In an unexpected move, President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic declared an immediate closure of all its borders abutting Haiti starting Friday, as tensions heightened over a contested canal on the Haitian side that proposes to harness water supplies from the river straddling across both nations. The president disclosed that the air, sea, and land borders will be locked down at 6 a.m. local time on Friday, with no planned reopening timeline, revealing that the last-ditch discussions between both nations to prevent this unfortunate turn of events have unfortunately come to naught. Given its rarity, this decision could potentially deal a severe blow to the economies of both countries, likely hitting Haiti more sharply.
The primary impetus behind this closure is the proposed excavation of a canal by an agricultural faction in Haiti tapping into the water supply of the Massacre River, the boundary river shared by these two Hispaniolan countries. Reports from the International Crisis Group explained the canal works had been stalled with the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in July 2021. However, the canal project recommenced following the Haitian government’s inaction, which failed to address the pressing issue of drought impacting the agricultural region of Maribaroux plain.
At the same time, there’s no factual evidence suggesting influential politicians or established business owners have fanned the flames of this controversy, as the Dominican government had alleged, stated the Latin American and Caribbean consultant, Diego Da Rin. In response to the developing conflict, President Abinader, a few days ago, halted visa issuance to Haitians and blockaded the border alongside the northern town of Dajabon. This move has frozen a significant Haitian economic lifeline, where trade activities go on multiple times a week, while daily cross-border commuters are also affected.
Pichelo Petijon, a Haitian entrepreneur, laments about the collective suffering and the financial losses in millions due to goods spoiling in storage. President Abinader has since accused Haiti of endeavoring to hoard the Massacre River’s water flow, a decision which he suggests would directly impact Dominican farmers and the environment.
As a side note of historical significance, the Massacre River derives its name from a brutal confrontation between the French and Spanish colonialists in the 1700s. Ironically, the same river was also the setting for the mass execution of Haitians by the Dominican army in 1937.
Reports revealed an ongoing meeting was underway between Haiti’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Dominican representatives to address the escalating conflict, that was interrupted by the Dominican President’s shocking border closure announcement.
Meanwhile, Jean Brevil Weston, a prominent member of the farmer’s group close to the border, has stated firmly that work on the canal will not cease. He reiterated, “It’s the canal or death…We are ready to be buried by the canal.”
Reacting to this fresh development, Haiti’s government affirmed its adherence to dialogue for the resolution of conflicts and expressed disappointment over the president’s unilateral action. It guaranteed to take necessary action to ensure the uninterrupted watering of the Maribaroux plain, clarifying, “The Republic of Haiti can sovereignly decide on the exploitation of its natural resources…will take all necessary measures to protect the interests of the Haitian people.”
This statement was supported by Haiti’s former prime minister and current presidential hopeful, Claude Joseph, who vehemently argued that the planned excavation does not transgress any bilateral agreements or treaties. In light of strained relations over a separate issue with President Abinader, Joseph, along with nine other Haitians, majority of whom are former government officials, is presently banned from entering the Dominican Republic.
Despite this rash decision, a queue of hundreds wishing to cross into Haiti has formed in the Dominican border town of Dajabon. With a daily gate-opening limit of three times and only for crossings into Haiti, the attendees consisted of those wishing to trade, to seek medical aid, and others who were uncertain about the reason for the sudden closure.
Haitian vendor, Dieuvelaie Bernard, 27, was one among them who sold clothing in the Dominican Republic and spoke openly of her incomprehension concerning the week’s happenings. She emphasized the significance of the canal’s construction, stating, “There’s only rice, nothing else.”
Also in queue was Egnel, a 47-year-old Haitian man employed at a banana farm in the Dominican Republic, who planned to return to Haiti to admit his daughter to the hospital. He expressed his willingness to run the risk of job loss for his daughter’s welfare.
While an estimated tens of thousands of Haitians and those of Haitian descent have been deported since President Abinader’s election in August 2020, his administration has concurrently started constructing a border wall measuring 118 miles (190 kilometers) along the Haitian border.