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By Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — After months of unsuccessfully trying to get private investors to cough up millions of dollars for the construction of a new, multimillion-dollar port in northeastern Haiti, the U.S. government is scratching its plans and will instead revamp the existing port in the city of Cap-Haitien.

“The private sector was markedly unenthusiastic about investing in a new port,” said a U.S. government official familiar with the decision, but not authorized to speak publicly.

The new Fort Liberte port would have cost between $185 million and $257 million, and the U.S. government had committed to investing $70 million. A new port was viewed as being critical to the success of the nearby $300 million Caracol Industrial Park because the park’s five companies mostly ship out of ports in the neighboring Dominican Republic, a loss of valuable dollars to the Haitian treasury.

“This is a huge loss for Fort Liberte,” said Sen. Jean-Baptiste Bien-Aime, who represents the area and had long accused the Haitian government and U.S. officials of dragging their feet on the new port’s construction. The delay, he said, benefited Dominicans, while the latest decision hurts the people in his community who were looking forward to the port for job creation.

“The park will keep shipping out of the Dominican ports and the people of Fort Liberte will get nothing,” he said.

A South Florida bipartisan congressional delegation that recently visited Haiti said they “commend the new change of strategy, but unfortunately, we lost many years in the process.”

The private sector’s lack of enthusiasm was first made public last summer when the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a critical report on how U.S. taxpayers money was being spent in Haiti by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“USAID officials recognize that there is a risk that no private company interested in operating the port would be willing to cover the entire remaining costs of construction, particularly given the political risks of operating in Haiti,” the GAO report said.

Sources say port operators who were approached raised several concerns about making such a huge investment in Haiti. Some raised concerns about the viability of a second port in a region where the current port can handle up to 3,000 containers a month, but averages about 380. Others cited Haiti’s dysfunctional regulatory environment and port operations.

The Bay of Fort Liberte was first chosen as the potential site for a new port in 2011. And while Haitian officials said its construction was critical to revitalizing the north’s economy, the port was controversial. In 2012, U.S.-government hired marine biologists exploring the bay’s waters found a rich biodiversity of turtle grass, corals, mangroves and marine species.

Soon after, President Michel Martelly, who had promised the people of Fort Liberte he would build them a port, signed a presidential decree declaring the area protected. The decree practically killed construction plans.

So far, there is no cost estimate on how much it would cost to revamp Cap-Haitien’s port, though sources say it will be far less than a new port. Still, the notion of rehabilitating the port was initially discarded because of concerns over the cost of dredging; building a bridge to help containers bypass the congested traffic; the need to build a break-wall in the ocean to del with currents, and the difficulties of expansion because it is located in a congested, developed neighborhood.

Photo: saranhiox via Flickr

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