July 11, 1999

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."


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