MOCA, Dominican Republic — Hundreds of Dominicans gathered in a dirt parking lot Wednesday, waiting in line to buy the victims of the latest dispute between Haiti and the Dominican Republic: chickens.
The white hens would normally be laying eggs to ship to Haiti. Instead, Dominican farmers are frantically trying to sell off a half-million hens locally because Haiti no longer wants them — or their eggs. The month-old “chicken war” erupted after Haiti falsely accused the Dominican Republic of a bird flu outbreak and re-enforced a ban on chicken and egg imports.
“There is no bird flu, that was a creation,” said Serafín Bautista, whose company Agropecuaria Wilse owns 1.2 million egg-laying hens. “There are interests involved; political interests, economic interests, organized crime. It’s all involved. … The ones who are suffering, unfortunately, are the Haitian people.”
The row involves much more than poultry. At its core is a trade imbalance between the two countries that’s heavily tilted in favor of the Dominican Republic, whose influence and products have been rising in Haiti since the devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake made Haiti a cash cow for Dominican businesses.
Dominicans send Haiti, its second-largest export market behind the U.S., an estimated $1.5 billion worth of goods annually. An additional $300 to $400 million in products cross the border illegally. In comparison, Dominicans import up to $50 million per year in Haitian products. On any given day, Dominican convoys filled with iron rebar, wheat flour, cement, soybean oil and fertilizers can be seen crossing into Haiti.
The latest dust-up reminds many of the troubled, complicated relationship of the two nations and their history of conflict. Haiti once owned the Dominican Republic, and more than a century later, that 22-year occupation still fuels antagonistic, anti-Haitian sentiments that’s not only reflected in commerce but also in immigration.
“At best, the present-day relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic can be described as one-sided and arrogant,” said Guy Alexandre, a former Haiti Ambassador to the Dominican Republic and author of a recently published book on how to improve the relationship. “If leaders don’t seize this opportunity to handle the conflict between both nations, this will blow up in their faces.”
In recent weeks, Dominican commentators have accused Haiti of being “ungrateful,” noting that they were the first to respond after the quake. And President Danilo Medina has accused Haiti of acting to promote business interests seeking a cut of the lucrative market that formally sells about 22 million eggs and another 22 million pounds of chicken parts a month to Haiti.
Enforcement of the egg ban — first put in place in 2008 after a bird-flu outbreak in the Dominican Republic — began anew on June 6, less than 24 hours after Medina and Haitian President Michel Martelly met in northern Haiti to launch a joint reforestation program.
At a gathering of Latin American leaders in Nicaragua last weekend, Haitians and Dominican leaders discussed the dispute. “It’s a false alarm, the idea that there are health issues with our products,” said Victor Brito, the Dominican Ministry of Agriculture’s director for the largest egg-producing region. “There’s no reason for this ban to have continued.”
At the meeting, Haiti pushed for only internationally certified Dominican firms to be allowed to export into the country, regulation of markets on the border, and Medina’s help in tackling contraband, which creates a competitive disadvantage.
“We cannot afford to keep losing over $300 million on the border and want an agreement at the highest level to tackle this problem,” Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told the Miami Herald.
Haiti’s Commerce Minister Wilson Laleau said there needs to be a change in how the two nations conduct business that includes giving Haitian businesses better access to the Dominican market.
“Dominicans can sell in Haiti but Haitians can’t sell in the Dominican Republic,” said Laleau, referring to trade bottlenecks that have for years kept Haiti-made products off Dominican shelves. “If this continues, this will destroy Haiti’s economy and one day Haitians will not be able to buy their products. The Dominican Republic needs to understand it’s in their interests to address this imbalance.”
Haitian economist Kesner Pharel said the ban provides an opportunity for the countries to improve economic relations. “The current crisis between the two countries is not just a problem of eggs but rather a needed revolution of the Haitian economic system in front of an aggressive Dominican system,” he said.
While Haitian officials now acknowledge that it wasn’t bird flu but another flu strain — H1N1— that was sickening Dominicans, they stand by their decision. They say they were acting out of public health concerns.
Still, concerns that Haiti has become a dumping ground for lesser Dominican quality products remains. Those concerns were sparked last year when Haiti blocked Dominican salami imports. A Dominican consumer group found that 15 percent of salamis contained fecal matter and that 97 percent contained less than the standard minimum of 16 percent protein.
Dominican economist Pavel Isa Contreras, a professor at the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology, said the products imported into Haiti are the same as those sold to working-class Dominicans.
But Dr. Michel Chancy, a veterinarian and Haiti’s secretary of state for animal production, said for Haiti, the current dispute is “an opportunity to get quality products and to build a national market.”