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#237: At Last on Hispaniola, Hands Across the Border (fwd)

From: Guy Antoine <GuyAntoine@windowsonhaiti.com>

The following news article by Mireya Navarro should be of interest to many
in Corbettland.

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 Miami.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 years.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
crafty."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 negligible.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."