Fernandez visit: Haitian masses not impressed
This Week in Haiti, Vol.16 no.14, 24-30 June 1998
Although hailed in the North American mainstream press as a "landmark trip," the visit of Dominican President Leonel Fernandez to Port-au-Prince from June 18 - 20 offered little beyond fanfare and posturing to improve long-standing tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which uneasily share the island of Hispaniola.
Topping a long list of disputes is the periodic and indiscriminate expulsion from the Dominican Republic of thousands of Haitians and Haitian-ancestry Dominicans who work in that country's factories, restaurants, bordellos, and, above all, sugar-cane plantations called "bateys." The expulsions tear apart families and tax the resources of the Haitian government, which sometimes tries to resettle the refugees in makeshift camps. The last major wave of expulsions was in January and February 1997, when the Fernandez government expelled about 15,000 people.
Many Haitians hoped that an agreement regularizing migration between the neighboring countries and providing repatriation of the unjustly uprooted would be signed during the 48-hour visit of Fernandez, for which the Dominican government paid about $1 million (about $21,000 per hour) and mobilized a delegation of over 150 people (including some 70 security agents). However, only a vague and promise-filled "Memorandum of Understanding" on migration was issued.
In a joint press conference, Haitian President Rene Preval oversimplified the problem, saying that the migration of Haitians to the DR was the result of a "disequilibrium in development between our two countries. In 1960, the per capita revenue of our two republics was exactly the same at $396 per person, but by 1994, our per capita revenue had fallen to less than $300 while Dominican per capita revenue grew to over $800 and today is $1000."
But Haitian migrations are not something new nor just the result of a stronger Dominican economy. All during this century, Haitians have crossed the border to work on large plantations in the DR, which has more rainfall, less mountains, and almost twice the surface area of Haiti. In fact, the boundary on the maps of Hispaniola is basically artificial. In human terms, Haitians blend across into their neighbor, with Dominican border regions showing the strong influence Haitian language, culture, and ancestry.
In 1937, the infamous Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo ordered the slaughter of between 20,000 to 35,000 Haitians living along the border in the Dominican Republic. Ironically, Trujillo was the last Dominican president to visit Haiti overnight, back in 1936, although he slept aboard a Dominican ship anchored in Port-au-Prince harbor. Fernandez chose to stay in the $350 per night suites at the swank El Rancho hotel in Petionville.
Unable to return home completely empty-handed, Fernandez did sign a few minor accords with Preval to establish cooperation in tourism, regularize commercial taxes at the border, establish a direct postal link (which has been severed since Trujillo's massacre), and promote cultural exchanges.
But, as usual with the Preval government, there were irregularities. "Under the Constitution, they are supposed to submit such accords to the parliament for ratification, but I can tell you that I never see them do that," complained Deputy Joseph Jasmin of the Anti-Neoliberal Block. "There are lots of other accords which President Preval has signed either with the United States or with other countries which have never come before the Parliament and which we parliamentarians know absolutely nothing about. This is a violation of the Constitution and is symptomatic of the dysfunctional condition of the state."
Furthermore, the Dominicans could help heal many of Haiti's open political wounds by extraditing back to Haiti many of the criminals of the 1991 coup d'etat and the Duvalier dictatorship who enjoy de facto political asylum in the Dominican Republic, as a spokesperson for the September 30th Foundation pointed out during their 34th Champ de Mars "sit-in" for justice on Jun. 18 (see Haiti Progres, Vol. 16, No. 10, May 27 - Jun. 2, 1998).
When asked during a press conference why the Dominican government "welcomed" certain Haitian "torturers" (who are never part of the mass expulsions), Fernandez shrugged it off. "There must exist an extradition treaty between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but there isn't one between our two countries," he said.
Rather than chasing out criminals from his country, Fernandez seemed more interested in assisting criminals still functioning in Haiti. Acting like a U.S. State Department surrogate, Fernandez met and discussed with former putschist facade politicians, Marc Bazin of the Movement to Install Democracy (MIDH) and his cohort Serge Gilles of the National Progressive Party of Revolutionary Haitians (PANPRA). He also clinked glasses with discarded-military-puppet-president Leslie Manigat of the Assembly of National Democratic Progressives (RDNP), Victor Benoit of the National Congress of Democratic Movements (KONAKOM), Gerard Pierre-Charles of the Organization of People in Struggle (OPL) and Stanley Lucas, the Haitian "indigene de service" for the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy's International Republican Institute (IRI), which has recently formed 26 mostly Duvalierist parties into an "opposition" front (see Haiti Progres, Vol. 16, No. 8, May 13-19, 1998). One can only wonder if Fernandez received some coaching and directives during his trip to Washington on Jun. 10.
When President Preval visits Santo Domingo in August, it will be interesting to see if he will also meet with all of President Fernandez's political rivals.
Press reports claimed that Fernandez was also supposed to meet with former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who heads the Lavalas Family party (FL), but that meeting never happened. "We heard about a meeting on the news, but we had absolutely no confirmation that any kind of meeting between President Fernandez and Jean Bertrand Aristide was planned," declared FL spokesperson Yvon Neptune.
Neptune warned against a familiar pattern reasserting itself. "We hope that after the visit of President Fernandez we don't see the same expulsions," he said. "We remember that after President Preval visited the DR [to meet with former President Joaquin Balaguer in 1996], that was when even more Haitians were expelled, subjected to even worse exploitation in the 'bateys,' and more harshly repressed by the military."
Several popular organizations also declared that Fernandez's visit might end up being like that of Trujillo in 1936, one year before the 1937 massacre. "They are not dealing with anything seriously," said a popular organization militant in Cap Haitien on Radio Kiskeya. "Look at the suffering of the Haitian people in the "bateys" over there, look at La Romana, or Dajabon, or Santiago. That [Dominican] head of state never says anything about that."
Another popular organization pointed out that the imbalance of Haitian trade with the Dominican Republic also was not addressed, as Dominican lemons, coconuts, plantains, bananas, and other crops flood across the border, ruining Haitian farmers. Haiti is the Dominican Republic's second largest trading partner after the U.S., receiving about $30 million in Dominican imports, but only exporting back about $1 million worth of goods.
Despite the hypocrisy of officials, links are growing between the Haitian and Dominican people as they both resist the neoliberal austerity programs being implemented by the Preval and Fernandez governments respectively. Many lines of solidarity were forged during the 3-year coup d'etat, and Haitians have participated in recent Dominican anti-austerity strikes and protests. In the months ahead, these bonds will be vastly more important to the progress of Haiti and the Dominican Republic than the deceptive banter of Preval and Fernandez.
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