Haitians foresee profitable port
BY YVES COLON
ST. LOUIS DU SUD, Haiti -- Velome Smith is dreaming of big ships.
Right now, along the southern coast of this peninsula with breathtaking
views of the water and mountains, those ships are only a distant wish.
It's been that way for
decades now, since government officials shut down the few provincial ports, or let silt build up so that they became unusable.
Smith knows the sea well, and the bounty it offers. The owner of two wooden boats, he makes his living fishing or ferrying goods between towns along the coast. The big ships, he knows, will change everything.
``They're going to open up the world to us,'' he says.
That's why he bought into Le Port International du Sud, the company
that's working to bring a deep-water port and an international airport
to this isolated part of the
country, a four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, the capital. If successful, they will bring commerce to a region that's been ignored for a long time. There is some skepticism about the potential of the economy in the south.
On this day, Smith wants to know what is holding up his dream.
``Everybody's been asking,'' he tells Ann Bayliss Hauge, making
a sweeping gesture that took in the village and all the other homes on
top of the hill above the bay.
``Everybody wants to know why the work stopped.''
He is talking about the five-mile access road from the main highway that goes along the coast to a landfill that juts into the ocean, where the platform to the wharf will be. The grader that built the road was taken away several months ago. Then, nothing.
Hauge, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has made Haiti her home for the past 18 years, was straightforward.
``We need to raise money to be able to complete the job,'' Hauge answers in fluent Creole, as the two stood on this remote beach while several men repaired and painted Smith's two boats.
The group, she explained, spent nearly $1 million to buy land,
to do technical and engineering studies, and to build the access road and
the landfill. The grader was a
resurrected bulldozer abandoned by the United Nations.
``We do what we have to do,'' Hauge says.
As she visits the site, Hauge answers the same questions, stopping along the way to chat with fishermen repairing their nets, men sitting under sea grape trees.
They're all waiting for the port. They want the port to be built -- and fast.
``A lot of young people here don't have jobs,'' Boidoil Clerjma says. ``We want this to be completed.''
Before that can happen, Hauge's group needs to raise $5.7 million. That's a lot of money for an impoverished country like Haiti, but the idea doesn't frighten Hauge and her partners. The first slice came from investors such as Smith, who spent $300 on two shares, along with 1,475 others, among them doctors, lawyers and government employees who share their dream.
Smith, and others here, didn't need much convincing when Hauge came around the first time. Since the road was built, their faith in Port St. Louis, and in the future of the region, has grown. Before the road, explains Smith, it took him nearly six hours to transport a sick villager by boat to Cayes, the nearest city.
``By the time we got there, that person would be dead sometimes,'' he says.
Now, an ambulance can drive to the village and get to the hospital in less than half an hour.
``That's progress,'' he says.
The idea of the port started in November 1995, during a conversation with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Hauge said. The country's economy had shrunk by 30 percent because of U.S. sanctions from 1991 to 1993, following a coup against Aristide. Because most trade goes through the capital, the southern peninsula, with bad roads, was suffering badly.
So, Hauge and her partners pulled out depth maps from the U.S. government. They were looking for a spot along the coast with a draft of 43 feet -- the depth a large vessel needs to float when loaded. Eventually, the port will be adaptable to 1,200-foot superships. They found such a spot here, outside this fishing village, a panoramic spot where fishermen still use a canal dug out in the mangroves during colonial times nearly two centuries ago. It will need little dredging, she says.
Once it is built, Hauge believes Port St. Louis will open the region to development -- and possibly spread business around the country.
That means an industrial park there will attract factories. Port tenants can include a bulk cement terminal, a petroleum container terminal and possibly a power plant. Over five years, she believes, those businesses can jump-start development that would bring 20,000 jobs to the area.
``I would be so happy to see this area move forward,'' says Marjorie Fantaisie, 19, a student who lives nearby.
Hauge believes Port St. Louis will have advantages that the capital's main port doesn't.
Like Port-au-Prince, Port St. Louis will have lift-on, lift-off facilities. However, the privately owned port will not fill with silt as easily as the government's port. That will allow bigger vessels to call. As a result, the freight can be cheaper.
Wharf charges in the capital are the highest in the Caribbean. As of last year, it cost $735 to unload a 20-foot container at the government-owned port, compared to $133 in the Dominican Republic.
The government-owned port, with an effective draft of only 30 feet, is also rife with inefficiency. The same job that takes seven days at the state-owned port takes four days at a private dock less than a mile away.
``It's horrible,'' said a port user who did not want his name used. ``You can't start on time, there is no authority. You have the impression there is no organization.''
Haiti's proximity to the United States should be a big selling point for Port St. Louis, Hauge believes.
For example, a computer shipment from China unloading in Los Angeles, then traveling by truck, can take a total of 45 days to reach New York. U.S. companies, Hauge says, can ship their goods to Haiti, have them assembled, and have them back in three days if they're in Miami, or six days if they're in New York.
``We're going to be very competitive in supplying the market,'' Hauge says.
Once the idea catches on in the south, she believes, entrepreneurs in the north will want to do even better.
Hauge calls herself a born-again businesswoman. She originally came to Haiti to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development, but left shortly after to join a small Haitian company, Agri-Supply Co. S.A.
That company was founded by Pierre Leger, who's also the president of the port venture and a leader in organizing the airport.
Born and raised in Les Cayes, Leger's family had difficulties during the dictatorship of Francois ``Papa Doc'' Duvalier. He studied agronomy in Europe, and returned home, to Cayes, not Port-au-Prince, as most young Haitians who leave the countryside do. Back home, he bought land on a hilltop and built a house on it. He produces vetiver oil for the leading fragrance houses in Europe.
Like Hauge, Leger believes one of Haiti's major problems is a lack of infrastructure. One of the best coffees in the world, grown without fertilizer, is produced near here, he says, but farmers have yet to develop a good market abroad for it, partly because there is no port nearby to send it out. All the coffee in Haiti is shipped out of Port-au-Prince.
The port, Leger believes, is going to jump-start development in the south.
"The U.S. will have fewer boat people, fewer folks who immigrate who don't know how to read,'' he says. ``I believe in the concept.''
He dismisses those in the elite business class who don't invest, or who would prefer the port somewhere else.
``They don't believe in Haiti,'' he says.
Hauge says it took her years to realize the importance of having infrastructure. Now that she does, she's on a mission.
She and Leger have gotten thousands to buy into the idea of the privately owned port and airport. Residents of the area make up the port's board of directors.
``The purpose of the port is to show people they can solve their problems, and that they don't need the government to take the lead,'' says Hauge, whose father worked in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower as special assistant for economic affairs. He wrote speeches for Ike during the 1952 presidential campaign.
By going about development this way, Hauge believes she's bringing a frontier mentality to Haiti.
``It was communities getting together doing what was necessary
to put structures in place to have a better life,'' she says. ``People
here are used to feeling helpless,
they're used to feeling victimized, that things are complicated.''
The port and the airport, she says, are part of a larger vision of Greater North, Greater South, and a better Haiti.
``If we take care of the Big South, psychologically, the people
in the north would have more knowledge and more money, and they'll do more,''
she says. ``The more we do, the more they'll do.''