The following is an excerpt from ¡Mira!, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Marcela García. Sign up to get it in your inbox every Friday.
In New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic stopped by Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum on Monday and staunchly defended his latest transnational policy, one that has caused international controversy.
Abinader shut down his country’s border with Haiti last week over a conflict about the construction of a canal on the Haitian side of the Massacre River, which the two countries share.
The incident is indicative of the historically tense dynamic between the two countries. Tensions have escalated in the past decade, as Haiti’s descent into a failed state has pushed thousands of its citizens to flee growing violence, poverty, and civil unrest. ”The entire border of the Dominican Republic, both land, sea, and air, will be closed,” Abinader told the media a day before the measure went into effect.
International observers are afraid that Abinader’s measure will isolate Haiti even more. Abinader wants Haiti to stop building the canal, which will tap into the river water to help alleviate the drought that has hit a part of Haiti. He is worried that the project will divert water, which would then have a negative impact on Dominican farmers. The Dominican Republic has also said the canal violates a 1929 treaty.
The measure comes at the worst time for Haiti, as the government is struggling to combat gang violence. Experts say that roughly 80 percent of the capital city is controlled by gangs, which have brought widespread kidnapping and killings. The United Nations recently estimated that more civilians have died in Haiti, a country of 11.5 million people, than in Ukraine during the first four months of the year.
Abinader indirectly singled out Haitian gangs in a brief televised speech after the border closure, blaming “the uncontrollable people who keep Haiti insecure, and who, due to their private interests, now also conspire against the stability of their government and the security of our water resources.” Abinader also said that there is no Dominican solution to Haiti’s problem.
The president again defended the harsh move during the forum at Columbia University. “What we are doing is to protect our country from the bands and the gangs that are in part of the territory,” he said. “As president of the Dominican Republic, I have to protect our country and I hope ... they stop the construction of the canal and we can have a solution.”
Whether the border shutdown is about security, a pressure mechanism to stop construction on the canal, or something else, Abinader makes a good point about the powerful Haitian gangs. “The government of Haiti cannot control, let’s say 70 percent of the territory so you don’t have even a person to speak to that you can relay and say, ‘We have this disagreement. We have this development,’ " Abinader said at the forum. That’s a legitimate concern.
At the same time, there is no denying geography. The Dominican Republic must be part of the solution to Haiti — it’s in its best interest. Haiti is the Dominican Republic’s third-largest trading partner: Last year, it had $1 billion in exports to Haiti and $11 million in imports, according to Dominican government figures cited by the Associated Press. Additionally, up to half a billion dollars in informal border trade occurs between the two countries; exports to Haiti account for the vast majority of it.
Closing the border with Haiti is a self-inflicted wound for the Dominican Republic. But Haiti stands to lose a lot more. Abinader may have various rationale for the measure, but it’s ultimately counterproductive to both countries. And it’s the last thing that Haiti needs right now.