The Dominican Republic said Friday morning it would close its border with Haiti, amid a dispute over access to a river the two historically contentious neighbors share. The move would further isolate Haiti, a country mired in gang violence and growing hunger.
Tensions have increased in recent days over the construction of the Massacre River, which straddles both countries.
Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader, claiming that digging a canal on Haiti’s river would hurt Dominican farmers, this week froze Haitian visas and threatened to close the 220-mile border if the two sides didn’t agree. succeed in reaching an agreement. solution.
A Haitian delegation met with Dominicans in Santo Domingo, the capital, on Wednesday for 11-hour negotiations, but there was no clear solution, and on Thursday Mr Abinader announced his decision to close the border between the two Caribbean island states. at 6 a.m. local time Friday.
“The entire border of the Dominican Republic, on land, at sea and in the air, will be closed,” Mr. Abinader told reporters as he stood at a military base in Santo Domingo among 20 armored vehicles that he said were would soon be sent to the border. . “The Army, Navy and Air Force will be prepared to comply with this decision.”
A spokesperson for Ariel Henry, Haiti’s acting prime minister, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The decision is likely to deepen economic turmoil in Haiti, where the United Nations says nearly half the population is at risk of starvation. More than 25 percent of Haiti’s official imports come from the Dominican Republic, although another large share of goods, including food, enter unofficially along the porous border, according to an International Monetary Fund report.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Haiti is heavily dependent on trade with the Dominican Republic and the United States. Haiti is the Dominican Republic’s third largest trading partner.
“Haitians are already in a very difficult position when it comes to food security and I expect this will exacerbate that problem,” said Daniel Foote, the Biden administration’s former special envoy to Haiti. “It will have a particularly negative impact on these desperate people who are barely surviving.”
Closing the border between the two countries could also hurt the Dominican Republic, since so many of the country’s goods are destined for the Haitian market.
“This border closure generates a clear lose-lose situation,” said Antonio Ciriaco, an economist at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. The Dominican Republic also depends on Haitian workers who enter the country every day to work in sectors such as agriculture and construction, he added.
The Dominican Republic last closed its border with Haiti following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021.
Mr Abinader has since occasionally closed parts of the border and started building a wall between the two nations after violence in Haiti escalated. Dominican officials said they were trying to stop the smuggling of weapons and illegal crossings into the Dominican Republic.
Dominican forces were already gathering at the border on Thursday morning.
The use of the Massacre River, named after a bloody battle between Spanish and French colonists in the 18th century, has long been a source of tension between the two nations. The river was also the site of a massacre of thousands of Haitians by Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, in 1937.
In 2021, Haiti and the Dominican Republic released a joint statement recognizing a 1929 agreement between the nations establishing that both countries had the right to use water from the river.
The river excavation, Mr. Abinader said, was not approved by the Haitian government and was carried out by former politicians and local businessmen. Dominican officials said the unauthorized construction was another example of Haiti’s growing disorder and the government’s lack of control over the country.
Some water experts said they felt the Dominican government was overreacting, as there are 11 existing canals on the Dominican side of the Massacre River.
“I think it is something that has been completely blown out of proportion, where the political reigns more than the technical,” said Martín Meléndez, professor of engineering at the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology, adding that Haitians “have the right” to get it too water from the river.
“This can be solved by taking turns to determine who will collect water, on what day and how much,” Mr. Meléndez said.
The U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo warned American citizens in Haiti that the United States would not be able to help them reach the Dominican Republic in the event of a border closure.
Mr Abinader said the border would remain closed “for as long as necessary to eliminate this provocative action”, and that the closure would be enforced by the military and national police.
“The Haitian government itself has admitted to having problems controlling its territory,” he said. “And if there are uncontrollable things there, they will be uncontrollable by the Haitian government, but they will not be uncontrollable by the government of the Dominican Republic.”
But Jean Brévil Weston, the leader of a farmers’ group in Haiti working to build the canal, said no one in the Haitian government had told any of its members to stop working. And they had no plans to stop.
“We get water or death,” he said in an interview with Magik9, a Haitian radio station. “If we don’t find water for agriculture in the plains, we are already dead.”
Harold Isaac provided reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega from Mexico City.