JIMANI, Dominican Republic — It’s dusk on market day at the Haitian-Dominican border. Throngs of Haitians have cleared Dominican trucks of their wares, stuffing diapers, brooms and food-flavoring mixes into buses, and strapping the overflow to roofs for the return trip to Port-au-Prince.
But off the main drag here, a smuggling operation is underway.
Men and women empty a couple of trucks, tying boxes with colored string and setting them in piles on the ground. Purchasers stack them on wheelbarrows and rush them to nearby Lake Azuei, where wooden boats stand ready for the trip to Haiti.
The contraband is eggs. Demand is high in Haiti, where malnutrition is a real threat for many people. Haitians eat more than 30 million eggs a month, and most cross the border illegally from their only land neighbor, whose eggs can cost half the price.
Haiti essentially banned Dominican eggs in 2008. The move followed discovery of avian flu across the border, but many doubt that’s the main reason. Haiti faces a dilemma familiar to many countries: Keep prices low by allowing free trade, or restricting imports and encouraging domestic production, even though that is likely to drive up prices, at least in the short term.
Officials say its goal tightening the border should help create an internal market. Instead, dysfunction and lack of investment feed a vicious cycle that perpetuates Haiti’s status as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The government has paid more attention to the border than to the other half of the strategy — boosting local production. But it hasn’t fully implemented either part, frustrating nearly everyone.
The border briefly re-opened to Dominican eggs after a devastating earthquake in 2010. But the next year, Haitian authorities cracked down with greater determination. Four years later, they banned 23 more common items, including pasta, snacks and cement mix from crossing the land border, citing the inability of customs officers to properly inspect and levy duties. Those products continue to pass as contraband, helping fill the boats on Lake Azuei.
While improving border controls might increase customs revenue, much of the public sees the effort as heavy-handed and arbitrary, especially when it’s not accompanied by strong efforts to develop the economy. The patchwork of half-measures makes life in Haiti even more precarious.
Those bringing Dominican eggs into Haiti never know if they will make it back to Port-au-Prince with their cargo, or if it will be seized. Haitian producers brace for a glut of cheap eggs during the Dominican tourism industry’s off-season. Uncertainty makes banks reluctant to provide loans to new producers.
Much of what is sold in Port-au-Prince comes from the twice-weekly market a couple of hours away in Jimani, where Haitians bargain heatedly before loading up and heading home.
Jocelyn Lefevre, who sells Haitian chickens and Dominican eggs in a Port-au-Prince open market, rails against the government for the way he is treated at the border.
“The police chase us, and the customs agents take our stuff while letting other merchandise go through!” he said. Besides, it’s expensive to travel to the border and to change money. But it’s still a better deal than buying Haitian eggs.
One problem, officials say, is the high cost of entering the poultry business in Haiti. To make a profit, you need a minimum of 10,000 hens, said Michel Chancy, a former Ministry of Agriculture official who now advises the government….