work better," said Mr. Bonhomme, voicing a hope that is gaining strength among the business community here.

Almost every Haitian one meets asks when will the embargo end. No one has managed to escape its impact. It has deprived this already impoverished nation of some of its most basic necessities -- food, fuel, jobs.

It has made the poorest nation in the hemisphere poorer still. Embargoes may accomplish their desired political effects, but anyone who argues that embargoes have little impact should come here for overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Corn is 175 percent more expensive than it was three years ago. Black beans are up 122 percent, rice costs 88 percent more, and oil is double what it used to be.

A single mother of two from the slum Cite Soleil laments that the embargo has already caused unbearable suffering in a life already burdened with great hardship.

"For me it is important to have change, to lift the embargo," Mosicar Samedy says.

This is a country where 1 percent of the population has 50 percent of the wealth. But Leon Solages, 82, patrician of a successful Haitian business family, disputed that Haiti has been able to withstand the embargo for so long because the rich are too rich to be hurt and the poor are too poor to notice.

The rich were hurting, and the poor were being helped either by each other or those more fortunate, he said. "The Haitian people have a big heart."

Most of his friends had shut down their businesses and left the country, putting perhaps 7,000 people out of work. One entrepreneur had closed his ketchup plant, which employed 1,100, because the farmers could not afford to buy the gasoline to bring their produce to town. Gasoline, which was $1.34 a gallon before the embargo, was more than $13 a gallon yesterday.

Mr. Solages said: "If things are working better for them outside, I don't see any reason for them to come back to Haiti." Twenty of his 32 grandchildren live abroad, mainly in the United States and Canada.

Once the embargo is lifted, it would not take long for closed plants, many of which line the road to the airport where U.S. troops are now encamped, to reopen, he said. "The buildings are there. The machinery is there."

But the reality for many Haitians was summed up by John Pierre Francklyn, 25, who now loiters around the gasoline black market where the authorities vie with private entrepreneurs to sell the smuggled fuel. He said: "In my country there is no way of finding work -- because of the embargo."

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