Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dominican Republic anxious to show difference to Haiti

Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic has said its country was undamaged in last week’s massive earthquake and the country is available to offer support to the relief effort “in any way necessary”. A statement released by Ministry of Tourism said “the DR is making available its medical facilities for earthquake victims and is providing international relief organizations access to Haiti through the airport and seaports.” The statement also said the Republic’s transportation systems, communications systems, hotels, resorts, beaches and natural environment suffered no damage, a message designed to tell the world not to cancel its holiday bookings. (photo: Getty Images)

The statement also said the nation’s eight airports were open and receiving flights. However, the New York Times says the relief effort is using three key airports and a roadway in the Dominican Republic’s southern region to ferry supplies through mostly rural areas not frequented by visitors. Millions of Dominicans have donated time, money, supplies and expertise to help Haiti. But crossing the border is not the easiest of tasks.

The border crossing between Haiti and Dominican Republic is supposed to be open between 8am and 6pm. But as this intrepid traveller found in 2007, the reality is somewhat different. “An immigration official passed by and informed us that things opened at 9. By 9:30 more people had congregated, including immigration officials. The immigration people would ask us what we needed but when we would tell them…they just nodded and continued to eat their breakfast outside the locked office. Around 11, two hours after they were supposed to open, the windows opened the process began.” Even then it was a “shoving game” until “lots of stressful Spanish, shoving, yelling, and swatting bugs” got them over the border.

The blog writer also spoke about the trust involved in handing over a passport. This will not always work out for the best as a Trinidadian journalist has just found out. Dale Enoch is now stranded in the Dominican Republic after losing his passport at the border. Enoch came to the island to cover the earthquake for a Trinidad radio station and handed his passport at the border on his way to Haiti by bus. However he was unable to get his passport back when he returned and the bus company refused to take responsibility. “It appears that there is a passport racket going on,” Enoch said. “Once your passport has a US visa in it, it is attractive.”

But despite the corruption, the Dominican Republic is like another world compared to its impoverished neighbour. Michael Den Tandt of the Toronto Sun was also at the border and he noticed a great difference between the two countries. “On the Dominican side there’s grass, palm trees. There are well-paved highways, street signs and telephone poles. There are neat, small but well-kept and painted homes, with tidy yards,” he said. Compare that to Haiti with its “partly flooded gravel track, an impossible tangle of dilapidated little trucks, [and] teeming crowds desperate to get out.”

The Dominican Republic has now established a humanitarian corridor along the route between the two capitals of Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince. Haitian President Rene Preval accepted a proposal from the Dominican Republic for 150 Dominican military troops to patrol the corridor in cooperation with a contingent of Peruvian troops from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. But DR’s foreign minister was forced to deny that Preval had turned down an earlier offer of 800 troops and they had to reach a compromise for a much smaller number. “When you are helping a friend and neighbour, there is no need to negotiate,” he said. “There were no negotiations and no rejection (from Haiti).”

And while relations between the two nations haven’t always been the most cordial, there is little doubt that Santo Domingo has played a crucial role in the earthquake relief effort. Many Haitians have been crossing the border into Jimani for medical attention almost overwhelming the local hospital which is lavish compared to the facilities back in Haiti. The hospital usually has about 30 hospital beds, but over the past week, there have been as many as 150 patients per day. But it is coping thanks to overseas relief and the better quality of DR health care compared to Haiti. As Tallahassee’s noted, the Dominican Republic also suffered a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September 2003. But only one person died, which was the result of a trauma induced heart attack. “The difference in death tolls between that quake and Haiti's come down to two factors,” said “It was in the middle of the night, and the buildings in the Dominican Republic have a higher code of infrastructure.”

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