By Jacqueline Charles and Brenda Medina
As Haiti and the Dominican Republic brace Friday for Tropical Storm Erika, semi-trailers containing raw materials and U.S.-bound T-shirts once again began flowing between both nations.
Dominican truckers ended a month-long strike that marked its 32nd day Thursday, while Haitian transporters lifted a counter blockade along one of the borders. The strike had paralyzed commerce and trade on both sides of Hispaniola, and added a new dimension in ongoing tensions between the neighbors.
“We’re back in business and hope this kind of situation will not occur again,” said Max Antoine, head of Haiti’s Border Development Commission. “Things are flowing very well; life has returned to the border.”
The genesis of the crisis was the July 25 death of a Haitian inside the twice-weekly 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, 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.
“Every time there is a problem in the bi-national market and there are protests in Haiti, we are affected by it,” Boris Vázquez Florián, Fenatrado’s general secretary, told El Nuevo Herald. “And we don’t have anyone to complain to.”
Vázquez said in the last incident, dozens of Dominican trucks were damaged and looted, causing the decision to stop crossing into Haiti. “We want to be able to make it to the capital without risking our lives,” he said.
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 being 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 Malpasse on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. “One trailer feeds 20 people.”
Jean Sanet said even before the Dominican 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 throughout Haiti, 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.”
To emphasize their point, the Haitian truckers 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-mile trek on foot or via motorcycles. Inside the market, the stalls were empty and Dominican truckers further blocked passage by parking trucks diagonally or facing each other.
Earlier this week, Haitian authorities announced they had deployed dozens of specialized police officers to the border towns of Malpasse and Ouanaminthe in the northeast, and would guarantee security for Dominican truckers.
The announcement came as protest erupted along the Malpasse border after a Haitian police officer was 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, which didn’t mention the protest in its communiqué, applauded the police deployments, saying the U.S. government 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.”
The new uncertainty facing Haitians and Dominicans came 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 didn’t want to link the “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, was another matter and it greatly concerned 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 were 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 on Thursday. “It would seem to me that it’s hurting their business, too.”
The truckers’ stand-off greatly worried Antoine, who as head of the Border Development Commission, had already met informally with the Dominican truckers’ union. On Thursday, he called Peralta for a meeting. Along with him was the head of Haiti’s transporters’ federation, Fritz Constant.
With emotions running high on both sides of the border, Antoine said he feared that the situation “could quickly deteriorate.”
“We know there are a lot of issues on the border and we are working on addressing them,” he added.
Antoine said he re-emphasized during the meeting that the Haitian government would secure safe passage for Dominican trucks in Haiti, and would like the same guarantee for Haitian transporters in the Dominican Republic.
Everyone also discussed the chaotic situation in the bi-national market, which sits between two gates on the border, and a trigger for tensions.
“Everybody has lost money,” Antoine said of the strike’s impact. “Haiti lost a lot of money; American industries lost a lot of money. Dominicans lost money.”
Jean-Senat said while the Haitian truckers didn’t get all of their demands met during the Jimani meeting, they agreed to lift the strike on condition that their concerns are being addressed, especially by the Haitian government. This includes modernizing transport in Haiti so that Haitian truckers can make a better living.
“We are a motor of development of this country,” Jean-Senat said, adding that while there are no guarantees about a future strike, they will give the situation a chance. “When we do a strike, it’s not just to do a strike or to hurt our fellow Haitians; we do it because the situation is no longer tolerable.”