Americans Step Up Business With Haiti Despite Sanctions -- Humanitarian Exemption Lets Trade Increase

WASHINGTON - U.S. trade with Haiti grew dramatically last year despite an international embargo aimed at restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

U.S. imports from Haiti rose nearly 50 percent, and U.S. exports to Haiti also were up, according to the Commerce Department. More than $370 million in goods went back and forth, much of it under a little-mentioned exemption to the U.S.-backed embargo.

The Clinton administration last month extended the exemption for another two months.

It allows U.S. companies to export clothing parts and other pieces for assembly in Haiti. The finished goods, including baseballs and softballs, then are returned to the United States.

U.S. labor leaders decry the exemption as supporting low-paying sweatshops, but the administration says it was necessary to protect the jobs of Haitian workers.

In 1993, the United States bought $154.3 million worth of goods from Haiti. In 1992 the figure was $107 million. U.S. exports to Haiti increased from $209.2 million to $221.3 million.

Income from the transactions gives businesses in Haiti much-needed hard currency, at a time when the embargo has driven up black-market prices for essentials such as gasoline.

Many in Haiti's business community oppose Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest elected president in December 1990 with broad support among the poor.

Aristide has been trying to get a tighter embargo against the military regime that ousted him in 1991. But U.S. officials have been pushing him to accept a compromise plan they hope will lead to his return.

U.S. labor leaders have written President Clinton to protest the exemption from the embargo.

Critics of U.S. policy say the rise in imports came because the administration of former President Bush insisted on the exemption to an embargo agreed by the Organization of American States.

More than 50 U.S. companies continue to trade with Haiti, union officials said.

The trade embargo was suspended from the end of August to mid-October last year, but labor officials who analyzed the figures said there was no apparent upsurge of imports to the United States during that period.

U.S. officials have been trying to get Aristide to approve a plan under which he would nominate another prime minister, coup leaders would resign and the embargo would be suspended. But there would be no definite date for Aristide's return.