Haiti's prime minister visits Florida seeking investors for post-quake reconstruction projects

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Haiti's prime minister visited Florida on Tuesday seeking potential investors for an estimated $5.3-billion in rebuilding projects he is overseeing along with Bill Clinton in the earthquake-ravaged nation.

Jean-Max Bellerive said major financing and construction contracts will be issued shortly and some smaller contracts for road rebuilding have already been signed as the Caribbean country seeks to recover from the Jan. 12 quake that devastated Haiti's capital.

Bellerive sought to assure potential investors that corruption and bureacratic red tape pre-dating the quake have been addressed, that rebuilding will spur jobs' creation and that Haiti's leaders are committed to holding presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.

"People know Haiti, and they know Haiti badly. I'm here to stop that," Bellerive told The Associated Press in an interview in which he also sought to boost Haiti's image.

Haitian President Rene Preval's five-year term expires Feb. 7, 2010, though the country issued a law in May allowing an extension of his term up to three months if the elections are not held as scheduled Nov. 28.

Bellerive reiterated Preval's pledge to abide by that timetable and noted that investor confidence is closely linked to unblemished elections.

"If we don't have transparent elections, we won't have investment, either," he said. "It's one deal."

Bellerive and former U.S. president Clinton, presently the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, will oversee the more than $5 billion in donor pledges for the next 18 months.

Bellerive touted economic opportunities in Haiti despite the quake that struck what is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Those opportunities include trade breaks for Haiti's textile industry, which have been extended since the quake through 2020, he said. Textiles and apparel are Haiti's most important export to the United States, with apparel exports reaching $513 million last year.

Bellerive also said hundreds of millions of dollars in debts canceled by the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund are not handouts, but constitute recognition of Haiti's efforts to tackle corruption and encourage investment.

"They recognize that we fight corruption, that we are a transparent government," he said. "It's the main reason, if not the sole reason, that they erased the debt — not because of the earthquake."

Builders have complained about delays at the ports and Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic holding up construction. Even before the quake leveled most of the country's capital, navigating Haiti's complicated, corruption-riddled customs system was difficult.

The quake killed as many as 300,000 people and destroyed the presidential palace, the port and about 105,000 homes, 1,300 schools and 50 hospitals.

About 1.5 million Haitians remain homeless. Thousands of homes are deemed safe, but tent cities are growing as many are unable to secure permanent housing.

Meanwhile, little of the pledged international support — some $10 billion over the next decade — has been released so far. Some of the aid is awaiting legislative approval, while logistical and legal issues remain to removing the rubble of private homes whose owners cannot be located.

Bellerive downplayed the delays.

"There are a lot of small problems," he said. "What is happening (is) we are progressing — slowly, but we are progressing."