Dominican Republic calls canal construction ‘provocation’, shuts down border with Haiti

Calling Haiti’s construction of a canal on a river the two nations share “a provocation,” the president of the Dominican Republic said Thursday he is making good on threats to close the entire border.

As of 6 a.m. Friday, all land, sea and air traffic between the two countries, which share the island of Hispaniola, will be closed, Dominican President Luis Abinader announced Thursday. The shutdown means that at least three daily flights between the two countries will cease, and thousands of Haitian traders who rely on commerce at markets along the border will see their business come to a sudden halt.

The latest conflict between the two neighbors erupted earlier this week when Abinader issued an ultimatum to Haiti: Stop the construction of a canal along the Massacre River in Haiti’s northeast, or risk the border closure.

Hoping to defuse the crisis, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry dispatched a team of technicians and mid-level diplomats to Santo Domingo on Wednesday. But the delegation returned home Thursday after failing to convince Abinader, who is campaigning for reelection, to back off of his threat.

“The Army, the Navy and the Air Force will be prepared to comply with this provision,” said Abinader, flanked by members of his military.

The entire border, he added, will remain closed “as long as necessary for this action, this provocation to be eliminated.”

Late Thursday, the Dominican Institute of Civil Aviation issued a notice that all flights to and from the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti are suspended due to the border closure.

In a statement, the Haitian government said it has taken note of the Dominican Republic’s decision and remains open to “dialogue that was underway and on a good track... when the unilateral announcement of the Dominican president to close its borders was done.”

Haiti, the statement said, has a sovereign right to “decide on the exploitation of its natural resources,” and has, like the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the Massacre River, the full right to use the water in accordance with a 1929 treaty between the two countries.

“The government of the Republic of Haiti will take all necessary measures to protect the interests of the Haitian people,” the statement said, calling “for the protection of lives and property, on both sides of the border, and respect for international conventions governing the matter.”

The dispute has raised concerns among U.S. officials, who are closely monitoring the situation. They are concerned not only about the economic effects on the two countries, but how the shutdown might further aggravate the hunger crisis in Haiti, where nearly half of the population doesn’t have enough to eat.

The timing of the shutdown is not lost on Haitian and Dominican observers. Fridays are traditionally the biggest commerce days for the two nations. Haitians can cross into the Dominican Republic without passports, from Ouanaminthe on the Haitian side and across the bridge over the Massacre River to visit the expansive binational market in Dajabón on the Dominican side. There, traders pack wheelbarrows with food and other supplies to resell in Haiti while others carry second-hand clothing to sell in the Dominican Republic.

The Massacre River, a key source of water for agriculture for both countries, has been in dispute for years. Haitians argue that they have just as much right to it as the Dominican Republic, which they accuse of unilaterally building canals in the past to benefit Dominican farmers.

“Our position is clear: the canal or death,” Jean Brévil Weston, coordinator of the Maribaroux Plain Farmers Movement in Northeast Haiti, told the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste. “We are ready to be buried in the canal.”

Weston said the purpose of building the canal is to provide access to water for rice farmers on the Haitian plain.

The current conflict is complicated by the fact that the digging is not an initiative of the current Haitian government. It’s said to be a private venture involving farmers backed by powerful Haitian politicians, whom Abinader has promised to name and ban from his country.

Abinader’s government claims the digging on the Haitian side is in violation of the 1929 treaty governing the use of waters between the two neighbors and a 2021 agreement about the Massacre River that says neither country would act unilaterally.

Late Thursday, Abinader’s office announced that nine Haitian citizens, whom he called “provocateurs,” will be prohibited from entering the Dominican Republic in connection to the water conflict: Wanique Pierre, former senator of the Northeast department; Ardouin Zephirin, former minister of the interior and territorial communities; Jacques Sauveur Jean, a former senator; Jeantel Joseph, a director in the Ministry of the Environment; Luckner Desir, a journalist and former candidate for the presidency; Nader Joaceus, former minister of public works, transportation and communications; Jean Baptiste Bien-Aime, a former senator; Wideline Pierre, former departmental director of the Ministry of the Environment, and Caniiel Samson, whom the Dominicans say is sponsor of the canal’s construction.

Haiti didn’t address the visa bans in it statement but appeared to be standing its ground. The government, while asking the population to remain calm, said it will take all measures so that the irrigation of the plain, which is part of the city of Ouanaminthe, “is carried out within standards, under the supervision in particular of the ministries of agriculture, natural resources and rural development and environment.”

The dispute is the latest turn in a tense relationship between two neighbors whose histories were once intertwined but today are fraught with conflict.

Though the Dominican Republic is notorious for its expulsions of Haitians from its territory, it relies on them for construction, agriculture and other menial jobs. It also relies on the Haitian market for its products, selling about $1 billion in exports to Haiti last year, compared to just $11 million in imports.

“It’s going to cause a lot of stress and have a big impact on what is already a humanitarian disaster in Haiti,” said Jean-Max Bellerive, a former prime minister of Haiti who used his tenure in office to cool tensions with Santo Domingo.

But the Dominican Republic stands to be the bigger loser, some Haiti observers say, noting that while Haitians will certainly feel the pain, they also will make do. Many Dominican businesses, on the other hand, will be hit hard because they depend so much on sales to Haiti.

“At least 60% of the food, cement, and iron come from the Dominican Republic, even if it’s not always Dominican products because they have licenses for a lot of American products,” said Bellerive.

Bellerive said while Haiti has a legal right to the water, the building of the canal by private businesses is a needless complication. The Haitian government, he said, should have met with the builders and taken over the canal’s completion ahead of attempting to meet with Dominican authorities. That would have put the government in a better position to discuss the dispute with Dominican authorities.

Haitians point out that the Dominican authorities have themselves built 11 different projects on their side of the river, including two aqueducts in Castellar-Loma de Cabrera and Dajabón, two dams in Cabeza de Caballo and Los Miches and five irrigation canals in Juan Calvo, La Aduana, Los Veteranos, El Coco and Don Pedro.

The dispute has become a political flashpoint for Abinader, who has used the rising gang violence in Haiti and the irregular migration of Haitians across the border to curry voter support in his country. In addition to expelling tens of thousands of Haitians from the Dominican Republic since coming into office, Abinader is currently building a 118-mile wall along the border.

“We will continue with the talks with the Haitian government,” he said. “But as you know, the Haitian government itself admitted that it has problems controlling its territory.”

While those problems “may be uncontrollable over there, they will not be uncontrollable for the government of the Dominican Republic,” he said. “Therefore, we are going to continue with the plan we have.”