Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*
HAVANA TIMES, April 24 — Without a doubt, the presence of Cuban doctors and paramedics in Haiti is something that has to be considered as positive.
For many reasons, that country should be a preferred object of our foreign policy. On the one hand, it is one of the closest nations to our island, and on the other it’s the poorest country on the continent and one of the poorest in the world.
It is also a geographical area with which we have strong historical ties going back to the remote days of when the Taino cacique (chief) Hatuey, pursued by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, crossed the Windward Passage from what is now that territory.
The subsequent antagonistic actions by the Spanish symbolized the tragic beginning of the history of Cuba.
And, finally, because of its proximity and its history, it is a society with which we need to have more links with in the future, including the reactivation of immigration flows toward Eastern Cuba, currently inhabited by tens of thousands of Cuban-Haitians.
I’m not going to go into the specific aspects of the Cuban medical assistance; that has been dealt with elsewhere. We know that this assistance is aided by the lack of rights in Cuba and in the manner in which medical and paramedical staff are treated.
Like all assistance, it pursues political ends. And finally, its high volume necessarily affects the decline of services in Cuba.
But even still, it is a worthy effort and the fact that Cuban doctors and nurses are living up to their professional duties in such difficult conditions should be a source of pride.
At least that’s what I feel when I often go to the Dominican/Haitian border and listen to people talk with such respect and admiration for my fellow Cubans.
The Potential Market in Haiti for Cuban Products
It’s expected that this assistance will increase as a result of the recently announced “Bolivarian Plan,” which will involve new groups of Cuban medical personnel thanks to Venezuelan funding, mainly along the border with the Dominican Republic.
However, what’s of interest to me though is to discuss another issue: the almost total failure of the Cuban government to avail itself of opportunities in the Haitian market, which today constitutes a highly lucrative bonanza for the Dominican economy.
Dominicans have known how to take full advantage of the Haitian market.
Taking refuge in Dominican territory are something like one million Haitians, who are the basic workforce behind the construction industry, numerous crops and some services.
It is the most skilled of the Haitian workforce and of an optimum working age. Even when xenophobic Dominican groups have acted against them in ways that are a national disgrace, the reality is that without this workforce, many economic activities would grind to a halt and many Dominicans would lose their jobs.
Dominican companies are heavily involved in the rebuilding of Haiti with the support of international cooperation. In fact, the major infrastructure projects (such as the road from Cap-Haitien to Dajabon in the DR) have been carried out by these companies through what constitutes a true export of services.
Certainly, within this involvement is strong evidence of corruption and the complicity of the political mafias of both countries, which insistently points to collusion between presidents Michel Martelly and Leonel Fernandez.
But if we block out this information, what is still striking is the assertiveness of the Dominican capitalists faced with this market demand.
They have sold countless numbers of products to Haiti, everything from the regular supply of building materials to foods that are rich in fats and carbohydrates, which constitute the principal source of sustenance for poor families (which in Haiti means 90 percent of the population).
Many of these products couldn’t be exported to any other place and some couldn’t even be turned over within the Dominican market itself. Haiti has since become not only an extension of the Dominican market, but also in its degraded second-tier version.
For this reason, between 2005 and 2010 the Dominican Republic sold Haiti almost $3 billion dollars of goods. Some of these were products of free trade zones, but about half were domestic products – such as beans, rice derivatives, eggs, sugar, flour, steel rods (rebar), cardboard boxes, concrete, cement blocks, various agricultural products, pastas, and even ice.
On the flip side, Cuba sold only $119 million worth of goods to Haiti in that same period.
In 2010, Cuba exported products valued at $27 million to Haiti, while the Dominican exports were close to $1 billion (37 times as much), with $490 million of these consisting of domestic goods.
It’s not improper at all that if one country plays a major role in assisting another nation, it should avail itself of the opportunity to also sell goods to that country. It’s not even necessary to try to use cooperation to compel it to buy products or to engage in shady deals.
It is enough to understand the market, negotiate a fair price and realize mutually beneficial transactions.
It’s true that Dominicans have the advantage of a common border, but ultimately what separates us from Haiti is only 43 miles that can be crossed by small boats. Cuba has large areas that are very close to the Haitian side, while it is difficult to transport Dominican goods to that part of Haiti due to the deplorable road conditions.
Cities such as Port-de-Paix, Jeremie, Les Cayes, Gonaives and Cap-Haitien are demographic conglomerations that should be of interest to Cuban exporters.
Eastern Cuba is undergoing a large-scale crisis that could be alleviated if the doors were opened to the eager and lesser-demanding market of Haiti. This would be a smart way to stem the migratory bleeding experienced by the region and to revive a rural economy in decline.
And obviously this would further integrate us into the Caribbean region, which is our immediate environment.
With regard to Haiti, given that there is no trade embargo, no blockade, no Helms Burton Act, no Cuban Five imprisoned there and no direct imperialist threat posed by it, we should recognize what Cuba isn’t doing and what the Dominicans are is due to the proverbial inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our bureaucratic economic system.