Every year, more than 500,000 tourists step on to the golden sands of Haiti’s northern shore to enjoy barbecues, water sports and a daredevil zip wire.
They stay just a few hours, eat food prepared on their cruise ships, use power generated on-site and have scant contact with the country beyond the local staff who serve them.
The rickety, potholed service road linking the private beach to the city of Cap-Haïtien stops at a tightly guarded fence. Even the name Labadee engraved over the entrance arch on the quayside has been anglicised from the name of the local village of Labadie.
Labadie is a metaphor for the potential and the problems that face Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. It has been hit by successive natural and human catastrophes in recent decades, none more powerful than the earthquake in January 2010 that killed an estimated 230,000 people and displaced 1.5m.
Just a 30-minute flight — or a tortuous six-hour road journey — south across deforested and poorly cultivated countryside lies Port-au-Prince, the capital. It is home to both a small moneyed elite that flies to Miami for the weekend and hundreds of thousands of migrants from rural areas who live in squalid huts in the shantytown of Cité Soleil.
Lack of clean, affordable water, basic sanitation or remedial healthcare means that cholera and other diseases have infected many thousands of people in the past few years. Access to quality education requires payments that put prospects for advancement out of reach of most of the population. “The social tissue can only be threaded through economic development,” says Stéphanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s tourism minister.
Today, tensions are high with the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola which has grown far richer in recent decades. It has threatened to evict many longstanding Haitian migrant workers it uses for cheap labour, sparking border clashes and condemnation for civil rights abuses.
The population of Haiti has struggled just as much under the shackles of its own, often ruthless, domestic leaders, not least “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his late son “Baby Doc”, who died last year.That period of dictatorship and repression — policed by the notorious Tontons Macoute paramilitary units — was replaced by the violent era of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, himself deposed with US support.
His rule was overshadowed by a legacy of trade embargoes that undermined the fragile economy. As a result, a country once self-sufficient in rice and an important exporter of coffee and light manufactured goods is today heavily dependent on imports — including cut-price rice and chickens from the US.
International aid and remittances from the populous Haitian diaspora account for much of national income. There has been substantial financial support from Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s programme of subsidised oil with attractive deferred payment terms. But this now appears under threat.
The vast majority of the people displaced after the earthquake have been rehoused. Sophie de Caen, the UN Development Programme’s senior country director for Haiti, says: “Five years down the road, it’s a very different picture. There has been tremendous progress.”
Haiti’s tourism minister has unveiled ambitious plans to encourage development and promote mass visitors and independent travellers. In Port-au-Prince, a Marriott hotel and a Best Western are improving facilities for business travellers.
In agriculture, some entrepreneurs are backing expanded production including in organic products such as bananas, coffee and chocolate.
More intrepid overseas investors have also made a commitment to Haiti. Digicel, the Caribbean-based mobile telecoms operator, has revolutionised the network with investments of more than $1bn in the past decade, creating income for tens of thousands of sales agents selling credit and phones.In the months after the earthquake, a majority stake in Natcom, the former state telephone operator, was acquired by Viettel, the Vietnamese telecoms group. Heineken, the Dutch brewer, took full control of Brana, the local brewery in which it had long been a minority partner. Unilever, the consumer products group, is set to start development projects.
The biggest issue in the coming months is political instability. Elections are planned for later in the year
Sae-A, the Korean textile group, is the anchor tenant in the landmark Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti’s north built with more than $200m in foreign support. One local industrialist dubs it a “white dinosaur”, but the site reflects fresh expansion of a sector that offers considerable potential for employment and exports — helped by quota exemptions from the US at least until 2020.
Land rights remain confused, allegations of government corruption are widespread and the rule of law is weak. There are instances of summary justice, and believers in voodoo, a major religion, fear suppression. A fierce dispute is under way over ownership of a new port, Lafito, stalling economic growth. A World Bank analysis last year said few government investments were subject to competitive tenders, aligned with strategy — or even completed.
The biggest issue in the coming months is political instability. After a stand-off between President Martelly and the Haitian parliament, leading to its dissolution and a period of presidential decree, national and local elections have been scheduled for later this year.
It should be no surprise that the government recently switched its marketing slogan “Haiti: open for business” to the more ambivalent “Haiti: why not?” For now, the question reflects aspiration as much as reality.