The Miami Herald
Sat, Sept. 12, 2009

Haitian businesses say downgraded travel advisory doesn't go far enough


More than a month after the U.S. State Department downgraded its travel advisory to Haiti, business leaders in the Caribbean nation say the revision opens the door slightly to foreign investment, tourism, and other business opportunities.

But they also say that the State Department did not go far enough -- and that the advisory language should be softened further.

"We agree that it's a good thing, but we still have a lot of problems with it,'' said Rene; Max Auguste, president of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti. "The problem is visitors and technicians still won't come to the country.''

The change comes a month after the United Nations' new special envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, lobbied for a revision to the travel statement, which no longer advises U.S. citizens to avoid "nonessential travel'' to Haiti.

Earlier this year, Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis told The Miami Herald that she raised the issue with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying that the advisory impedes investment. Clinton promised to review the issue.

Other countries also have amended their advisories, but leaving language similar to the State Department's. On Friday, Britain joined Canada and Spain in making the change.

The State Department revision marks what could be a small yet significant victory for the Caribbean country. Haitian business leaders and others have long viewed the advisory as a traffic signal of sorts: It can green-light foreign investment and tourism as easily as it can block it.

"If you want to go to a country and see a travel advisory, are you going to go?'' said Marie Bell, a former chairwoman of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Haiti Task Force.

In the past year, Haiti has experienced a measure of relative stability, to which many credit the U.N. peacekeeping mission and a more professional Haitian National Police force. Much of the political violence that rattled Port-au-Prince during the administration of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and after his 2004 ouster has sharply subsided, though minor protests happen sporadically.

U.N. officials have lauded the drop in crime and violence, which included gang-related kidnappings. Perhaps the biggest sign of improved security: A revived nightlife in Port-au-Prince and its suburbs.

Despite considerable security gains, a recently released report by the U.N. says the progress remains fragile. The U.N. asked for its peacekeeping mandate, which expires Oct. 15, to be extended for one year.

On July 17, the State Department downgraded its Haiti travel advisory, removing the phrase "nonessential travel.''

"The State Department warns U.S. citizens to exercise a high degree of caution when traveling to Haiti,'' reads the current advisory. "While the overall security situation has improved, political tensions remain, and the potential for politically-motivated violence persists.''

U.S. officials say advisories are issued in the interest of protecting Americans.

"Our ultimate goal in the travel warning is to ensure the safety and security of the American public,'' said Ted Coley, of the State Department's Office of Overseas Citizens Service.

The travel warnings, based on embassy-generated reports, are issued to describe ``long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable;'' the less severe travel alerts are used to communicate details about short-term conditions -- namely, natural disasters, coups, or international conferences and regional sports competitions. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan appear on the list. Colombia and Haiti are the only countries in the Western Hemisphere on the warning list.

The advisories are watched not only by investors, but also by academics and university administrators.

For almost 13 years, Florida International University has held a summer Creole-language program, which for some years brought scholars to the island nation. Few U.S. academic institutions offer this kind of hands-on language learning in Haiti.

But since 2003, a year before a small and violent rebellion toppled Aristide, university administrators have put the immersion-side of the program on hold. Haiti was too risky, they said.

"It was not the right time to bring students to Haiti because of liability issues and because none of us wanted to put anybody in a compromising position,'' said Liesl Picard, associate director of FIU's Latin American and Caribbean Center.

Picard said that reinstating the Haiti-side of the program will receive serious consideration because of the softened travel advisory.

But even with security gains, it is still too early for some to let college students return to Haiti. FIU administrators had considered resuming the Haiti classroom component but held back.

"For this next year, we'll continue to monitor the situation,'' Picard said. "We still feel it's a critical component to the program. It adds depth and value.''

In late August, about two dozen business leaders met with U.S. officials at a hotel in Haiti. In the meeting, René Max Auguste and others weighed in on the need to make further changes to the travel advisory.

"Haiti is more secure today than Mexico or the Dominican Republic. Or Jamaica,'' Auguste said.

None of those three countries have outright travel advisories, though U.S. officials issued a travel alert for Mexico because of Hurricane Jimena. However, the State Department notes elsewhere on its website that Mexico has seen violence increase because of drug cartels.

"A big company will be hesitant about sending their people down or even ordering,'' said Boca Raton businesswoman Susan Karten, owner of a Haiti needlework company called Voila! C'est Fini! "I say lift [the advisory] and get people down there.''

Miami Herald Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.