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“Is Haiti really so dangerous ?”

XS_DSC_8373A few weeks ago I decided to take a short break from Haiti. It was all to be not too far and not too expensive, basically just a place where I could relax staring at another horizon (see the pictures) and read some books. Out of the options nearby, the most accessible was the Dominican Republic: I was able to get there and around with my motorcycle.

It must be said, I was also curious to find a plausible answer to a question friends back in Europe continued to ask me: why is Haiti so much poorer than the Dominican Republic ? One of the obvious answers seems that with millions of tourists each year the Dominican republic is able to gain a lot of money through that industry. Almost 4 million tourists visited the Dominican Republic in 2008. By contrast Haiti received only just over 300.000 tourists the same year. That number seems pretty high considering that in the three and a half years I have lived here I have seen a group of tourists in Haiti just once. I’m pretty sure I was staring at them as much as Haitians around.

Anyway, even if we consider those numbers of yearly tourist visits as accurate, thirteen to one is an important difference. The question is: why ? In three weeks I wasn’t able to find an answer based on hard facts. Except perhaps that infrastructure is in a better shape in the DR, and that for less money you can find budget hotels that have more comfort than their equivalents in Haiti.

Still, some people are looking for a bit more adventure in public transport on dirt roads and don’t mind sleeping in a room without airconditioning, television and a fridge. Others looking for more comfort don’t mind paying a lot for their hotels. After all, the history and patrimonium of Haiti is extremely impressive, there is more than 1500 kilometers of Caribbean coastline, and yes, if you really want there are fancy hotels in Haiti, and you can just stay on the paved roads and still see a lot.

Yet a more inspiring answer came in the form of questions from the tourists I met in the DR: “Is Haiti really so dangerous ?”, “Do you think it is safe to cross the border ?”, “Did you see a lot of violence ?”, “Do you get ripped off a lot by corrupt officials ?” and so forth. Those questions were interesting since in more than three years in Haiti I never saw anyone firing a gun, and have never been asked for a bribe by officials.

By contrast, in the first week in the DR I saw a gunfight in broad daylight over the national highway. It happened for a second time – again on a national highway and in broad daylight – a few days later. In Port-au-Prince I heard just once a gunfight in the middle of the night: the sound woke me up. Once hearing it in three and a half years, compared to two times seeing it in less than three weeks time. So as far as the danger goes, there is no doubt Haiti feels more secure.

As far as corruption by officials goes, I have never been in a situation where I felt that paying in Haiti might help. Actually, I heard that a friend got jailed because he tried to bribe a policeman. But when I tried to cross a small border-post to get in the DR the customs were obviously playing with me in the hope I would lose my patience and ask them “if nothing could be arranged so I could move on.” It didn’t work since I had the whole day if necessary. I just lost about two hours on obviously invented “infractions” with Dominican law such as not having an entry-stamp for Haiti in my new passport. As if a entry stamp to Haiti could possibly matter to Dominican border officials, especially since I had my Haitian exit stamp and residence permit.

I could have lived with that. I wouldn’t even mention it if there hadn’t been that other experience at the main border between the DR and Haiti: Jimani / Malpasse. A bunch of guys jumped on me before even arriving at the actual customs office. Obviously they all asked my passport to help me out. I sort of pushed my way through them, making sure to get the official looking exit-card all of them were waving with. They had already filled in that I was a US citizen, called George Something, so for some change I got a blank paper and a pen. When it was my turn on the booth, I handed over my passport and the card, and promptly got the passport back with the stamp I was looking for. That was the easy part.

I jumped back on my motorbike and drove it slowly to the gate some 50 meters from there. Just beside the gate I was stopped by some guys all wearing different clothes, although the marine blue T-shirt might have been a bit more prominent. Anyway, no uniform, no badge, who are those guys ? Oh yes, of course, these 6 or 7 persons that had just surrounded me at 5 meters from the gate all had visibly a pistol stacked in the back of their pants.

“The papers for your motorcycle !”
They weren’t uniformed, neither identified by a badge, but standing in the open beside the gate in front of what looked as a small office. I gave them the papers they asked for.
“No, not this, the one from the customs”, strategically pulling the papers they were holding already behind their back. I handed over the paper from the Haitian customs.
“Not this one, the Dominican one.”

I was out of paperwork to hand out to them, but knew I had shown them all they could legally ask me to see. Despite having lost two hours at the small border post over the Haitian entry stamp getting in the DR, those guys all had confirmed I had what I needed for driving the motorcycle through the DR.

It was obvious this mess at the Jimani border was just a scam. Despite the fact they weren’t uniformed or identified they might have been some kind of officials, or at least somehow related to them through the Dominican border scam. Trying not to loose my patience – yet now the border was closing in less than an hour – I showed them the tourist tax ticket I had paid while explaining them I knew there was nothing else they could ask me for. I took care to mention I had all reasons to doubt they were officials in the first place.

So for five minutes or so they did all they could to work on my nerves – that is their job after all – while I was trying to stay calm and find a way out of this scam. I could finally seize the opportunity of a disagreement among them to get back my papers and pull the gas handle to get quickly through the gate others had just opened for a passing car.

The contrast couldn’t possibly have been greater: at the Haitian side a uniformed custom officer wearing a badge gestured me to stop. He asked me to turn of my engine and hand him over my passport. There is some logic in such a procedure. He looked briefly at my passport, then walked to the office with my papers while a few other – uniformed – guys asked me to come over. It happened to be they were just curious about where I came from, where I lived, if I liked their country and so on. After a few minutes talking to the guys I was handed over my passport after paying what I officially owed.

True, when I was about to go they asked me if I could spare some small change. I hesitated a moment, then realized I was in a good mood to be back in Haiti while they hadn’t tried to rip me off, so I offered a Prestige, the Haitian prize winning beer.

As much as I enjoyed changing my horizon at the other side of the border, there is no doubt I feel, first, safer, and second, less harassed by officials in Haiti as in the DR. So if you would be in the DR and hesitate to cross the border out of fear for you personal security or scams, be sure you’ve already seen the worst side of the border.

2 Comments on ““Is Haiti really so dangerous ?””

  1. #1 Benjamin Button
    on Feb 9th, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    I can not believe what I just read! Total b.s. if you ask me.
    I have visited the DR well over 15× dating back from the mid 80’s to now.
    Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, with beautiful beaches and lets not forget to mention according to western standards beautiful women..
    The reason Dominican Republic is in a much better financial state is obvious, tourism, but the reason tourism has flourished more has been because as corrupt as the government has been it has always focused on constructing and maintaining tourist areas and not to mention their efforts on keeping crime low in and around tourist areas.
    Dominicans living in the US also send a substantial amount of money back to DR helping the economy thrive.
    If you ever drive around in the DR you will notice alot of well built beautiful homes very rare do you see a Dominican who lives in the US that does not build a home in the DR although they may never have plans on retiring there causing a construction boom.
    The Dominican government as corrupt as it may be also enforces is laws on deforestation unlike Haiti where mudslides are common.
    Haiti is a lawless country. Dominican Republic is much safer.
    In fact a great deal of crime in DR is due to Haitans that cross illegally into the country.
    And while this last comment may be deemed politically incorrect but another reason the Dominican Republic is in a better financial state is their proximity to Colombia. Alot of drugs is trafficked through DR and into the US. Most of that money is funneled into the economy of the country where traffickers as well as distributors in the US invest their money in the country to launder their proceeds and it is a good reason why you see so many nice discotecs, exotic car dealerships, and fancy motels for quick rendezvous.
    With the deportation of Dominican nationals deported back to their country, post 911 security in the US making it harder to smuggle the drugs (causing a great deal of the drugs to stay in the country for local consumption) and Haitains commiting crime there has made DR a much more dangerous place than it was say 14 yrs ago but one thing for sure your average gringo traveling there for a good time does not have to worry more about crime than they do in their own country.
    And as far as border crossing hassels those are procedures that you my friend have got to follow just because you are American does not meen you do not have to follow rules and laws in that country.
    Everyone entering the US has to have the correct paper work to enter citizen or not you will be delayed so so what if you have to grease a border patrol at another country with 5 bucks for not having the stamps or paper work required or that they may find suspicious..

  2. #2 Zorro
    on Feb 11th, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Dear Benjamin,

    Thanks for your comment. What I wrote is no b.s. but sadly true. You mention quite correctly that the DR government has focussed on keeping crime low around tourist areas. The shootings described in the blogpiece happened outside those tourist areas, but that doesn’t them disappear. Actually, it indicates that crime in the DR is serious enough to have a need for extra protection in tourist areas.

    Haiti is a lawless country. Dominican Republic is much safer.

    Hmmm, it seems to me you have never visited Haiti. I feel secure in this country, not only in tourist areas (which actually do exist), but basically everywhere beside some Port-au-Prince neigborhoods in occasional periods of turmoil. While it is true the Haitian state is unfortunately a predator to its own nation, the country itself is not lawless. The lack of a performant and impartial judiciary system makes that indeed a lot of crimes happen without persuit, let alone condemnation. This is particularly the case for politically motivated crimes, where perpetrators are protected by the government and/or the economic elite. But Haiti is definitely not the only country where this happens. It does not mean the country is completely lawless, it means that the justice system is influenced by people with power and that some crimes go unpunished. In “ordinary” cases, laws do apply. Also one detail might shock you, but the homicide rate in Haiti is much lower than the one in the DR: 6.9 for Haiti, 24.9 for the DR (check this document from the UN Office on Drug and Crime).

    In fact a great deal of crime in DR is due to Haitans that cross illegally into the country.

    Indeed very political incorrect as you say, but also very untrue and – as it seems to me – blindly following the DR trend of accusing HAitians of everything that goes wrong in their country. Unfortunately racism (in particular against Haitians) is gaining ground in the DR at a high pace. It goes so far that the DR government is even going to take back the nationality (=denationalize) of people born in the DR after 1929 (just google 168/13 to find out more). As far as deportation goes, the DR authorities do them on a massive scale. Hell they even deport Nigerians to Haiti because they happen to be black ! Well, be that what it is, also know that if tomorrow all Haitians would stop working in the DR, its economy would come close to a collapse: who are the day labourers in the sugarcane fields, who harvests fruits and vegetables, who builds roads and does construction work, who are the domestic “servants”, in other words: who does the dirty jobs ? Haitians, and far too often in inhumane conditions.

    And as far as border crossing hassels those are procedures that you my friend have got to follow just because you are American does not meen you do not have to follow rules and laws in that country.

    Hmmm, first I am not American. Second, I think that there is a fundamental difference between a border crossing procedure and a border crossing hassle. The event I described happened after I had gone through all the correct procedures, all the necessary stamps in my passport, all the paperwork for my motorcycle etc. In other words, I was done with all the legal procedures on the DR side when this ununiformed and armed scum was trying to intimidate me right in front of the gate. I think that was quite a good example of lawlessness.

    Well, all this doesn’t mean that I did not enjoy my stay in the DR, but honestly, I say it again: I feel a lot safer in Haiti than in the DR.

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