The Washington Diplomat / July 2010
By Larry Luxner
PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic — On Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, destroying the city and changing forever the dynamics between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
“In the 30 seconds that the earthquake lasted, more than 220,000 people lost their lives,” said Dominican President Leonel Fernández, speaking at a recent conference in Punta Cana on the future of Haiti. “In merely 30 seconds, more than 300,000 were injured and more than one million people lost their homes. In merely 30 seconds, Haiti lost 120% of its Gross Domestic Product. And in merely 30 seconds, thousands of children were orphaned, thousands lost their closest relatives and thousands more were plunged into a state of anguish and despair, bewilderment and confusion.”
Half a year since the earthquake, Haiti continues to suffer — while the Dominican Republic is emerging as a major benefactor and source of exports to its poorer neighbor.
Last month, the Dominican beach resort of Punta Cana — roughly 10 hours by car east of the Haitian-Dominican border — was the venue for an international conference aimed at helping Haiti recover from the worst disaster in its history.
Under tight security, hundreds of delegates from 33 nations converged on Punta Cana’s Moon Palace Hotel for the “World Summit on the Future of Haiti.” Their objective: to get donors to disburse the money they pledged at a March conference in New York in the wake of one of modern history’s worst natural disasters.
Participants invited by Fernández included Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy for Haiti, as well as Haitian President René Préval and Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive. All four men honored Sonia Marmolejos, a Dominican woman and local hero who breast-fed dozens of starving babies whose mothers had either died or were seriously injured in the quake.
“It is the Haitian people who are the sole architects of their own destiny,” said Fernández, who was the first foreign leader to arrive in Port-au-Prince, only 16 hours after the quake hit. “The Dominican Republic — like other nations and international organizations represented here — seeks nothing more than to assist, to help, to accompany them in this colossal task of refounding a nation.”
Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, noted that his Dominican counterpart, Ambassador Roberto Saladín, showed up at his office within 20 minutes of the disaster to offer support.
“I have said from Day One that the Dominican government has been phenomenal in its response,” said Joseph, who was born in the Dominican city of San Pedro de Macoris. He said that in the 1930s, when an earthquake hit the Dominican Republic, Haiti was the first to respond, adding that “President Fernández and President Préval have had a good friendship for a long time. So that really facilitates communications between the two in times of crisis.”
So far, Fernández announced, more than $11 billion in assistance to Haiti has been promised by governments around the world. Brazil, which has thousands of UN peacekeepers in Haiti, was the first contributor to the multinational donor trust fund, pledging $40 million. Other donations include 326 million euro ($395 million) pledged by French President Nicolas Sarkozy between now and 2011; the cancellation of $395 million in Haitian debts to Venezuela’s Petrocaribe; the establishment of a $2 billion Venezuelan “solidarity fund” for the importation of fuel through 2016, and an annual $200 million contribution from the Inter-American Development Bank for the next 10 years.
Smaller donations have been announced by Taiwan ($121 million), Norway ($100 million); Uruguay ($3 million); Equatorial Guinea ($2 milllion) and Peru ($1.7 million), while the Dominican Republic is funding construction of a $50 million university for 22,000 students in Cap-Haitien, along the country’s northern coast.
“This is the first time we’ve ever done something like this. It proves the bond we have with the Haitian people,” said Carlos Castillo, the Dominican consul-general in Haiti. He explained that Cap-Haitien was chosen as part of the Préval government’s policy of decentralization in the wake of the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince — and also to develop the northern part of the country.
Félix Bautista, director of the Office of Engineers and Supervisors of State Works (OISOE), told us in an exclusive interview that the project represents an investment of around $50 million. Of that total, $35 million will be financed by the Dominican state, with the remaining $15 million coming from the private sector in the form of cement, steel, door fixtures and other construction materials.
Of all the issues affecting Latin America and the Caribbean today, Haiti offers the brightest example of cooperation, says Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
“Just the magnitude of this tragedy trumps ideological and political differences ¬— especially the response of the Dominican Republic, considering that bilateral relationship hasn't always been easy or smooth, and still isn't," said Shifter. "Whether it's motivated out of self-interest or just the spirit of generosity, the fact is President Fernández has been extremely helpful, engaged and committed to this whole effort."
Even before the tragedy that befell Port-au-Prince, the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola were doing $700 million a year in official bilateral commerce. Add informal cross-border transactions, and total annual trade exceeds $1 billion. Haiti is now the world's second-largest market for Dominican products, topped only by the United States.
Since the earthquake, however, exports are soaring — prompted by Haiti's urgent need for everything from garbanzo beans to gasoline.
"It's hard to put a positive spin to the blood that was shed [during the earthquake], but our companies are the best-positioned to satisfy the needs of the Haitian people," said Eddy Martínez, the Dominican Republic's secretary of state for exports and investment.
In the first four months of 2010, Dominican exports to its neighbor came to $227 million — up 17.5% from the $193 million in official exports for the same period last year. That does not include foodstuffs, clothing and other goods sold at a dozen or so informal markets along the Dominican-Haitian border.
Gregory Mevs, president of the Haitian Chamber of Agriculture and CEO of Wingroup, a private conglomerate, has been asked to head up a binational entity tentatively known as Quisqueya Development Corp.
“We’re looking to create clusters to provide enough jobs for people to rebuild their lives and have access to housing,” Mevs explained. “The idea is to make sure both countries reinforce one another’s competitive advantages. For example, we’re looking at opening call centers using Dominican infrastructure and investment, and the French-speaking capacity of the Haitians.’
The entity’s first order of business is a $120 million free zone located 30 minutes east of Port-au-Prince near the Dominican border. The Chambrum economic cluster project, as it’s known, would focus on textiles, greenhouses, energy and the IT sector. If all goes well, the zone should be finished within three years.
José Raúl Perales is senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Latin America program. He says the role of the Dominican Republic has been "very constructive and fundamental, from the minute the emergency happened up until now," with the current focus more on long-term policy.
"This is the result of several things," he explained. "One of course is the sheer tragedy. Second is the recognition that the Dominican Republic's own security and well-being depends in large part on a stable, prosperous Haiti. I won't deny that there is political opportunity for Leonel Fernández here. He's played a leadership role in this region — in Honduras, in Haiti, and mediating between Venezuela and Colombia — and this is very much typical of his persona and his government."
Inter-American Dialogue's Shifter says he's heard lots of talk about putting Haitians in charge of their country's recovery efforts, but that "it's hard to know to what extent this is realistic or practical. This country has been completely devastated, and didn't have strong institutions to begin with. There needs to be very substantial support to enable the Haitians to excercise control. It's not going to happen overnight."
Bill Clinton, whose involvement with Haiti is known around the world, told attendees at the Punta Cana conference that the Haitian people have done remarkably well for themselves under the circumstances.
“They have used this terrible tragedy to reimagine their future — but it is a future that cannot be achieved without the support of the international community,” he said.
In a highly unusual gesture for a former U.S. president, Clinton lavished praise on Cuba’s post-earthquake medical assistance to its Caribbean neighbor, noting that “Haiti may well be the only subject in which you can find Venezuela, Cuba and the United States in complete agreement.”
He added: “If each of us commits to doing what we can, I believe we can help the Haitian people modernize the economy, build individual empowerment, restore their environment and for the first time ever, become a completely self-sustaining partner in this region and give their own people the future they deserve.”