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Haitians abroad sent $1.65 billion home last year

PORT-AU-PRINCE, March 6 (Reuters) - Haitians living abroad propped up the economy of their impoverished Caribbean homeland by sending more than $1.65 billion in cash to relatives last year, according to a report from the Inter-American Development Bank.

That sum represented twice Haiti's national budget and 30 percent of its gross domestic product, said Jean Geneus, Haiti's minister in charge of Haitians living abroad.

"Remittances are the most important economic factor in Haiti today," said Donald Terry, the manager of the IDB's Multilateral Investment Fund. The study was presented on Tuesday to a group of political and economic decision-makers in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

Terry said an estimated $400 million in food and other gifts were also sent home by Haitians living abroad, bringing the total remittances to more than $2 billion.

Haiti, a former French colony trying to establish democracy after decades of violence, dictatorship and military rule, is the poorest country in the Americas. Most of its 8 million people scrape by on less than $2 a day.

Haitians living abroad complain Haiti welcomes their money but not their participation in politics. Haitians abroad could not vote in the last election because there were no absentee ballots and those with dual citizenship cannot vote or run for office because the constitution considers them foreigners.

The study, conducted by Bendixen & Associates for the IDB, found 31 percent of adults living in Haiti, or 1.1 million people, receive remittances regularly.

"Eighty-one percent of Haitians living in the United States and Canada send money home on a regular basis," said Sergio Bendixen, who directed the survey. "No other national group anywhere in the world sends money home in higher proportion."

The report said 70 percent of emigrants from the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and 60 percent of Mexicans send money to their families back home.

The study found that about 1.5 million Haitian-born adults are living and working abroad and that 80 percent of them send money to relatives on a regular basis, with an average of $150 at a time.

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