By Peter Whoriskey
Sunday, January 24, 2010; A11
MIAMI -- Even in normal times, the dingy money transfer storefronts in this city's Little Haiti provide a critical lifeline for the island nation. Here, and in other immigrant hubs in the United States, money passed to tellers behind plastic glass and then relayed back home is part of a flow that amounts to as much as a quarter of Haiti's economy.
But since the Jan. 12 earthquake, just as Haitians in the United States and elsewhere rallied to send money back home, the critical economic conduit stopped working, and is still far from restored.
"It's chaos," said Miami cabdriver Windel Pierre, 41, who was in Little Haiti this week to send money. "A very sad chaos."
Many here, with their relatives suddenly homeless, have been desperately trying to send funds for food and water. But while the companies can perform the electronic transfer, many of the transfer offices in Haiti's capital are closed, and many of those open elsewhere in the country are short of cash because the banks have yet to operate.
Ginette Clark, 38, a hotel server, said that she transferred money on Friday but that her sister hasn't yet been able to get the cash. "There's so much trouble over there," she said. "Nothing is working."
Similarly, Pierre spent an entire day this week trying to send funds so a friend could buy gas for a bus to drive people from Port-au-Prince back to their village in the provinces.
Pulling the receipts from the back of his cab, Pierre said he first paid for a $1,000 transfer with one company. His friend could not get it. Then he tried a $400 transfer with another. No luck. Then, running low on cash, he sent $330 via Western Union. He thinks that worked. "The people desperately need the help, and I can't stop thinking about that," Pierre said. "But it's very difficult to get it to them."
Even the cityscape here reflects money transfers' critical role in the immigrant economy. There aren't many stores in Little Haiti, but amid a couple of botanicas and mini-markets, there are three money transfer offices: Unitransfer, CAM and, in the Isaiah Check Cashing Store, Western Union. More than one-third of Haitians receive cash from overseas, with a typical transfer of $150, according to a recent survey for the Inter-American Development Bank.
In 2008, "remittances" to Haiti totaled nearly $1.9 billion, equal to more than a quarter of the country's gross domestic product. Most of that is spent on food and other necessities, according to the survey.
Remittances are a "life force for Haiti," said Jean-Marc Piquion, vice president for sales and marketing at Unitransfer Florida. "The transfer services must reopen."
The main trouble for now is the lack of currency in Haiti.
"The big issue is liquidity and getting cash to the recipients," said Greg Watson, remittance program coordinator for the Inter-American Development Bank. "What we have been hearing is that all of the services are having problems in getting their money dispersed -- and in a time like this people want to have cash."
"We have emergency ways to get cash, but not enough for the demand," said Katleen Felix of Fonkoze, a major microfinance operation in Haiti, noting that the banks have yet to open. "We are hoping the central bank will open its vault soon."
Security has also posed a problem at money transfer offices in Haiti. Jean-Claude Saliba, a general manager at CAM, said about 5,000 people turned up at one of the offices in Carrefour. The company asked the government for backup security, and when no help arrived, officials decided to shut down.
Similarly, some residents are hesitant to collect the cash. "My dad is afraid to go to pick up the money -- he's afraid someone will rob him," said Stephanie Laurent, 29, a customer service worker for a phone card company.
Restoration of the flow of remittances is considered a key to the country's recovery. Last week, in deciding to give undocumented Haitians in the United States temporary amnesty, federal officials noted that the measure would allow the immigrants to work, and that, in turn, would mean an increase in private aid to Haiti.
At Notre Dame d'Haiti Church here last week, hundreds of undocumented Haitians turned up seeking assistance in filing for the new federal program, known as temporary protected status. Several said that one of the main purposes of their work will be to return money to relatives in Haiti.
One woman turned out at the church in prim professional clothes hoping she could get the documents that would allow her to get a job. "Nobody is going to hire me without papers," a relative interpreted for her. "I just want any job because I need to help my family. My mom and dad are sleeping on the streets."