Impoverished Haiti Slips Further as Remittances Dry Up

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, April 16 -- The U.S. economic crisis touched down recently in the dusty town where Marie Rosita Simon ekes out a living selling sandals. Her brother, a New Jersey cabdriver, slashed his monthly $400 transfer to her by half because his business was off.

For Simon, that amounted to a 40 percent plunge in income for her family of five. Coming after a horrendous year in which food prices soared and hurricanes washed away her plantain and bean crops, the 43-year-old street vendor decided something had to go: dinner. And sometimes she can't provide breakfast for her children.

"They're hungry," she confessed.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Haiti on Thursday, en route to a summit with hemispheric leaders concerned that the global economic crisis could push Latin America and the Caribbean into another "lost decade." Haiti, a Maryland-size nation in which 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, offers perhaps the most worrisome example of how the recession could worsen poverty in the region's vulnerable countries.

Clinton told reporters Thursday that because of Haiti's dire economic situation, the Obama administration is considering granting temporary legal status to Haitians who have come to the United States illegally, so they could still keep sending money home. And she promised to continue helping Haiti rebuild its shattered economy, after the United States and other countries and organizations at a conference in Washington this week made pledges of $324 million in aid, far less than the $900 million sought by the Haitian government.

"Haiti deserves our help," Clinton said at a news conference in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

Shrinking remittances are one of the main ways the crisis could harm Latin America and the Caribbean. The cash sent home from immigrant nannies, hotel workers and gardeners from Los Angeles to Bethesda has ballooned to a $69 billion-a-year lifeline in the region in the past decade. It is particularly important for small countries such as Haiti, which received about $1.65 billion last year -- more than a quarter of the country's annual income.

These transfers have dropped 13 percent in the region in the first few months of the year, according to Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

In Haiti, the reduction in remittances can have dramatic long-term consequences. Most schools are private, and students are often kept home when parents can't pay the tuition, returning months or years later.

Jimmy Pierre-Sant, a 25-year-old in Cabaret, a plantain-growing town about 30 miles north of Port-au-Prince, is one of the indirect victims of the U.S. recession. Several months ago, his aunt in Winter Haven, Fla., was laid off from her factory job. Short of cash, she and other relatives have cut their bimonthly payments to Pierre-Sant's family from about $200 to $50. That meant he had to quit school yet again.

"I felt very bad about it. I'm the only one in my family who got to 11th grade. I was ahead of everybody. I loved school," Pierre-Sant, in a Bugle Boy T-shirt and plaid shorts, said as he sat on the concrete patio of his grandmother's shack, where he sells soft drinks from a cooler.

Simon, the sandal seller, who also lives in Cabaret, has managed to keep her two children and the niece she is raising in school. But at times there is only enough money for one meal a day.

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