The president of the Dominican Republic defended his decision to shut down his country’s borders with Haiti over the construction of a canal on Haitian soil, telling college students at Columbia University on Monday that it was a matter of security.
Speaking at the World Leaders Forum, Abinader initially steered clear of the diplomatic conflict, focusing his talk instead focusing on his Spanish-speaking Caribbean nation’s single-digit inflation rate, lofty reserves and its bounce-back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel proud of our achievements,” said the business man, who is running for reelection in February and at times sounded like a candidate on the campaign trail.
But Abinader, who is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting along with other world leaders, including Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, couldn’t avoid discussing Haiti for long. Both the host and students in the audience asked him about the conflict involving the construction of a canal along the Massacre River in northeast Haiti, which borders both countries.
“What we are doing is to protect our country from the bands and the gangs that are in part of the territory, political extremism that does not respect even the Haitian government,” Abinader said. “As president of the Dominican Republic, I have to protect our country and I hope... .they stop the construction of the canal and we can have a solution.”
Still, even as he defended the closure, the border was not totally shut down. Dominican civil aviation allowed an Air Caraïbes flight to land in Punta Cana after first stopping in Port-au-Prince from Paris. The weekly flight brings tourists to the Dominican tourist town.
Abinader first threatened to close the border last week after freezing visas for Haitians. Days late, he moved ahead with his threat to shut off Haiti’s air, land and sea access to the country. To enforce the decision, the Dominican leader also deployed his nation’s military to the border.
The border closure came as a Haitian government delegation was visiting Santo Domingo to discuss the conflict. The talks ended, the Haitian government said, when it became clear that Abinader intended to go ahead with his threat to cease all traffic between the two nations, which share the island of Hispaniola.
He acknowledged that the border closure was “a drastic,” decision. And even though he admitted that the construction is the work of private individuals and that he and Henry enjoy friendly relations, Abinader showed no signs of backing down. He said efforts were under way to address the possible economic impact of the closure on Dominican communities along the frontier.
“We have to realize the situation in Haiti is not a normal situation,” he said. “The government of Haiti cannot control, let’s say 70% of the territory so you don’t have even a person to speak to that you can relay and say, “We have this disagreement. We have this development.’ ….There is a problem that you have to solve in Haiti.”
Abinader’s decision has drawn criticism and ignited extremism on both sides of Hispaniola. Haitians living in the Dominican Republic complain of increased harassment since the conflict arose, while in Haiti people have been raising money and donations to continue with construction of the canal.
William O’Neill, the U.N. independent expert on human rights for Haiti, said in a statement Monday that he is “extremely alarmed” by the decision of the Dominican president to close his country’s 220-mile border with Haiti. He urged the government to reconsider its decision, which will have serious impacts on people on both sides of the border, and also asked Abinader to return to the negotiating table and follow the process outlined by a joint declaration Haiti and the Dominican Republic agreed to on May 27, 2021, about the Massacre River.
“Many businesses in the Dominican Republic depend on cross-border trade with Haiti for their livelihoods. Thousands of jobs are at risk, and enterprises in the Dominican Republic that heavily depend on day laborers from Haiti will face immediate economic repercussions from the closure,” O’Neill said. “On the Haitian side, the impact will be even more dire. Due to the insecurity and gang violence in Haiti, many essential products like food, medical equipment and medicines are imported from the Dominican Republic.”
O’Neill said hospital directors have told him as a result of the closed land border, they will not be able to care for their patients if access to the Dominican Republic is cut off.
“Lives are at stake,” he said, adding that Haiti receives at least 25% of its food from the Dominican Republic. “Many schools in the border area purchase the food they use to provide lunch to their students. Access to water will also be further hindered.
“I understand that the complexity of the situation in Haiti has an important impact in the region and has raised concerns in the Dominican society,” O’Neill added. “Addressing successfully these concerns requires measures and steps grounded in human rights and humanitarian principles and responding with solidarity in light of the humanitarian situation in the country.”
O’Neill also raised an issue that some Haitians are discussing but has gotten lost in the diplomatic squabble: whether the canal is being built properly. Authorities in both the Dominican Republic and in Haiti should share all relevant information on water table, hydrology reports, environmental impact and other information outlined in the May 2021 agreement, in order to achieve a peaceful and quick end to this crisis, O’Neill said.
“ If such an agreement cannot be reached, I encourage both parties to agree to an international arbitration to resolve their differences,” his statement concluded.
Abinader’s arrival and departure at Columbia were met with protests, as groups of Haitians and Dominicans clashed at the entrance of the university. As each side waved their respective country’s flags, they also shouted slogans, and Haitians waved placards describing the president as “racist.”
During his appearance at the World Leaders Forum, Abinader insisted that the solution to Haiti’s crisis does not lie with the Dominican Republic. Yet at times, he appeared to pitch himself as Haiti’s greatest advocate, recounting his efforts on the world stage to bring attention to the ongoing gang violence and need for international assistance.
“The international community has not been very helpful to Haiti,” he said. The problem, he added, “is not outside of Haiti. It’s inside Haiti. When you see the gangs raping a small girl every day.... that’s why from two years ago, I’ve been saying the situation in Haiti is of an emergency.”
“The very few rich people in Haiti,” he said, “are outside of Haiti. They are either in the Dominican Republic or Miami and a very few in France. The ones who are suffering are the very poor in Haiti, and the international community has to go and help them and we have been telling them this for years.”
At one point, Abinader had a heated exchange with one of the college students, a young woman who questioned him about the treatment of Haitians and the colorism that exists in the country — the U.S. State Department warned Black American tourists visiting the Dominican Republic last year that they could be arrested and jailed. Abinader fought back, saying that 85% of Dominicans are of mixed race and the Dominican Republic has done a lot to help Haiti. He then added that 35% of the maternity beds in his country are occupied by Haitians.
“We are not a rich country,” Abinader said.
After the visit to Columbia, he headed to the United Nations, where he and members of his government were scheduled to a pitch for assistance to build hospitals along the Haitian-Dominican border.