Women on the Haiti-DR border: Madam butterflies

They regard us as butterflies. The butterfly will go wherever the wind blows, and then they fall and die. That’s what they think we are. They don’t even have a faucet here.”


Mariline Augustin’s son Jean Thonny had accompanied his mother from Jacmel to her work in Ansapit on the Haiti-DR border. Augustin buys pepe (used clothes) in the DR, bulks them in Ansapit, and resells them in Haiti from Marigot to Port-au-Prince.

This was Jean Thonny’s first visit to Ansapit, and as he helped his mother pitch a tarp for shelter among the ruins of Larat, a pepe sorting station on the outskirts of town, he didn’t like what he found there. Jacmel, a tourist town, has electricity and other amenities that Ansapit lacks. Thieves had threatened his mother’s life, he said. Without lights or police, Larat was unsafe at night.

Compared with his pragmatic and hardened mother, Jean Thonny is a dreamer and aesthete. He loves to draw. He would like to study law but had to stop school for lack of funds. Larat discouraged him. Its dereliction expressed to him the disregard with which the women were held, eliciting his butterflies comment.

There is truth in his perception. Yesterday Ansapit’s new mayor Guilène Dachimis confirmed that the pepe trade with the DR zona franca has been “temporarily” halted while the Haitian government investigates the border situation in the southeast, as it has been investigating other border points to the north. The Martelly government is primarily concerned with wringing more revenue from the border, and with contraband, which Dachimis admitted is not a problem with the pepe trade as it is with other products such as flour.

The Martelly-appointed mayor wrote twice to the Dominican D.M. Group about practices Ansapit women complained of: that D. M. Group employees skim off the best pepe to sell in Santo Domingo and give the Haitian buyers rags; that they take months to deliver product bought and paid for. Dachimis’s letters were ignored.

Dachimis, who appears to live in Port-au-Prince, said a local delegation would attempt to resolve the situation with D.M. Group, followed by the central government. For a few weeks, although the Pedernales market remained open, the women who filled the stalls with pepe had nothing to sell. Marilin Augustin and the other pepe traders from Jacmel stopped coming to Ansapit. Peter’s mother scurried to find other sources. Although the trade stoppage has since resumed, it is emblematic of the transitory economic life of Haitian women on the border, caught in the tug-of-war of neighbor governments.

Like Jean Thonny’s butterflies, they go where the political wind blows, searching for ways to put food on the table.


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