BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
They quit their jobs, sold their homes, cashed in their savings and jetted back home to do business -- optimistic that they could help finally bring prosperity and peace to Haiti after years of turmoil.
A decade later, many of the hopeful who went back after 1994 still remain on the island. But many more are gone.
Now, as Haiti prepares to rebuild for the second time in a decade, Haitian Americans once again find themselves filled with hope and longing to be part of the rebirth.
But unlike in 1994, when many quickly heeded the call from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return home, they are cautious, taking a wait-and-see attitude as an interim government works to return security and put the country on a democratic course.
''People don't feel comfortable with what is going on there yet. They don't know what to expect. We don't know if things will start working normally or derail again,'' said Eddy Remy, a Haitian-American resident of Fort Lauderdale who has been promoting relations between that city and Haiti's second largest city, Cap Haitien.
Like many Haitians living in the diaspora, Remy dreams of returning to Haiti. But every time he thinks about moving, the chaotic reality of his homeland sinks in.
''I have my wife and child and I don't know if I want to put them in a situation that is so volatile. You don't know what to expect next,'' he said.
That lack of stability is just one of many reasons why Miami Lakes businessman Henry Dorleans called it quits four years ago after spending seven years in Haiti trying to succeed at business.
Dorleans decided to move back to Haiti, a country he left at the age of 6, after being inspired during a visit. He convinced a few friends to join him and moved to Port-au-Prince, where he opened two restaurants.
He also imported cars, made candles and started a wholesale food business. Disillusioned by the bureaucracy, confounded by the corruption and frustrated over the blackouts, he left, close to $80,000 in debt.
''Haiti is a beautiful place to live [in] but the only people who could do business in Haiti are the people who live in Haiti,'' said Dorleans, 36, who now owns a towing business. ``People who live in Haiti know how to suffer. They know how to pay the consequences and start over again. I grew up in the States and don't think I should lose my money and start over.''
Few will argue that doing business in Haiti is easy. But the risks are worth the rewards, say those determined to help the country get it right this time around.
''Haiti needs everybody. All of those smart Haitians who have stayed abroad, it needs them back,'' said Georges Saati, a South Florida businessman and vocal Aristide opponent who wasted little time returning to Haiti following the former president's Feb. 29 resignation.
WANTS TO SET EXAMPLE
Saati said if he can go back then anyone can. His open opposition to Aristide made him a target, he said. All of his businesses, including a fleet of trucks, were destroyed three years ago. During that time his brother, Miami businessman Antoine Saati, was jailed in Haiti for allegedly being involved in a political coup against Aristide in December 2001. The two brothers were estranged at the time over a family dispute.
''I have to start everything again. I was looking for the company and I could not find it,'' Georges Saati said half-jokingly in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince. ``I am fixing my business and land my father left me. I am fixing everything. I am fixing everything so that when people see me rebuild, they will want to rebuild.''
To help Haitians rebuild, one group of Haitian businessmen is currently working on raising millions of dollars in international financing to help provide long-term, low interest loans to many of the people who lost businesses during the recent unrest. The project, dubbed the Haiti Reconstruction Fund, is an offshoot of a Haiti-based investment group called PromoCapital.
In fact, PromoCapital, which launched earlier this year, is billed by some as a way for Haitians in the diaspora to get involved without having to pick up their lives. The shareholders of the boutique investment bank are equally split between Haitians and Haitian Americans focusing on business expansion and start-ups in Haiti.
''There are a lot of opportunities in Haiti; so much there that needs to be done,'' said Patrice Backer, a Weston resident and former Wall Street investment banker who now divides his time between Haiti and South Florida working on both the investment bank and reconstruction fund. ``If nothing gets done for the economy then whatever is being put in place today will not matter.''
Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator to the U.S. Agency for International Development in charge of the bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, said that is why his agency is looking to involve the Haitian diaspora more in its efforts -- this time around.
''We need to engage the diaspora community because they are a talented group. We need to solicit their ideas and advice,'' said Franco, who recently met with South Florida's Haitian community to get their input on how USAID can better include them in its efforts to help Haiti rebuild.
While USAID has been involved in Haiti for decades and spent $850 million alone between 1995 and 2003, Franco said the efforts have mainly focused on humanitarian efforts and have been ``unfortunately meager because of the polarized condition.''
''The departure of President Aristide presents us now with an opportunity to rebuild and move forward,'' he said.
"This is now an opportunity for us to address a number of issues that are important to Haitians; creating the right environment to create jobs, exports and building from the bottom up the type of democratic society I know the people of Haiti aspire to, like ministries that function.''