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#142: Hands across the border

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

Forwarded from the New York Times:

July 11, 1999

At Last on Hispaniola, Hands Across the Border


DAJABON, Dominican Republic -- Twice a week, this border town opens its
gates so that Haitians can come in.

On these two market days, as many as 8,000 Haitians freely cross the
Massacre River, the boundary that separates the Dominican Republic from
Haiti in the north, to sell clothes, shoes, perfume and cosmetics or to buy
almost anything.

In a shopping frenzy, they rush into the crammed streets where vendors have
laid out merchandise under blue tarps, and rush out with live chickens in
their arms, blocks of ice on their heads and wheelbarrows of carrots,
chayote and pasta.

"We get along very well," said Felix Rodriguez, 42, a farmer who has driven
from the Cibao agricultural region to sell his produce here for the last
six years and who knows enough Creole to barter. "We need them and they
need us."

The informal commerce in Dajabon gives no hint of the violent history and
chilly relations between these two countries that are lumped together on
the island of Hispaniola but separated by prejudice, mistrust and past
territorial conflicts.

Only in the last three years have both governments taken steps to
strengthen diplomatic, legal and commercial ties and to set up a bilateral
commission on issues like trade, immigration and tourism, and to stop
turning their backs on each other. Officials say they need a united front
to tackle common problems like deforestation, epidemics and illiteracy.

But despite market days and a new political will to forge a closer
relationship, Haiti and the Dominican Republic remain nations living side
by side yet worlds apart.

On the one hand, there are the warm personal relations between the
Dominican president, Leonel Fernandez, and the Haitian president, Rene
Preval, and advances like the accords last year that allowed the countries
to begin direct mail service and thus stop routing their letters through

On the other hand, huge obstacles remain, like political instability in
Haiti, deep cultural and racial prejudices, and heavy historical baggage
that includes the Haitian occupation of its neighbor for 22 years in the
19th century and the massacre of thousands of Haitians along the border by
the Dominican government 62 years ago.

"There's a deep-seated suspicion between the two societies because of what
the Dominicans perceive has been done to them by Haiti and vice versa,"
said Fritz Longchamp, Haiti's foreign minister.

"Maybe they resent us because we've invaded them," he said. "Haitians
believe Dominicans despise them and do not consider Haitians human beings."

Beyond history, their interaction has been largely defined by Haiti's
desperately poor population and the Dominican Republic's need for cheap
labor, a combination that has led to both cooperation and friction over the

Today, many Dominicans look down on a neighbor that is poorer and more
unstable. While the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern
two-thirds of the island, is now experiencing one of the highest economic
growth rates in the Western Hemisphere, about 7 percent, Haiti ranks as the
hemisphere's poorest country.

In public discourse, Haitians are frequently blamed for displacing
Dominican workers and depressing wages in the Dominican Republic, a country
that already has an unemployment rate of about 15 percent. Although
traditionally concentrated in the sugar-cane industry, Haitian workers have
also come to dominate agricultural and urban jobs, like construction,
Dominican officials say.

Race and culture provide enormous obstacles to improving
relations. Privately, many Dominicans speak of Haitians with both pity and
disdain, stereotyping them as carriers of disease and practitioners of
witchcraft and blaming them for "blackening" their side of the island,
where the lighter-skinned population is mostly mulatto.

"They're not like us," said Angela Diaz, 58, a Dajabon native who owns a
hotel and a hardware store here and credits Haitians for "keeping commerce
alive" in the town. "They have different customs and 85 percent of them are

Even among those Dominicans who denounce the mistreatment of Haitians, some
turn up their noses at the thought of any closer relationship than that of
trading partners. Among Haitians, such attitudes and the abuses that often
accompany them are deeply resented.

The State Department's latest report on human rights in the Dominican
Republic cites deplorable conditions and restricted movement in state-owned
sugar plantations and mills.

"The Haitians in the Dominican Republic live in an apartheid situation,"
said Arnold Antonin, director of Centre Petion-Bolivar in Port-au-Prince, a
nonprofit group working to foster Caribbean integration. "And the
anti-Haitians in the Dominican Republic continue talking about a pacific
invasion by Haitians, but at the same time the State Sugar Council still
looks for Haitian workers. It's a contradiction."

Although official statistics are scarce, both Haitian and Dominican
officials estimate that several hundred Haitians cross the border illegally
most days, and try to stay in the country.

Last year at least 14,000 Haitians were repatriated, many forcibly removed
from their homes without a chance to collect their belongings or paychecks
before being bused back to Haiti, said officials at the Haitian Embassy in
Santo Domingo.

"Most of the time those who cross the border come back poorer than when
they left," said Longchamp, the Haitian foreign minister, who noted that
the money sent home by Haitians working in the Dominican Republic was

The Dominican Republic is now seeking changes in its immigration laws aimed
at improving border controls and defining the status of the half a million
Haitians already in the country, most of them illegally, who make up an
underclass with few rights.

The changes being drafted by the Fernandez government are expected to
redefine the rules for hiring foreign workers and to impose sanctions on
employers who violate labor restrictions. Officials are also debating new
rules for citizenship.

Dominican officials say the changes will most likely result in the
repatriation, not the integration, of most Haitians who are now in the
country. But they say it is all part of their determination to face
long-ignored problems with new cooperation.

Even amid persistent tensions, the recent interest in working together
reflects the gradual democratization of both countries after years of
dictatorial governments and a more open-minded generation of political
leaders and intellectuals, some of whom -- like Fernandez, who was raised
in New York City -- were once immigrants themselves.

When Fernandez and Preval traded visits last year, it was the first time
that a Dominican president and a Haitian president had traveled to each
other's countries in at least six decades.

But the efforts, officials on both sides agree, are also driven by the
times -- a recognition of the benefits of regional economic integration.

"We want to change the relations from a tense situation to a stable
situation," Fernandez, who has made foreign policy a high priority, said in
an interview. "We want a stable situation where the Dominican Republic can
feel that Haitian problems won't spill over to the Dominican Republic."

But Dominican officials say what they need most is a commitment from other
countries to finance the economic development of Haiti. The European Union
has begun to finance joint projects along the border, including
construction of roads, rehabilitation of a port that can serve both
countries and plans for an environmental research center.

U.S. officials have sponsored some joint environmental and law-enforcement
projects but still channel most aid to each country separately.

For all the controversy over Haitian immigration, there is little to deter
crossing the border, except for four official border crossings and
scattered Dominican guard posts that resemble miniature medieval castles
surrounded by spectacular mountains.

Around these mountains, all that separates the two countries at times is a
dirt road, and the only people visible for miles are the children who run
excitedly down the slopes from the Haitian side at the sound of an engine
to beg for money.

Far fewer Dominicans, an estimated 10,000, have crossed the border into
Haiti to make a living. They make up an eclectic group of mostly business
people, including vendors and prostitutes.

"Things are not the same as in the past, when Dominicans and Haitians
wanted to kill each other over anything," said Juan Fabian, 43, who moved
to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, 12 years ago to help introduce
barbecued chicken -- or "the Dominican system" as he calls it -- and now
has a Haitian wife and a 3-year-old son he described as "Dominico-Haitian."

In the Dominican Republic there are also many self-described
Dominico-Haitians, in the shantytowns where sugar-cane workers live, known
as "batey," and in Santo Domingo's "Modelo" market, which can pass for a
Little Haiti. There Haitians and Dominicans coexist, united in hardship.

"We get along like brothers who work together," said Jorge Reyes, 23, one
of several cane workers recently passing time in the balcony of a crumbling
wood house in Batey No. 3 near the southern border town of Jimani. The
workers said they had just finished the harvest and were waiting for three
months' pay from the state.

When Reyes, responding to a reporter's question, said he was
Dominico-Haitian, a skeptical Dominican worker interjected: "Tell the
truth. Tell the truth."

"I was born here!" Reyes insisted, offended, and pulled out a crumpled
birth certificate. In the end, the workers eventually agreed, it did not
matter who was what.

Ramon Beato, 68, a Dominican who worked as a guard and said he too was owed
money, said, "We all suffer equally."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company