A New Frontier on an Old Frontier: Closed Border, Closed Mind

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Haitians gathered around a soon-to-be-completed irrigation canal running from the Massacre River, which forms the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Photo: Siffroy Clarens/EFE

(Français)

Water wars are one of the most universal staples of political drama. But the Dominican Republic could well be setting a new standard for overreach and pettiness in its current attempt to undo an irrigation canal on the Haitian side of the Massacre River, which is the boundary between the two nations.

The DR’s approach: shut down the entire border between the two countries, costing millions of dollars in trade and activity and greatly exacerbating famine conditions in Haiti.

At least that seems to be a majority view here on the Dominican Republic’s north coast, where I live, and as reflected in social media. The opinion is shared not just by Haitians but by ex-pats and many Dominicans as well.

What is the nitty-gritty of the absurdity?

To begin with, the Dominican Republic reportedly has 11 irrigation canals along the same river.

Secondly, Haiti is suffering from widespread food insecurity. Under such extreme circumstances, couldn’t and shouldn’t water resources be more equitably distributed?

Thirdly, closing the border as a punitive measure is enormously inefficient and will offer almost no chance for success.

Fourthly, world opinion matters. The bellicose and inflexible Dominican president Luis Abinader is making a bad impression on the global stage.

Dominican President Luis Abinader is making a bad impression on the global stage.

Nonetheless, like that proverbial petulant child, Abinader is doubling down on the machismo. He seems to have driven himself into a corner. Where does he go from here? One rumor has it Haitians will be forbidden from riding public transport.

But whatever draconian steps Abinader contemplates, he is driven right back to a grim reality: The Dominican Republic cannot function without Haitian labor.

On top of which, it does look pretty bad to tell a starving people that they cannot grow food with shared water. How mean-spirited can you get?

To put it bluntly, Abinader is no chess player.  When he should show restraint and settle for a draw, he seeks an impossible conquest.

To justify his behavior, Abinader makes the astonishing claim that the irrigation project will make the DR vulnerable to armed Haitian gangs.

Now that’s a mighty leap of logic. Might we call it paranoia?

But what really gives Abinader’s behavior the glint of lunacy is the notion that he can control one sector of Haitian society by punishing another. That approach has been disproved over and over again.

Hispaniola is more than the sum of its parts. If Haiti and the Dominican Republic could work together, a great force could be unleashed.

One visionary leader could make the difference. Imagine a Dominican president who simply says: Haitians and Dominicans are brothers and sisters – and all the good that would follow from that.

Meanwhile, back in this reality, we wait to see what unfolds next. No one really thinks the border will stay closed for more than a few weeks.

It remains possible, although not certain, that in the coming months a foreign military force will again be sent into Haiti for the third time in three decades. Abinader has been pushing for that and may think that will help him close the canal. That seems to be his long game.

Here on the north coast, life goes on without too much impact from the water wars. If the days of this stand-off do indeed turn into months, it will be another story.

But if that is the case, it will likely be a story with many unintended consequences.


Levyen Joseph lives among Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

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