@BR Ednote:Editor’s note: Part of a series examining the challenges and opportunities in Haiti’s reconstruction, six months after the devastating earthquake.
By JIM WYSS
OUANAMINTHE, Haiti — As dawn broke over this dusty border town, hundreds of people waded across the knee-deep Masak River into the Dominican Republic — carrying bundles of live chickens and sacks of clothing — as they dodged border guards waving them back onto the crowded international bridge.
It’s a chaotic scene that plays out every Monday and Friday as the two nations open their borders to exchange goods. And it has boomed since Haiti completed a 44-mile road that connects this once-sleepy outpost with the nation’s second-largest city, Cap-Haitien.
It’s just a two-lane road — and not a long one by most standards. But six months after the Jan. 12 earthquake killed 300,000, left 1.5 million homeless and paralyzed much of the country, the stretch of blacktop that fuels the market and snakes through northeastern Haiti has the hopes of a nation riding on it.
Once-isolated farmers dream of tapping new markets, industrialists imagine building textile mills to compete with those run by their Dominican neighbors, and regional boosters see the road as the backbone of a tourist route that will whisk visitors to colonial castles, pristine beaches and picturesque villages seen only by the heartiest of travelers.
Road is the foundation
It’s the sort of tangible infrastructure project that development experts say is key to spurring the entrepreneurship that will help Haiti find its footing. And it’s an example the government hopes to replicate in some of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to the northeast,” Hugo Charles bellowed over the roar of an industrial fan he kept aimed at his head, and the music of a nearby disco he owns.
A native of northern Haiti, Charles spent most of his life as a policeman in Michigan and New York. When he heard that a road was being built through Ouanaminthe (pronounced Wah-na-mehn) he knew it was a chance of a lifetime. He moved back about five years ago, plowed his retirement into a piece of land, built a gas station, and waited.
“When I got here there was nothing, nothing, nothing,” he said. “They were just starting the road and I knew there was going to be a big change — a lot of business, a lot more traffic.”
It used to take cargo trucks eight hours to make the 44-mile trip from Cap-Haitien, the northeast’s economic and cultural hub, he said. Now, that trip takes less than two hours, and the streets of Ouanaminthe are jammed with busses and trucks from villages once considered far-flung.
Even before the road was finished, trade along the route increased 200 percent between 2006 and 2008, the government says. Local officials estimate anywhere from 15,000 to 80,000 people cross the border on a market day.
Charles opened the Canarie Disco Club as a place where weary truckers can kill time waiting for the border to open.
“I couldn’t have had any of this,” he said waving toward his nightclub and gas station, “if it wasn’t for the road.”
Financed by the European Union under a $109 million) the road was completed in 2008 atop a pre-existing dirt and gravel strip.
Opening Haiti to the world
Some wonder if it’s ahead of its time. Haiti has just 2,585 miles of roads and less than a quarter are paved, according to U.S. government statistics. By comparison, Rwanda and Burundi — which are Haiti’s same size and are also struggling with development challenges — have three times more roads.
Given the country’s dire state, many think the priority should have been finishing the 155-mile stretch that connects Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince, where virtually all of the political power and most of the economic power are concentrated. The project ran out of money.
But such thinking misses the mark, said Rudolph Boulos, a former Haitian senator for the northeast.
The northeastern road doesn’t so much connect Cap-Haitien to the Dominican Republic as open up northern Haiti to the world, he said.
As the route slices through undeveloped savannas and plantain fields it also puts some of Haiti’s most prized tourist destinations within reach.
Less than an hour from the Dominican Republic is the port city of Fort Liberté, which features French-designed strongholds that date back to the 1700s.
Closer to Cap-Haitien is the spectacular hilltop citadel of Laferriére, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the ruins of the Sans-Souci Palace — built by Haitian revolutionary hero and one-time emperor of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti, Henri Christophe. Haiti saw just 800,000 tourists in 2008 and growth has been stunted by lack of infrastructure, including hotels. The earthquake wiped out almost half of Port-au-Prince’s estimated 1,621 hotel rooms.
The new road allows Haiti to piggyback on the more than 60,300 rooms available in the Dominican Republic and poach some of the 4 million tourists that visit there every year, Boulos said.
UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton said once Cap-Haitien’s airport is expanded, the case can be made for building roads to connect the city to the beach resort of Labadee.
“We can get new resorts built there,” Clinton said. “I can get donors’ funds to help build housing around the resorts for the people who will work there.”
But if the northeast truly wants to lure well-heeled tourists across the border, the government will have to make Haiti more inviting, said Samson Raphael, who owns the 45-room Ideál Hotel in Ouanaminthe — the city’s fanciest digs.
Raphael says he makes his money catering to Haitian merchants who come for the weekly market. Few if any tourists stay here -- and he thinks he knows why.
Immediately across the border in the Dominican Republic, the streets are cobbled and have lights. The Haitian border is a massive dirt parking lot, crammed with shanties, food stalls and women selling cow-heads for soup stock.
“That side is nice, but this side is all dogs and garbage,” he said, sitting in his darkened lobby, as the city only has power five hours a day.
While Ouanaminthe may not be an international hot spot, it’s a global player in the fashion industry.
On a 45-acre lot that straddles the Masak River is Codevi, a garment factory that churns out more than 1.1 million items of clothing per week for Levis and Calvin Klein, among others.
Run by the Dominican conglomerate Grupo M, some 4,200 Haitians punch-in at the factory for jobs that pay about $15 to $31 a week.
The road’s full potential may still lay ahead, but Prema Arsten is already thankful. The gray-headed man said he makes the trip to the market every Monday and Friday to sell fishing traps to Dominicans.
Miami Herald Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.