Tensions Put on Hold as Dominican Republic Reaches Out
Elizabeth Eames Roebling
SANTO DOMINGO, Feb 11 (IPS) - Despite a history of often tense relations, the first nation to render assistance to Haiti after last month's devastating earthquake was its island neighbour, the Dominican Republic.
In addition to canned goods, food, water and medical teams, the DR sent to Haiti 10 of the mobile kitchens in buses which the government here uses to cook and distribute food in the poorest sections of the country.
These kitchens have now served almost two million meals both in the capital Port-au-Prince and in Jimani, the main border crossing into the Dominican Republic. The meals, along with the bags of water which are given out with them, have cost this country about 2.1 million dollars. But this is only a small portion of the aid that has been given.
Much of the aid is being coordinated by FUNGLODE (Fundacion Global Democracia y Desarollo) , the not-for-profit established by President Leonel Fernandez.
Human rights violations against Haitians and their descendants, including lynchings and mass deportations of migrants, have been longstanding problems in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola and a 380-km border with Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
At the same time, the Dominican Republic is heavily dependent on Haitian workers, who perform an estimated 60 percent of the agricultural labour and much of the construction work.
Since the earthquake, though, average Dominicans, and their government, have turned toward Haiti with a tremendous outpouring of aid and sympathy.
"The people of the DR have made a great effort to help the people of Haiti," said Jhoselyn Ruiz, assistant to FUNGLODE's executive director. "We are receiving donations of water, canned goods, tarpaulins and clothes in many collection centres of in all part of the country. All these donations that are received, we are coordinating taking them over by boat and truck. We try to give the most help to those who need it."
The Dominican Republic has put six of its naval vessels at the disposal of the rescue efforts in order to help get aid to the outlying affected areas, such as Jacmel on the southern coast. The ships arrived in Jacmel carrying 100 tonnes of food, water and medical supplies, including volunteers from the Dominican Red Cross. It was the first aid the devastated southern city had received.
It has also placed its southern airport at Barahon at the disposal of rescue operations. Since the main port in Port-au-Prince has been completely inoperable, much of relief supplies and volunteers must come into Haiti along the one border road, which snakes between Lago Azui and a cliff and has been subject to flooding.
At the border in Jimani, the Dominican hospitals performed over 1,500 surgeries on wounded Haitians.
The office of the first lady has announced that 15 portable classrooms will be sent to assist in getting some Haitian children back to school. As many as 5,000 schools were destroyed in the Jan. 12 earthquake, and an estimated 1.5 million children are without classrooms.
"The helicopters are leaving continuously from the airport of Higuero," Ruiz told IPS. "The helicopters are going to Jimani where they are coordinating the aid. Other centres are sending their own trucks. Universities, for instance, are sending their own trucks. So there is no way for us to know how much aid has come from the Dominican Republic."
The assistance that the Dominican government alone has given is estimated at 83,000 dollars per day.
In addition, President Fernandez has become an advocate for Haiti before the international community. Following a proposal by the director of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alverto Moreno, that there be a "Marshall Plan" established for the development of Haiti, Fernandez has stated that such a fund should be for 10 billion dollars and the reconstruction plans for 10 years.
Fernandez sat in a round table here with President Rene Preval at his side, before the ministers of 76 governments.
His first proposal was that all the debts of Haiti be forgiven. Then he recommended that this fund be established with the principal and interest payments owed to the Paris Club of Paris of Western donor nations. Fernandez proposed that both the interest and capital payments of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean for the next 10 years be diverted into the fund for Haiti.
At Centro Bono, the main collection centre operated by the Jesuits, Anna Coronado has been on duty every day since the earthquake.
"We have emptied this room about three to four times a day to go in the big trucks to the warehouse for organising and shipping, so that is more than 20 trucks that we have filled every day," Coronado told IPS.
"We have had at least 20 volunteers every day, sometimes as many as 40. We have altered the list of our requested donations a bit since the beginning. We are still asking for water and canned food, but we are also now asking for sleeping bags, mattresses, sheets, tarps, large plastic bags to collect the garbage, and also the dead. I have been working every day from nine to nine but I got off early, at six pm on Sunday," she said.
The list at the entrance to the centre now has, in addition to canned food and water, black garbage bags, body bags, detergents, antiseptics, gloves and masks, tents, mattresses, mosquito netting, plastic plates, cups and utensils.
In the lobby, six young Haitian men surrounded a compatriot slumped in a chair who had recently arrived from Port Au Prince.
"I lost my mother. I lost my father," said Jean Daniel from Grande Goave. "I have no home and nowhere to go. I sent my younger sisters to the countryside and came over here. I was lucky to have a passport and visa."
Asked if they thought that the outpouring of aid from the Dominican Republic would forever change the normally tense relationship between these two countries, all of them nodded.
Guillame St. Pierre said: "It is incredible what this country has done. No country could have done more. They have completely opened their hearts to us. I think that this will forever change our relationship. We will not forget their generosity to us."