PEDERNALES, Dominican Republic, Jul 12 (IPS) - The border between Anse a Pitres in Haiti and Pedernales in the Dominican Republic, both seven hours from their respective capitals, is barred only by a chain that pedestrians can easily cross.
Unlike some other crossings that are tightly controlled, Haitians pass freely back and forth during the week. No immigration checks occur until buses are stopped at the fort leaving the town.
Still, relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are so delicate that the theft of a motorbike, which precipitated a melee along the Pedernales River last week, drew the intervention of the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti and representatives of both the national governments.
The governors of Pedernales and the Departmente du Sud Est from Port au Prince met last week on the southern border to publicly demonstrate that there was no conflict between the two nations.
In the Jul. 4 incident, a Haitian was accused of stealing a motorbike from the Dominican side. A number of Dominicans crossed into Anse a Pitres and started to beat him up. A lot more Haitians arrived to aid the accused. In the end, there were as many as 200 people gathered on the banks of the river fighting with rocks and machetes.
Local residents, including Ramon Mateus, director of Plan International, and Frederico Oscaldo, the Haitian consul in Pedernales, insist that the altercation, in which eight people were wounded, was merely infighting among gang members.
"It is an organised gang of delinquents who regularly steal motorbikes from the Dominican side and sell them on the Haitian side. This is an ongoing problem," Oscaldo said.
Mateus, whose office works to promote friendship between the residents and dispel any ideas of "anti-Haitianismo", added that, "The people in Anse a Pitres are country people, not sophisticated. They could not be regularly stealing motorbikes without the cooperation of people on the Dominican side."
This belief was shared by Marino José, owner of the Hotel Dona Chava, a lifelong resident of Pedernales who himself has never crossed over the border into Haiti.
"Certainly it is a gang of delinquents," he said. "The Haitians could not be doing it alone. They could not be wandering about stealing without someone catching them."
José said that young Dominicans have crossed over into Haiti to get their bikes back. But if the bikes have been seized by the Haitian authorities, which often happens if they discover that a Haitian has a bike with Dominican identification plates, they require them to pay a "recovery fee" that is sometimes more than the bike is worth.
There is also a large population of Colombian nationals living in Pedernales who own several apartment buildings, and a concrete company, along with a dock with a ship on the deep water port of Cabo Rojo. The company has not been producing concrete for the last year.
The 20,000 residents of Anse-A-Pitres, which has no electricity, live primarily through fishing, although few of their boats have motors so that they do not catch as much as the motorboats which leave from the Dominican side and can go further out.
Many of the women go into Pedernales during the day to perform domestic labour in Dominican homes. A wage of 50 dollars a month is typical, and there are many more people looking for work than there are jobs available. One Haitian woman working at a local hotel is paid 65 dollars a month for seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
Mateus challenges the local custom of keeping young Haitian girls to do housework in Dominican homes for room and board only, with no salary.
"I have been at meetings with Dominican women, high-level women, who have these girls of 13 years old at their homes. They do not pay them. They do not send them to school. I say to them that this is a form of slavery. They say that it is not, that they are giving them a place to live and food. But if you are not sending them to school and not paying them, what do you call it?" he said.
On market days in Pedernales, Mondays and Fridays, the consul on the Haitian side and his assistant and two customs officials on the Dominican side eye the goods coming out of the market and determine the duty on the spot. There are no set customs duties posted. Neither official could give an estimate of how much money changed hands during the two market days every week.
Marino José says that the director of customs is building a new house. "The front door alone costs 50,000 pesos. His salary is only 15,000. How is this possible? I have watched them collect the customs. There is no paperwork, no records."
Recently there has been a tightening of controls on Haitians arriving without proper passports and visas. Three hours before the local bus from Santo Domingo arrived in Pedernales, the bus driver received a phone call.
"Two or three, you say?" he commented.
At the next military checkpoint, he turned to the fare collector and pointed out one of the guards, saying: "Go talk to that one." When the fare collector got back on the bus, he told the driver: "He says we can only bring in two and he wants 300 pesos each." The driver said: "That means that we will charge them 1,200 pesos" -- about 36 dollars.
Jose says that the military men at the border checkpoints are paid the minimum wage, about 120-150 dollars a month. If a bus stops and is not carrying any undocumented Haitians, the officer will say to the driver: "You are not bringing anything. You are not bringing a livelihood."