NORTH MIAMI, Fla. (AP) _ The leaders of Haiti’s government have been meeting with South Florida’s large Haitian community, which contributes to about $2 billion in remittances that support vital services in the Caribbean country.

Haitian expatriates contribute to the government’s free education program through taxes on phone calls and money transfers to Haiti, and the money they send individually to relatives and friends supports education, health care and other daily necessities.

Addressing hundreds of Haitian Americans gathered Saturday at North Miami Senior High School, President Michel Martelly acknowledged the importance of Haiti’s diaspora.

“We know that with you we can do a lot of things in Haiti … with the power you have, the financial power and the expertise,” Martelly said.

The Miami Herald reports ( that Martelly was joined at the town hall by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, along with Haiti’s police chief, the director of the government’s food assistance program, the heads of customs and the Haitian Internal Revenue Service, and ministers of commerce, education, justice, tourism, communications and Haitians living abroad.

They listened and responded for several hours to the crowd’s concerns about kidnappings in Haiti’s capital, the country’s legal system, customs duties, and land issues. Haitian-American activists also met privately with Lamothe to discuss lobbying the U.S. government for a program that would fast-track immigration for Haitians who already have been approved to join relatives in this country but wait years in Haiti for visas.

Lamothe said a commission will be established to follow up on the issues raised during the town hall and in the private meetings.

“This gives us an opportunity to hear directly from the people, a very important constituency in Haitian economic affairs, a group that has been abandoned and neglected,” Lamothe said. “It gives them the opportunity to speak to their government in a direct way: cutting the clutter, cutting the red tape and the bureaucracy, having access directly to expose the problems. That’s the goal.”

The officials also have held similar town halls throughout Haiti, where Martelly and Lamothe have been criticized for wanting to meet with Haitians in the U.S. amid the Caribbean country’s financial struggles, high unemployment and ongoing complaints over long-delayed legislative and municipal elections.

“We are working and we want to succeed,” Martelly said. “It happens that I care. I really do want things to change in Haiti. We have showed it already.”