With the spotlight on post-earthquake Haiti, the nation's clothing manufacturers hope to win a better trade deal with the U.S. But even now, they face an uphill battle.
Americans have donated millions of dollars to help Haiti since the earthquake. But many in Haiti say the U.S. has something far more valuable than charity, something that can help the country make money over the long run: shopping malls.
The U.S. is the world's largest consumer market. Haiti's main export is apparel and textiles — things like T-shirts and shorts. And many Haitian businesspeople want the U.S. government to grant Haiti a better trade deal so the country can make more money by selling more clothes to Americans.
A group of Haitian businesspeople flew to Las Vegas recently in a quest to change the destiny of Haiti's economy. They went to a big textile and apparel trade show, where their main agenda was to bend the ear of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
The only reason Haiti has any textile business right now is because the U.S. is giving the country a special trade deal. Any company that makes clothes in Haiti can send the clothes to the U.S. without paying any import taxes. It means clothes from Haiti have a big advantage over clothes from China, say, or Bangladesh.
But Haiti wants more. The current trade deal expires in a few years. Haiti wants that extended. And there's a quota that the Haitians want lifted.
Kirk did visit Haiti's booth at the show, and he made an announcement asking U.S. companies to buy more from Haiti.
It's a big world, though, and everybody wants something from Ron Kirk. If you're a developing country and you want your apparel industry to be able to compete with Chinese manufacturers in the U.S. market, you have to get a trade deal with the U.S. Countries use whatever leverage they have to get trade deals.
Pakistan got a trade deal when it cooperated with the U.S. after Sept. 11. Some African countries got deals when U.S. presidents wanted to show that they cared about Africa. Haitian businesspeople think this may be their moment.
Right now, the Gap, Levi's and some others do buy clothes made in Haiti. But there are a bunch of others who don't, because of the quota on how many clothes Haiti can export to the U.S. without having to pay tariffs.
Haitian manufacturers are lobbying Congress to lift the quotas, but there's some push-back. Textile manufacturers in North Carolina, for example, say lifting the quotas might allow Haitian businesspeople to smuggle in Chinese-made clothes duty-free.
Congress will probably pass some kind of improved trade deal for Haiti later this month. But it's unclear what that deal will look like. And just today, the Haitians got a bit of bad news. Charles Rangel, a big supporter of Haiti, said he would temporarily step down as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees U.S. trade deals. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.