MALPASSE, Haiti – Ongoing tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic took on a new dimension Thursday as a Dominican truckers’ strike entered its 32nd day and frustrated Haitians blocked a road to the border, further paralyzing commerce and trade.
As a result of the crisis, shipments of T-shirts and other textiles to U.S. suppliers are being delayed, and raw materials from the Dominican Republic can’t arrive in Haiti. The longer the issue festers, observers fear, the higher the potential for loss of millions in canceled orders and jobs.
“This is creating almost an international trade crisis with the possibility of workers being fired,” said Max Antoine, the head of Haiti’s Border Development Commission. “Even though we’ve guaranteed security, they are still continuing with the strike.”
The genesis of the crisis is the July 25 death of a Haitian inside the bi-national market in the Dominican town of Jimani, located on the other side of a gate from Malpasse on the Haitian side.
Protesting Haitians as well as those inside the market, say one of their compatriots was killed by a Dominican on market day. But Blas Peralta, the president of the Federación Nacional de Transporte Dominicano (Fenatrado), said at a news conference announcing the strike that the man was killed by a fellow Haitian during a fight. Several Haitians then took the body to Haiti and claimed he was shot by a Dominican, Peralta said, announcing that Fenatrado would suspend all traffic into Haiti until it could secure safe passage.
“We have stopped crossing since,” Boris Vázquez Florián, Fenatrado’s general secretary, told El Nuevo Herald. “We want to be able to make it to the capital without risking our lives.”
On Thursday, a Haitian truckers’ union not only rejected Fenatrado’s version of events, but said they were fed up with the way they were bring treated by Dominicans. Over the weekend, 10 Haitian trucks en route to Haiti were seized in the Dominican border town of Elias Pinas near Belladère in Central Haiti, union leaders said.
“Over here, the trucks and the frontier are our livelihood,” Nelson Jean Sanet, head of the Syndicat de Transport Haitiano-Dominicano (Hai-Do) said, standing in front of a roadblock at the entrance of the Haitian border town of Malpasse on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. “One trailer feeds 20 people.”
Jean Sanet and others had set up road blocks with burning tires, rocks and crushed glass along the main highway connecting Malpasse and Jimani, and refused passage to buses and private cars, effectively shutting down the bi-national market. Passengers passing through the market to travel to either country were forced to make the six miles trek on foot or via motorcycles.
“I didn’t know the border was closed,” Vani Jean said, carrying her 1-year-old daughter on her hips as her husband rode slowly on his motorcycle with their 4 year-old daughter and a suitcase, to the gates leading to Haiti.
The new uncertainty facing Haitians and Dominicans who do business with them come as both nations remain at a diplomatic stand-off over tightened immigration rules in the Dominican Republic. Tens of thousands of undocumented Haitian migrants living in the Dominican Republic, and Dominicans born of Haitian origin now face expulsion because of the changes.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Pamela White said she doesn’t want to link “truckers, which I am furious about, and the deportations, which I am not furious about.”
“I think so far the Dominicans have held to their word, we’re watching it,” she said of the return of formal deportations by the Dominican government. “If they do not hold to their word, we are going to speak out as soon as I have the information.”
The Dominican truckers’ strike, however, is another matter and it greatly concerns the United States, which has invested millions of dollars in ensuring that the $300 million Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti, near the border, is a success. Thousands of jobs at the park are at stake, White said.
“The union leaders are holding the private sector in Haiti hostage for reasons unbeknown to me,” she said, during her final news conference at the U.S. Embassy. “It would seem to me that it’s hurting their business, too.”
The impact of the strike and the protest were obvious inside the bi-national market where Dominican truckers had parked their semi-trailers in the middle of the road, forcing pedestrians to bend underneath them to pass or motorcycle taxi drivers to push their bikes past. Stalls that were normally packed with Haitian buyers and Dominican sellers were empty.
“Both sides need to dialogue,” said Haitian seller Minouche Alexis, 32, who said she had lost hundreds of dollars on lemons Thursday. “Today is the worse it has ever been.”
Jean Sanet, the Haitian truckers’ union head, said even before the Dominican truck strike, his truckers were having a hard time earning a living. Rather than stop at the border and transfer their merchandise onto Haitian trucks, the Dominican drivers traveled the country, dropping off cargo and leaving no business for Haitian drivers, he said.
“But that’s not why we are blocking the route,” Jean Sanet said, surrounded by a crowd of angry truckers. “We are doing it because the Dominicans killed one of our own. And we are demanding for the Dominicans to take responsibility for all of the bad things they have done to us.
“It’s a question of respect,” he said. “It’s time for Haitians to come together and demand respect from Dominicans.”
On Wednesday, Haitian authorities announced that it had deployed dozens of specialized police officers to the border towns of Malpasse and Ouanaminthe in the northeast.
Earlier in the day, there was another incident along the Malpasse border that stemmed from a Haitian police officer being attacked by a Dominican. Both Haitians and Dominicans threw rocks at each other, and soon Haitian police officers and Dominican military were pointing guns at each other.
The U.S. Embassy applauded the police deployments, saying that it believes that the government of Haiti “has done all that is necessary to secure the safety of the trucks delivering essential goods. We support the call by Haitians and Dominicans on both sides of the border to resume the free flow of trade.”
Vázquez, Fenatrado’s general secretary, said it’s not enough.
“We don’t want the government to say that they are sending police officers and that’s it. We want them to sit down with someone who represents us and sign some sort of document that proves to us that they are going to protect us,” he said. “We won’t lift the strike until we have a guarantee from the Haitian government.”
The day of the killing, about 60 Dominican trucks were stoned, damaged and looted by angry Haitians in protest, Fenatrado has said.
“Every time there is a problem in the bi-national market and there are protests in Haiti, we are affected by it,” Vázquez said. “Even thought we pay $80 a month in insurance to the Haitian government, we are not offered any security. And the Haitian government is turning a blind eye on the situation.”
A Herald reporter observed only 11 specialized Haitian police officers at the border on Thursday, far less than the number Haitian authorities said they had deployed. Vázquez said he believes the police officers were deployed because of the incident involving one of their own.
“It wasn’t to protect us,” he said. “We aren’t crossing.”