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Dominican Republic closes border with Haiti, further stoking tensions

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti —The Dominican Republic had already begun building a wall at its border with Haiti. Then it cracked down on immigration, deporting tens of thousands of Haitians back to their impoverished and gang-ravaged country.

Now it’s closing the border entirely.

President Luis Abinader announced the Dominican Republic will shut all of its land, air and sea frontiers with Haiti starting Friday morning, amid a festering dispute over Haiti’s plans to construct a canal off a river that separates the two countries.

The announcement Thursday afternoon significantly escalates tensions between the two nations, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and a long history of strained relations. The closure of Haiti’s only land border threatens to worsen the economic crisis in a country already struggling to avert collapse.

The Dominican Republic is one of Haiti’s largest trading partners, and hundreds of millions of dollars of formal and informal business takes place along the border each year.

A spokesman for Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

William O’Neill, the U.N.’s expert on human rights in Haiti, warned this week that the country, suffering from spiraling gang violence, record levels of hunger and fragile state institutions, is “almost at a total breakdown” — a situation that closing the border would only worsen.

“That would be almost lights out for the economy of Haiti,” O’Neill said at the Wilson Center in Washington on Wednesday.

Dominican officials argue that the planned canal off the Massacre River would violate a 1929 treaty that governs the fair and equitable use of waterways along their shared border. Under that treaty, both countries may equitably use those waters for irrigation, industry and agriculture, but may not alter their “natural course.”

Abinader, who is seeking reelection for president next year, said he is activating troops to enforce the closure. He described the canal project as “nonsensical.”

“It is a totally inadequate construction, without any type of engineering,” he said. “It is a provocation that this government is not going to accept.”

Parts of the border were already closed, and Abinader had threatened to block off the rest of it if the two countries couldn’t come to an agreement over the canal. The U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo warned U.S. citizens this week that if the frontier were closed, the U.S. government would not be able to facilitate entry into the country from Haiti.

As of Thursday, the main airline offering flights between the two countries announced it was suspending trips. Buses that operate across the border were also halting operations.

Abinader said he would continue talking with the Haitian government in the hopes of reaching an agreement, but he plans to keep the border closed as long as necessary.

Dominican Republic sending children, pregnant migrants back to Haiti

“As you know, the Haitian government has a control problem in its territory,” Abinader said. “And if things are uncontrollable there, they will be uncontrollable for the Haitian government, but they will not be uncontrollable for the government of the Dominican Republic.”

Dominican officials said this week that the canal’s construction has been promoted by business executives and politicians who do not have the backing of the Haitian government. The officials said in a statement that the Haitian government is incapable of resolving internal conflicts as criminal organizations take control of the country.

“There is no doubt that this unilateral project is promoted by Haitian agents with the intention of harming their own government and generating a conflict with our country,” they said.

Haiti was already the poorest country in the hemisphere before the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Since then, much of the country has descended into lawlessness, with gangs controlling its cities and blocking desperately needed humanitarian aid. The United Nations has warned Haiti is on the cusp of famine. The return of cholera, which killed more than 10,000 people after the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, has made conditions still worse.

Haiti’s compounding crises have pushed thousands of refugees across the border into its more prosperous neighbor, a country with a long history of xenophobia against Haitian immigrants.

Abinader has responded to the influx in recent months by deporting thousands of Haitians, including hundreds of pregnant women and unaccompanied minors, in apparent violation of international conventions and bilateral agreements.

The Dominican Republic, with a population of 11 million, is home to more than 500,000 Haitians. The country deported more than 170,000 people in 2022, government data shows, more than double the number from the year before. Most were Haitians.

The U.N. refugee agency on Thursday condemned the treatment of pregnant and postpartum Haitian women in the Dominican Republic. When they seek medical care, the agency said, they’re subject to intimidation, detention and deportation. Immigration officials have carried out raids of public hospitals in Santo Domingo and other parts of the country, and Haitian women have allegedly been arrested during medical visits, U.N. officials said. Some were deported immediately, without a chance to file an appeal.

Senators’ departure leaves Haiti without an elected government

The Massacre River is itself a symbol of the history of thorny relations between the two countries. It was named after an 18th century battle among European settlers, but is best known today as the site of the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians ordered by then-Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

“Haitian-Dominican relations carry a high political charge in the neighboring countries,” the Haitian national newspaper Le Nouvelliste editorialized this week, “and evoke strong emotions in Haiti, to the point of uniting all Haitians in the defense of their common homeland. There are heavy historical disputes and a real interpenetration between the two people who share the island.” The newspaper called for “moderation and diplomatic explanations.”

The Haitian lawyer Maismy-Mary Fleurant, a former officer with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called the border closure an “aggressive and hostile act toward a neighboring state with which we share an island and are not at war with.”

Fleurant, who was a consultant to the Haitian embassy in the Dominican Republic during a dispute over the river in 2021, said the “entire Dominican state is capitalizing on anti-Haitian sentiments” to drum up support ahead of general elections next year.

“These actions are not driven by concerns for international law,” he told The Washington Post, “but rather by local politicians aimed at demonstrating who can be the most vehemently anti-Haitian. Unfortunately, Haitians consistently bear the brunt of these local political maneuvers.”

Disputes over the canal, which would irrigate more than 7,400 acres of land in Haiti’s Maribaroux plain when completed, have bubbled up before.

The project was requested by local farmers a decade ago, Fleurant told The Washington Post, but it took until 2018 for work to begin. After problems with payments from the consulting firm that was supervising the project, the Haitian government tapped a Cuban company to take over in 2019.

In 2021, Haitian and Dominican officials signed a joint declaration that established a binational technical group responsible for managing water resources along their shared border. They said the work that had been started on the canal constituted a water collection project that did not “consist of a diversion of the river bed” and did not violate the 1929 treaty.

Work on the canal ceased later that year after Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince in July. Almost 65 percent of the work on the canal was complete, Fleurant said, and local farmers resumed construction this year.

Fleurant said that the Dominicans are using the river “in an excessive and exploitative manner,” building canals, aqueducts and other structures that significantly reduce the flow of water and leave Haitians with insufficient water for agriculture and irrigation.

“It appears that Dominican nationalists believe they have an absolute claim to the river simply because it originates in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “This perspective contradicts the bilateral treaties signed by both states and international law.”

Coletta reported from Toronto and Schmidt reported from Bogotá. Ana Vanessa Herrero contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

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