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Clintons help Haiti open industrial park

Landry Colas hugs former U.S. president Bill Clinton as he expresses his gratitude.

By Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald –

CARACOL, Haiti — It was a day full of firsts that began with an aircraft landing that transformed a regional airport into an international hub, and ended with two Haitian presidents sharing a public embrace.

Haiti marked a new day Monday as two of its biggest supporters, the U.S. government and the Inter-American Development Bank, delivered on a $300 million promise to help Haitians chart their own destiny.

“In January, this was a construction site without a single structure,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, standing inside one of several newly built factory shells at the 600-acre Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti. “The development of the North represents a new day for Haiti and a new model for how the international community practices development.”

Clinton flew into Haiti aboard a U.S. government Boeing 757 just minutes behind her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who is the United Nations special envoy to Haiti. The landing was the first for such a large aircraft in more than a decade in Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, thanks to a newly paved 7,500-foot runway.

It also was the first time the Clintons visited Haiti together since their honeymoon 37 years ago.

Joined by Haiti’s current and former president, the Clintons, along with IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno, officially opened the job-creating zone. It was jointly financed by the U.S. government and IDB.

“This is a symbol of a new Haiti,” President Michel Martelly said, as he touted Haiti to dozens of potential foreign investors who flew in for the event, including Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson. Joining the businessmen were several U.S. celebrities who have adopted the country since the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 Haitians.

Haiti, Hillary Clinton said, is a foreign policy priority for the Obama administration.

“When I became secretary of state, I looked at the billions of dollars of foreign assistance that the United States spends around the world and I asked myself why the results didn’t always create meaningful and sustainable change in the lives of people,” she said. “So we redirected our efforts to work with Haiti, not just in Haiti.”

But for all the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. government has spent on building the industrial park, recruiting investors and building a power plant and hundreds of houses nearby, she warned that “it’s up to the people and leaders of Haiti to sustain and build on this progress.”

For weeks now, the nearby city of Cap-Haitien and Fort Liberte have been the site of protests. Despite concerns, there were no protests Monday as Hillary Clinton was whisked from the airport to the site of the housing development where she peppered U.S. Embassy staffers with questions.

She was joined by both Martelly and former President Rene Preval, who made a rare joint public appearance alongside his successor.

Haiti’s problems, such as the lack of electricity for most Haitians, Preval said, were investment opportunities. Later, Martelly would publicly thank Preval, and at one point pulled him on stage and embraced him. Preval, he said, “was the one who allowed this project to happen.”

Preval’s administration began planning for the park — and the Cap-Haitien airport improvements — long before the earthquake. Planning kicked into high gear after the devastation when Preval’s economic team, led by economic counselor Gabriel Verret and a private sector-led government commission, approached Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, to join forces in recruiting the Korean textile manufacturer Sae-A as anchor tenant.

Last week, Sae-A, which employs 1,050 Haitian workers, shipped its first order: 67,000 T-shirts to Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, who kept a low profile during the day, said during the opening ceremony that “manufacturing matters” and the park was an answer to Haitians’ request not to concentrate all of their economic activities in one area.

“This is the beginning of the flowering of Haiti’s north across every economic sector,” he said, calling the park the “economic anchor for the region.”

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