By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Some years back, I was crossing the border from the Dominican Republic to bring about two dozen t-shirts to a Grand Goave soccer team The Haitian Times had sponsored. As the border agent riffled through my suitcase, she snatched a team t-shirt and told me that she was keeping it.
Normally, I would have let her have the shirt and count the loss as the cost of goods. But this time, I was annoyed. From the start, the ride across the Dominican Republic had been particularly enervating, as Dominican soldiers acted more fidgety than usual. They were stopping cars with people they assumed were Haitians. At each stop, we brandished our American passports, and we were let go without any hassle.
However, I kept thinking about my compatriots who are not United States citizens, or worse yet, in the DR without any legal documents. I knew well what happens to them, how they are shaken down for their money, humiliated and mistreated at the hands of Dominican soldiers.
This was my mood as our car pulled up through the chaotic border when the agent tried to take the t-shirt. I told her no. Annoyed at her arrogance, I shouted out as loudly as I could to have me see a supervisor. She reluctantly handed me the shirt and I drove into Haiti to Port-au-Prince, wondering which country is more corrupt.
Last week, I was a bit bemused when we reported the Dominican Republic had begun building a wall to cover half of the 244-mile border between the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola. But, I was not surprised.
You see, late last month, U.S. State Department officials had mentioned to me that the Dominicans were threatening to erect such a barrier if the American government didn’t intervene in Haiti following yet another crisis in Haiti.
The American officials and I joked about the suggestion, snidely bringing up The Former Guy’s obsession with building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. That didn’t work out well, and neither will the Dominicans’ attempt to shield themselves from their western neighbor.
Over the decades of working in hot spot zones in Africa, I developed a perverse admiration for borders. The movement of goods and people is fascinating. Border crossings seem to attract all sorts of unsavory characters – from spies to smugglers and suspecting agents – that can be like a scene out of a movie. The Dominican Republic-Haiti border crossings are no different.
In a statement last week, Dominican President Luis Abinader said the border wall will reduce the smuggling of commercial goods, weapons and help fight organized crime in both nations.
Are. You. Kidding. Me.
I couldn’t help laughing out loud because I was trying to figure out the audience that President Abinader was talking to. I tried to figure it out…
- Is it the United States of America? Is he trying to position himself as a swashbuckling fighter of the illegal drugs that have been flowing through his side of the island from South America for decades? As with any trade in Hispaniola, illicit or legal, Haiti is a spillover and not the main source. The notion that a wall will stem such traffic is as absurd as it sounds. We know better. The DEA needs the Dominican Republic to fight the scourge of drug trafficking, but agents will tell you that erecting a border wall is one of the least effective tools they have in their arsenal.
- Is the president sending a message to Haitian officials? If he is, he shouldn’t have wasted his time because Haitian leaders are following parking meters, to use a quote from Bob Dylan. Mr. President as your country knows, Haitian officials have shown no willingness to protect and fight for the wellbeing of their citizens.
- If that were untrue, the hundreds of thousands of Haitians eking out a living in the DR would have left a long time ago since a responsible country would find a way to provide to their abused citizens an opportunity for a better life, so they would not have to remain virtual serfs in your homeland.
So, who is the president talking to? Of course, he is talking to his people because all politics is local, as the adage goes. Last fall, I was in Santo Domingo and interviewed a few Dominican political leaders. They are furious with Abinader and find him to be a grandstander. They told me that, as a result, former President Leonel Fernandez stands a strong chance of being reelected in 2024.
Bashing of Haitians has been a tried-and-true tactic among Dominican officials for decades, and President Abinader is pulling out that ace to win reelection. At the end of the day in politics, an incumbent must win based on their record, not in stoking xenophobia and racism. People are not looking for excuses. They vote you into office knowing you were up to fixing and addressing the economic challenges they face.
If you’re unable to provide that, more often than not, you’re out if the opposition mounts a credible campaign.
When I was in high school, my mechanic was Segundo, a wiry Dominican with a wicked sense of humor. Every time my friend and I would bring our cars to him for repairs, the first words out of his mouth was “Let me check it out.”
That line had become a running joke among us, and we all loved Segundo and vice versa. We were immigrants who shared an island in the Caribbean, struggling to make a living in the United States and sharing the racism that came at us at a rapid pace.
I don’t remember ever meeting a Dominican compatriot in New York or Florida who was rude or contemptuous because I’m Haitian. In fact, the opposite happens. “My neighbor,” is the first thing that a Dominican would utter upon meeting me. The last time being the driver who delivered our furniture from New York to Indiana last August.
Back in Hispaniola, politicians make sure that Haitian and Dominican tensions remain high, that’s their playbook and they’re sticking by it even if it means wasting their resources building a stupid wall.