Haitian Diaspora Being Called to Action

Josephine Elizee Legros sold her Weston, Fla., home, emptied her retirement and savings accounts, and poured all the money into the construction of a 22-room boutique hotel in the north of Haiti.

A labor of love, the project has been anything but easy. Construction has taken four years; getting the hotel name registered took three months and a local Haiti bank recently demanded additional paperwork for her to open an account.

“Helping Haiti requires personal sacrifice,” said Legros, who hopes to welcome her first guest in Mole Saint-Nicolas this December.

Legros was among dozens of Haitians living in the diaspora who attended the first day of a two-day Haiti investment conference in Miami Beach Monday. Organizers hope to get Haitians to invest in their quake-battered homeland.

“Haiti has problems, but we still do business through those problems,” Herve Denis, president of Haiti’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told attendees. “There are people doing business and making profits.”

Still, Haiti needs more investments, especially from its sons and daughters in Florida and elsewhere, organizers said. Accomplishing this, however, requires an honest and somber conversation about opportunities – and challenges.

“The diaspora isn’t going to disengage with Haiti,” said Johnny Celestin, executive director of the Haitian Diaspora Federation, which partnered with Sustainatopia – it holds a regular conference on global and social change – to sponsor the conference.

“We know that we are being milked,” Celestin said of the diaspora, which is already contributing to education through a remittances and a telephone tax instituted by President Michel Martelly’s year-old administration. “The question is: ‘What are we going to get out of it?’ We can’t just sit on the sidelines and not take chances.”

Among the 30 speakers who addressed the 2012 Investment Forum were Denis, as well as Haiti’s outgoing prime minster, the head of its investment center and the chief of cabinet for the ministry of commerce. U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., also spoke.

Garry Conille, who worked in Africa for the United Nations before accepting the job as prime minister, said there are a number of models that Haiti could use to get more bang out of its diaspora dollars. Among them, offering long-term bonds to Haitians living abroad who currently send about $1.4 billion in remittances to Haiti annually, and investing the proceeds in reconstruction and other projects.

“Investments are a leap of faith, a leap of faith in the country’s economy, in its government, resources and a country’s ability to keep stability,” Conille said. Haitians, he said, continue to make that leap regardless of circumstances. Now, the challenge for Haiti, he said, is to modify its laws and policies “to improve the effectiveness of diaspora remittances.”

©2012 The Miami Herald