PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will seek improved U.S. trade preferences for textile and apparel imports from Haiti to assist its recovery from the catastrophic January earthquake, Clinton said on Monday.
Clinton, named by the United Nations as coordinator of relief efforts for the quake-stricken Caribbean state, made the promise during a visit with Bush to Haiti to check on its long-term rebuilding needs following the January 12 quake.
The husband of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already visited Haiti since the disaster, which Haitian President Rene Preval says may have killed up to 300,000 people. It was former President Bush's first visit to the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.
Clinton said their talks with Preval focused on the country's long-term post-quake aid and development requirements, which will be presented to foreign donors at an international conference in New York on March 31.
This included support and investment for Haiti's textile and apparel manufacturing industry, which enjoys favorable tariffs and terms under the U.S. HOPE legislation that both Clinton and Bush had helped to bring into being.
At a news conference in Port-au-Prince also attended by Preval and Bush, Clinton said there was South Korean and Brazilian interest in investing in this Haitian sector, if improvements were made to the existing U.S. HOPE legislation.
"We pledged to do what we could to get the changes adopted by Congress that would enable you to make maximum use of this law, and that I think could create more than 100,000 jobs in Haiti in short order," he said, addressing Preval.
Outside the badly damaged presidential palace, supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who have criticized Preval for being slow to help quake victims, staged a noisy demonstration. They also burned vehicle tires and an American flag.
Clinton and Bush later visited a camp near the palace sheltering several thousand quake survivors. The two former U.S. presidents, surrounded by security personnel, met some of the homeless who beseeched them to speed up relief efforts.
"HAITI NEEDS HELP"
Bush said earlier: "Hopefully our trip will help to remind people in our country that Haiti needs help"
Clinton later explained to Reuters he would like to see the HOPE trade preferences for Haiti extended for several more years to give major foreign investors an opportunity to establish themselves in the Haitian apparel sector.
He also wanted to see the cap on Haitian textile and apparel exports to the U.S. under HOPE increased, to 250 million square meters a year from the existing 70 million.
"I'd like to see the ceiling lifted so that then we can get bigger investments here," he said.
"Most of it (the proposed increase for Haiti) would be shifted production from Asia to Haiti, so there'd be no greater penetration of American markets and we'd be helping our neighbor and it could create hundreds of millions of dollars of investment," he said.
Clinton said he would also seek funds for more seeds and fertilizer, as well as investment, to help Haiti's weak farming sector rebound after years of being flooded with food aid and cheap, subsidized farm imports from the United States.
Both former presidents recognized that work still needed to be done to provide more than a million Haitian quake survivors with adequate shelter and sanitation before the threat of rains and hurricanes expected in the coming weeks and months.