Dominican Republic closes Haitian border as water dispute escalates

The Dominican Republic has shut all land, air, and sea borders with Haiti in a dispute about construction of a canal on Haitian soil that taps into a shared river.

Dominican President Luis Abinader said in a televised speech Sunday that the border closures, which began Friday, will remain in place until construction is halted on the canal, which seeks to use water from the Massacre River to alleviate a drought in Haiti’s Maribaroux plain.

“We do not desire or seek confrontation, but we are confronting the uncontrollable people who keep Haiti insecure, and who, due to their private interests, now also conspire against the stability of their government and the security of our water resources,” Mr. Abinader said during his brief speech, referring to gang violence that has engulfed Haiti.

A spokesperson for the office of Haiti’s prime minister declined comment Sunday and referred to a Friday statement condemning Mr. Abinader’s decision to shutter all borders while both sides were meeting to find a solution. Haiti’s government has said it supports the canal project.

The diplomatic crisis began earlier this month when workers in Haiti resumed construction of a canal near the Massacre River that runs along the border. The river is named after a bloody clash between Spanish and French colonizers in the 18th century, and was the site of a mass killing of Haitians by the Dominican army in 1937.

The Dominican Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the canal project violates a 1929 treaty and “must be halted immediately before pursuing any other dialogue.”

Mr. Abinader says the canal will divert water and negatively affect Dominican farmers and the surrounding environment, while Haiti’s government insists that building the canal falls within its sovereign right to decide how to use its natural resources.

The closure will represent a significant economic hit for both countries that share the island of Hispaniola, although Haiti is expected to feel it more acutely.

“It’s really a very drastic measure that doesn’t make sense economically for either the Dominican Republic or Haiti,” said Diego Da Rin with the International Crisis Group. “This will clearly have very bad consequences economically in the Dominican Republic, and it will very likely worsen the humanitarian situation mostly in the areas close to the border.”

Haiti is the Dominican Republic’s third biggest trading partner, with $1 billion in exports to Haiti last year and $11 million in imports, according to the Dominican Republic’s Export and Investment Center.

Mr. Abinader ordered his administration to buy all perishable goods normally exported to Haiti, including chicken, onions, beans, and eggplants. The food will be used for government programs that offer free meals to students and others, according to Joel Santos, minister of the presidency.

“Producers should know that the government is going to support them in this situation, because the measure taken by the president represents an issue of security and defense of national sovereignty,” he said.

Meanwhile, a study by the Dominican Republic’s Central Bank found that $430 million in informal border trade was conducted in 2017 between the countries. Of that amount, more than $330 million consisted of exports to Haiti.

Last week, officials from the two countries were still meeting to discuss the situation when Mr. Abinader announced he would close all borders on Friday, prompting the Haitian government to criticize what it called a “unilateral” decision.

Mr. Da Rin called Mr. Abinader’s actions an overreaction and noted that he confirmed last month he is running for re-election, and appeared to be staking out a tough stance on migration. “Maybe Abinader thinks this is a way to portray himself as a strong nationalist leader who will be the only one … able to really stop the ‘Haitian invasion’ as he always calls the growing migration influx.”

After the border was closed on Friday, flights were canceled and border towns, usually teeming with vendors and Haitians crossing daily to work in the Dominican Republic, were subdued. Crowds of people on the Haitian side gathered under the shade of trees as armed Dominican soldiers patrolled entry points and military planes roared overhead.

Many Haitians, like Julián Jean, who works at a chicken farm in the Dominican Republic that exports animals to Haiti, questioned why the borders were closed.

“Over a little canal so we can gather a bit of water?” he said. “[It’s] so we can progress and see if we find a bit of food for the stomach because we are going through a lot of hunger and a lot of work.”

Haiti’s Support Group for Returnees and Refugees condemned Mr. Abinader’s moves, and said the canal work should continue.

“Closing the border will bring big consequences for Haitian migrants,” coordinator Ketia Bronté said Friday.

She warned that more people are going to cross the border illegally and that the number of cases of human trafficking and contraband would likely increase.

“Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two nations whose history is intertwined,” she said. “Their destiny is linked to living together on an island.”

Haiti has requested help to quell a surge in gang violence, with the United States saying it would submit a United Nations Security Council resolution that would authorize Kenya’s offer to lead a multinational police force to the country. A resolution has yet to be submitted.

Mr. Abinader also announced this week that he has stopped issuing visas to Haitians. He has pushed to limit the number of Haitians migrating to the Dominican Republic and has previously expelled tens of thousands of them and those of Haitian descent. Ms. Bronté noted that in August alone, some 22,000 Haitians were deported – twice the usual monthly number.

The Dominican Republic also has started building a 118-mile wall along the Haitian border that Mr. Abinader announced early last year.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Dánica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP videographer Pierre-Richard Luxama in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed.

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