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Haiti's Future Depends On United States Help To Grow the Economy

WHEN President Clinton arrives in Haiti today to preside over the United States transfer of peacekeeping responsibilities to the United Nations, he'll claim credit for helping the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation escape a brutal dictatorship.

But the Caribbean country's success now hinges on money -- the ability to draw in foreign aid and investment.

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''American troops are temporary visitors,'' says David Rothkopf, the Commerce Department's deputy undersecretary for trade policy development. ''It's the permanent contingent of business'' that is germane to Haiti's success.

Ultimately, ensuring Haiti's adherence to democratic and economic reforms ''is not an aid problem,'' Mr. Rothkopf adds, ''it's a trade and an investment problem.''

As its chief donor, the US has made Haiti the top per capita recipient of foreign aid. But Clinton administration officials say they are now entering the next phase -- building a viable economy.

''Development helps nations get built,'' asserts Mark Schneider, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the US Agency for International Development. By 2000, he says, ''we really want to cut the number of Haitians who live in extreme poverty by one-third to one-half. And, five years from now,'' he predicts, ''US participation will be much less.''

Mr. Clinton's Haiti team, which has directed $1.3 billion so far in military and economic support to Haiti, is banking on it. Of the 6,900 UN peacekeeping forces scheduled to take over today, some 2,400 are from the US. While the US remains a pillar in the nation's security, Washington has shifted its emphasis to bolstering commercial support.

''Now the challenge is to create a sense of opportunity,'' says Mr. Rothkopf. ''It's important for the Haitian people to see their government's high-level interest in the private sector. And it sends a message to US and other investors that Haiti is open for business.''

But that is a tall order given the desperate economic state of Haiti and the negative profile the country has abroad. Per-capita income barely reaches $260 a year, and the vast majority of Haitians remain in abject poverty.

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Haiti is pursuing a privatization program designed initially to sell shares in utilities, telecommunications, and shipping to local and foreign buyers. But many Haitians are suspicious of their government and of selling off their industrial potential to overseas investors.

Return of US investors

Slowly, American entrepreneurs are returning to Haiti -- some 40 investors have resumed operations there, creating 8,000 to 10,000 jobs in the assembly sector. But the numbers fall far below the 200 US companies the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide is trying to lure back. Meanwhile, millions of Haitians are out of work.

Rothkopf says his department, in conjunction with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, is trying to interest American assembly companies in going back to Haiti. OPIC has just signed a $100-million facility with the Bank of Boston to speed up the process.

Big corporations are eyeing the Haitian market. AT&T, for example, has been sniffing out a telecommunications contract. In the past 20 years, Haiti has equipped itself with just 60,000 telephones for a population of 7 million. ''You can put a satellite on top of a mountain there and serve an entire village that's never had phones before,'' Rothkopf says.

The most vexing problem is how to generate local Haitian capital while refusing to tap the wealthy and corrupt Haitian elite. Marginalizing this group is important, says AID's Mr. Schneider, though he concedes that it could prove to be a political time bomb.

But for Haitians and foreign investors, gaining a stake in Haiti's new private companies may be further off than US officials think, says John Bolton, president of the National Policy Forum, a Republican-funded think tank currently drafting a five-year plan for US domestic and foreign policy.

''Any fair economic assessment of Haiti would recognize that there's no quick solution,'' Mr. Bolton says.

'Be more selective'

With the US government's ''foreign economic assistance so strained,'' Bolton says, Washington must be more selective about doling out aid. Dumping US aid and investment there, he contends, won't help build the country from within.

Haiti has already made strides, counters Sandy Berger, Clinton's deputy national security adviser.

''The situation President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went back to was barely functioning,'' he says. Since then, he says, the government has formed a market-based economic plan, wooed global donors, and developed a modest commercial sector.

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