AMERICA'S MILITARY and political interventions in Haiti have never been backed by sufficiently sustained or vigorous efforts to ease the country's crippling poverty. In Congress's pre-adjournment hours, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have a chance to modestly redress that balance for the hemisphere's most destitute nation.
The question is whether Washington should help Haiti to cultivate one of its few economic bright spots -- the assembly and export of cheap apparel such as T-shirts to the United States -- after a quota system expires at the end of this year. A bill passed by the Senate would do so, providing duty-free access for Haitian apparel manufacturers to as much as 1.5 percent of the U.S. market, an amount that would double over three years and, Haitian officials say, support some 100,000 jobs. But a House version of the Haitian Economic Recovery Opportunity Act, known as H.E.R.O., is far less heroic. Bowing to pressure from U.S. textile manufacturers (for most Haitian apparel is made from cheap material imported from Asia), the House bill would all but eliminate duty-free access to U.S. markets; it would do almost nothing to provide employment to a country where 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and a single job can support a half-dozen people or more. By closing off duty-free access for Haitian apparel, the stingy House bill all but guarantees that investors would write off Haiti and take their business elsewhere.
Essentially, Haiti is asking for the same preferential treatment that the United States gives many sub-Saharan countries under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which became law in 2000. The idea is to provide growth incentives and a leg up to the poorest nations, among which Haiti surely qualifies. Haitian officials say they are prepared to accept a compromise but insist that no bill at all is better than the House bill.
The Bush administration helped install a weak interim government in Haiti in the spring after armed insurgents toppled Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's flawed, but first democratically elected, president. U.S. officials promised to help the country get back on its feet as it prepared for elections next year, and some aid has flowed. Writing in these pages in July, Roger F. Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said that "Haiti's recovery will demand a concerted international effort led by the United States," and he rejected as "off the mark" our view that the administration's response has been inadequate. But with trade preferences now hanging in the balance, where is the administration? Haiti, as usual, may be left to its own meager devices.