“Our life here is finished.” I heard this refrain repeatedly from Haitian women living on the Haiti-DR border during my month in Ansapit. While women here buy and sell goods for a living like most of their counterparts throughout Haiti, aggressive Dominican trade policies place them in a unique and troubling economic niche. Dr. Gerald Murray, an emeritus faculty member of the University of Florida Dept. of Anthropology who has done extensive field work on the Haiti-DR border, explains.
Can you explain how the markets on the Haitian-Dominican border arose?
Murray: Women all over Haiti go to open air markets. The border markets are a special phenomenon that arose fairly recently in Haitian history. In 1964 and ’65 when I was first in the Dominican Republic, one did not see any Haitians in the DR. Under Trujillo, there had been a slaughter of Haitian s in 1937, and afterward, Haitians were restricted to the sugarcane fields and to the residential complexes within those fields called bateys. It was a criminal activity for a Dominican to have any contact on the border with a Haitian. I talked to a Dominican farmer who said he had been put in jail because he had bought cleren, a type of moonshine, from a Haitian. Commercial exchange with Haitians was forbidden. In fact, one did not see any Haitians at all in the Dominican Republic.
That changed in 1986. After Haitian president Duvalier left office, the restrictions began to ease. Haitians who had always migrated to other countries now began migrating to the DR. Although the restrictions were not lifted legally, soldiers looked the other way, and started charging fees to Haitians who wanted to cross the border.
That led to a heavy Haitian presence in the DR that wasn’t there when I arrived in the 1960s. I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and didn’t see a Haitian. Now you see Haitians everywhere.
The binational markets came about as a result of a political crisis in Haiti. Aristide was elected president but shortly thereafter thrown out. The international community, led by the United States, established an embargo on Haiti. Seeing an opportunity to cash in on the embargo, the Dominican government opened up the border area.
But as markets, they operate very differently from those inside Haiti, don’t they? That certainly seemed true in Ansapit.
Murray: They’re really not binational. They are binational in the sense of Dominicans and Haitiians mixing, but they are Dominican markets in that they were all established on the Dominican side of the border. It’s all informal. They were never established legally; there are no laws covering those markets at all. I won’t call it illegal, but it’s extra-legal. Before they were established, Dominicans went to Haiti. They sold products and opened shops in the Haitian border towns. And Haitians came to the Dominican border towns.
The earliest markets were held in the streets of Dominican towns. There was Pedernales in the south; Elias Pina north of that, and in the far north, Dajabon. Each of those Dominican towns has a Haitian town on the other side of the border. Pedernales has Ansapit. Elias Pina has Belladere. Dajabon has Ounamenthe. Haitians were allowed to cross once a week without visas or documents to buy and sell in those street markets, Smaller markets exist in four or five other towns., but those are the major ones.
A Spanish organization gave the funds to build the marketplace in Pedernales about 10 years ago. There’s a recently inaugurated marketplace up in Dajabon that was built by the European community. So the markets transferred from the streets to buildings, and allowed more control for the flow of goods and fees. Today, the market is a biweekly event in which Haitians and Dominicans get together to buy and sell from each other.
They’re all built on Dominican soil. The regulations and the rules were established by Dominican authorities. The only uniformed presence are Domican soldiers, Dominican police, and Dominican customs agents. There is no Haitian authority present in these markets, and that is a bone of contention for the Haitians.
The women of Ansapit complained bitterly about the rules and their treatment at the Pedernales market.
Murray: They resent it, but they don’t blame the Dominicans as much as they blame their own government. They will say for example, “The Dominicans are protecting their people. Our government does nothing to protect us.” The imbalance of authorities has allowed abusive arrangements to be instituted on the Dominican side of the border, and the authorities take advantage of the Haitians’ vulnerability. They are subject to discriminatory taxation in the marketplace. In Elias Pina, the municipality sells the market every year to a Dominican entrepreneur who pays so much per month to be able to run the market place. Most of his money comes from the taxes that Haitians have to pay to use the market. He charges Haitians five to six times more than he charges Dominicans. It’s outrageous.
He couldn’t get away with charging Domincans that much, but he can get away with charging Haitians that much. Why? Because there are no laws. Towns can do what they want. This business man doesn’t go around himself,. He hries a bunch of thug-like men, three of them. One will be holding a club, the other will be holding a bag, and if the Haitian woman refuses to or cannot pay the price, part of her merchandise is confiscated. The tax collector will say, “You get this back when you pay the price,” but they never get it back. It’s really an abusive situation, and the Haitians, are furious about it. But they continue to go, because it’s a source of livelihood they don’t have in Haiti.
Were the trade restrictions as imbalanced when you visited Ansapit in 2010?
Traditionally there have been restrictions. There were periods when the Dominicans restricted the importation of rice, for example. But when I listened to the women talking in your video footage, now it’s almost forbidden to bring anything from Haiti into the DR. This is new. I did not see that when I was doing my field work. They could still bring in produce from Haiti. Now, if they bring anything in from Haiti and they’re caught, it’s confiscated. Remember, local authorities, have leeway to do almost whatever they want. There’s no office in Santo Domingo that deals with border markets. This may be a ploy by local businessmen who convinced the local authorities to forbid Haitian products.
What’s most disturbing is that the Haitian government does nothing to stop this. What could the Haitian government do? It can’t determine the behavior of the Dominican authorities, but it can close the border and say “No Haitians are going there until the rules of the game change and are fairer to Haitians.” That would cause economic harm to Dominicans.
The Haitian government could also issue complaints to the local mayor and authorities. But they don’t do that. The Haitian government doesn’t do anything for its people.
You look at the Dominican border towns. They all have electricity, running water, paved streets and health clinics. Haiti has nothing, and will have nothing unless a foreign institution builds it. Many people say the only solution is to have markets on the Haitian side as well. You don’t need market buidlings to do that. The markets started off as street markets .
The Martelly government complains it loses money at the Haitian-Dominican border through contraband, and has threatened to close the border markets. But I saw many Ansapit women buying Dominican pepe and paying taxes on both sides of the border in order to resell it in Haiti.
Murray: That’s the one thing the Haitian government does efficiently: collect taxes. The amount they can collect from these poor women is small. Probably a good percentage of the taxes go to the people who are collecting them. No one has done a study on the actual flow of money, but one thing you can be certain of: The money does not flow back in the form of services to the Haitian people. The Haitian government extracts and provides mothing in return.
The Haitian government has come to rely mostly on foreign aid for its revenue. It’s completely dependent on the outside world to stay in existence. Sometimes you hear the accusation that we’re creating a dependency among Haitians. Don’t believe it for a minute. The Haitians are the most independent people I have ever seen. They have to survive on their own. Most of the foreign aid that’s coming in gets channeled to the elite. The government is parasitically dependent on the outside world. The Haitian people are not.