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#4652: After embargo Haiti manufacturers struggle to life (fwd)


FEATURE-After embargo Haiti manufacturers struggle to life

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - Michelle Manning dropped into a design
and clothing store in a suburb  of the Haitian capital expecting to find
 yet more imported goods. No wonder.The Fred Bernard store in
Petionville, a hillside suburb of Port-au-Prince, is among a small band
of Haitian businesses in the poor Caribbean nation that actually make
and sell their own merchandise rather than importing it. "I didn"t
realize that it was a Haitian company," said Manning, a 28-year-old
missionary from California, pulling back  the collar of a light cotton
shirt to reveal the Fred  Bernard logo -- a turtle and the words "Haiti"
and "Petion Ville." Over the years the business has stayed afloat
despite a tense political climate that inevitably hurts local
businesses, an economy dire enough to make Haiti the poorest country in
the Americas, and a crippling trade embargo in the early 1990s. Fred
Bernard even exports its resortwear and designs -- all Haitian -- under
a contract signed in September with Caribbean Marketing Linkages, a
Miami company that represents around 20 Caribbean firms selling
merchandise to the cruise industry. 


Fred Bernard started in 1983 as a collaboration between Fred Russo     
and his associate Bernard Combette, who left the business after a lot of
ups and downs, including bankruptcy in 1986, the year dictator Jean
Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier left power. Russo stayed and was joined by
his wife, Sandra Russo, who designs most of the clothes and made the
tall tin "angels of the  millennium" that greet customers. A sign of
their resilience was weathering a U.N. embargo imposed in the early
1990s to punish the military regime that ousted Jean Bertrand Aristide,
Haiti"s first freely elected president, in 1991 and ruled until 1994.
"The embargo killed 80 percent of Haitian production," said analyst Hans
Tippenhauer with economic and business  consulting firm Group Croissance
in Petionville. He estimated that between 1986 and 1994 Haiti"s
factories lost as many as 100,000 workers. The embargo was lifted in
1994 after Aristide, who is widely expected to run for and win this
year"s presidential election, was restored to power and a U.S.-led
United Nations peacekeeping force entered the country. Today,
Tippenhauer guessed, the Caribbean nation of 7.5 million people has
around 35,000 factory workers. Fred Bernard"s staff fell from 120 to 10
during the embargo. The company filed again for bankruptcy but kept the
shop open. "It was a catastrophe," said Sandra Russo, who recalled how
they could not buy the materials they needed and had to turn away all
employees but themselves.

 Fred Bernard persevered and today turns a modest profit, which        
neither Fred Russo nor Caribbean Marketing Linkages president Renee
Betancourt would discuss. "Money"s just money," Russo said quietly. The
firm has about 100 employees. Two work with the Russos in the          
store and the rest in a factory in the Delmas section of   
Port-au-Prince. Fred Russo spends most of his time managing the store
while Sandra scouts fashions downtown and designs clothes in Delmas. She
also  makes costumes for a kindergarten downtown. The clothes are simple
and lightweight, reflecting Haitians" tendency to dress conservatively.
Fred Bernard also sells T-shirts displaying the work of such famous
Haitian artists as Gregory Vorbe and Louis Turnier or traditional
Haitian themes such as the market place and the Simbi mermaid, a water
spirit in Haitian voodoo.Another bears a computer enlargement of a
colorful Haitian postage stamp. The company also offers Haitian arts and
crafts including papier-mache fish and lobsters, doorstops, nightlights
and toothbrush holders,and placemats designed by artists in Jacmel, a
seaside town south of the capital. They come in different styles --
avocados, peppers, artichokes, and strawberries. Fred Russo attributes
his success to hard  work, luck, and negotiation. Tippenhauer also
credited the firm"s ability to capitalize on one of Haiti"s strengths --
its art. "That kind of business where you can capitalize on Haiti"s
culture will be successful,"said Tippenhauer. "The art"s original and
different.They (Haitian artists) have very high standards and        
they meet foreign standards. ... There is an international demand for
Haitian art." Haiti"s rocky political climate still creates obstacles.
Few customers ventured into the shops during parliamentary elections in
May and this month that were preceded by political violence and marred
by allegations of miscounted votes. "Whenever there"s a crisis, you can
feel it right away in the business," said Fred Russo. "Customers are
weary. They"re concerned about their safety." Fred Bernard also must
contend with a balky electric grid and delicate infrastructure. Much of
its income goes toward the two generators in the Delmas factory, which
often break down. The factory is dusty, filled with sewing machines,
cables, tables and the din of machines. Workers sew, stitch, iron, fold
and pack the clothes into small bags. "It"s only now that we"re seeing
the light at the end of the tunnel," beamed Sandra Russo. "But now we"re
seeing a little more light."