‘We Also Suffer’
By Dialogo April 01, 2010
DIÁLOGO: How did the earthquake in Haiti affect the Dominican Republic
and how did the Dominican Republic respond to this crisis? What specific measures
Lt. Gen. Pedro Rafael Peña: The crisis impacted us strongly because the
Dominican Republic and Haiti are two independent peoples who share the same island,
and any kind of suffering that befalls Haiti is something we also suffer. When this
earthquake happened, which caused nearly 270,000 casualties and affected more than a
million people, we were overwhelmed by a deep feeling of sorrow for the suffering
caused by the January 12 earthquake. Our people have demonstrated great solidarity
in all their actions, both the government and the people themselves.
Immediately, President Leonel Fernández called a meeting of all his ministers
on that same night to see what immediate help the Dominican people could give to
Haiti. The next day, we were already in Port-au-Prince. We were the first
authorities to arrive from other countries and we found great destruction, great
suffering, and we immediately tried to make contact with the Haitian authorities but
realized many of them had perished.
We were afraid for President [René] Préval’s life, and one of the tasks
assigned by our president was to get in touch with President Préval to see how the
Dominican Republic could act immediately. We communicated that day with Gen.
[Ricardo] Toro, from Chile, who is with MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization
Mission in Haiti, who told us what the situation was. The Dominican Republic began
working immediately, and that same day 10 mobile kitchens arrived in Haiti, able to
feed 120,000 people for two or three weeks, and also medical aid, because when these
types of catastrophes and calamities happen, there’s a lot of suffering. The
ministers of public health and public works, as well as the telecommunications of-
fices, immediately went to work to try to restore communications in Haiti, because
without communications, there’s no coordination.
Then, we established ourselves in a command center on the border, in a town
called Jimaní 60 kilometers from Haiti, where all the aid that was coming from the
Dominican Republic — since a great deal of aid was already piling up from the first
and second day — started coming through Haiti. This platform the Dominican Republic
set up was what helped other countries provide aid.
DIÁLOGO: What specific measures did the armed forces from the Dominican
Republic take to assist in the humanitarian relief efforts?
Lt. Gen. Peña: The president immediately gave us instructions to put
forth our effort as a nation. The armed forces were the central axis for moving all
the aid across the border, because many countries started to come together, and
since the Haitian airport was closed because the control tower suffered severe
damage, then the Dominican airports and the Dominican ports were where the aid
really started to arrive. Our armed forces were assigned to provide security, both
for the people and for the aid arriving in our country.
DIÁLOGO: What are the measures the Dominican Republic should adopt to
continue with this humanitarian aid, especially in border regions where there are
also refugees, since you have also received people from Haiti seeking refuge and
assistance at border posts?
Lt. Gen. Peña: In reality, we haven’t seen large-scale immigration into
the Dominican Republic; the population has practically stayed within its borders.
But instead, the opposite effect occurred, that is, Haitians living in the Dominican
Republic going to Haiti to see what was happening with their families. So we weren’t
expecting this effect; we were expecting something in the other direction. But the
population has stayed within its borders. What the Dominican armed forces have done
is to reinforce the border and make it easier for the people who want to go help
Haiti. So all the security work, such as that of the Specialized Border Security
Corps, which is in charge of border control measures, and the national army, is for
facilitating the flow of aid to or for Haiti.
DIÁLOGO: How do you balance the desire to provide humanitarian aid with
safeguarding the border?
Lt. Gen. Peña: We have the constitutional mission of safeguarding the
air, land and sea borders. But our job is also to ease the arrival of aid to
alleviate Haiti’s suffering. We haven’t seen a massive displacement of people headed
for the Dominican Republic. We are keeping the binational markets open, because all
along the border there is a series of markets helping to re-establish commercial
exchange. It’s a way for us to support Haiti on the basis of trade and exchange
between both sides as the country regroups.
It’s important to mention the meetings the Dominican Republic has held where
President Fernández has called for talks to help Haiti.