More than a missed trip. In this “View from Haiti” opinion piece, our reporter shares how he missed the opportunity to represent Haiti at an international poetry slam in Brazil.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — To tell you the truth, being Haitian is a challenge. Between the pride of being the First Free Black Republic, the people who defeated France, and the price to pay for this action, nothing is easy for a Haitian.
This is my conclusion after what happened to me last week. I should’ve been on a stage in Rio de Janeiro, representing Haiti alongside 39 other poets selected from 40 countries to perform at the World Poetry Slam Championship . Instead of being in Brazil, I watched a preview of my pre-recorded videos broadcast on YouTube.
Why? Because it’s actually quite hard to leave Haiti through formal international travel channels, especially when going through the Dominican Republic is involved. What happened to me shows how much Haiti’s dependence on the Dominican Republic is beyond buying food, bilateral trade and the like, but also about the impact on free movement. Being able to move freely, legally, when we don’t have our own systems in place is detrimental.
Here’s how it all happened.
In April 2023, the invitation arrived by email. It said I had been invited to represent my country as a slam artist at the international gathering set for October 12 to 15. I had been selected after participating in the Copa America de Poetry Slam in December 2022. So, I had six months to prepare.
This invitation came right as Bwa Kale was launching to combat insecurity, repeated kidnappings and gang attacks in working-class neighborhoods. I could do nothing but begin the process of obtaining a Brazilian visa.
I spent over a month trying to get this visa. I did not want a humanitarian or family reunification visa, as most requests do. I wanted to represent my country in an artistic activity. The Brazilian consul refused to allow me into the embassy and did not respond to my emails. After many trips back and forth, members of the tournament organization from Brazil had to intervene so that in July, he finally called to give me the visa.
Now that I had the Brazilian visa, another problem arose. To get to Brazil, I would have to stop in Panama. This meant I needed a Panama transit visa and to travel through Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to get to that country since there is no direct flight to either Brazil or Panama from Haiti.
So when I left the Brazilian embassy, I went straight to the Panama consulate in Pétion-Ville.
The ordeal of Panama
There, the manager told me that I needed an appointment to come in, a date that the consulate would provide via email. The manager gave me the consulate’s email.
Arriving back home that day, July 25, 2023, 11:50 a.m., I wrote to the consulate explaining that I am a journalist and poet, I have to go to Brazil to a poetry festival and that I would like to have a Panama transit visa to be able to do the trip. I even wrote to the Panama consulate in Santo Domingo. They never responded to my messages.
At one point, and starting to worry, I contacted a travel agency that advertises on flyers that it helps with obtaining a Panama visa. These travel agencies are everywhere in Haiti. They claim to help with trips to Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua, Chile. Many are scammers. It is common to hear on the radio from people who come and shout that some travel agency stole their money after promising to take them to Dubai or Canada. That’s our reality. These trips cost a fortune — upwards of USD $3,500 depending on the country of destination.
The agency I contacted quoted me $700 for the Panama visa, which costs $80 at the consulate. I gave up and contacted another agency. That one asked me for $1,200. Someone in Santo Domingo then told me I must have $300 for a visa in Santo Domingo.
The worst part of all this is you have no guarantee you will get your passport back with the visa in a short time. Haiti is a country where the unexpected, anything can happen.
The slam organizers, who don’t know much about the functioning of this country where everyone lives with the pride of their ancestors, had made my reservation through Santo Domingo, then Panama to reach Brazil.
July 25 is the day I sent my email to the Panama consulate in Haiti. They finally replied on Sept. 12, 2023. They sent me the visa application form and documents to submit. They said they would set the in-office appointment after I gathered all my documents. On Sept. 14, I finished collecting themt and wrote back to set the appointment, as agreed. It’s October 17 today. Someday, I’ll let you know if they ever answered me.
Perú as an alternative
A friend who was also going to the festival in Brazil advised me to suggest passing through Peru, which does not require a transit visa. However, I’d still need to go through Santo Domingo to board a flight to Lima. The organizers agree.
At this point, it is still September, everything is correct and I am waiting for Oct. 10 to leave Haiti for the Dominican Republic. Everyone is assured that I will promote the color of the Haitian flag and represent the slam movement in Haiti.
Around then, the organizers tell me I have to get vaccinated against yellow fever. Problem is, there is no such vaccine in the country at the moment, I’m told.
So I took a day to go to the Ministry of Public Health (MSPP). Once there, I tell my case. The receptionist gestures by rubbing his fingers to signal that I must have money, even though there is no vaccine. The plan was to give me a vaccination card in return for giving him $50.
Two days later, I returned to the Ministry. This time, I found a lady, who directed me to the office that handles this type of file. The officials gave me a certificate which indicates that I must receive the vaccine at the port of embarkation.
Problem solved, no more pressure, I have my hotel reservations in Santo Domingo, I rehearse my poems every day and I’m waiting for my travel day, Tuesday, October the 10th.
Santo Domingo the challenge
Out of all the things that happened in September, the one that would mark me and all my loved ones was Haiti’s dependence on Santo Domingo.
At the end of August 2023, the inhabitants of Ouanaminthe resumed construction of the canal on the Massacre River. To punish the Haitians, who refused Dominican demands to stop the canal, President Luis Abinader closed the land, sea and air borders with Haiti on Sept. 15.
This is where hope takes a massive hit.
Getting desperate now, I searched and found information about Dominicans who smuggle Haitians into the Dominican Republic for a sum of $300. The days are approaching, I don’t know what to do. $300 is a lot. And it hasn’t been easy to get to Belladère, where this operation takes place, since attacks by criminal gangs — from Izo to Saut-d’eau and Mirebalais — had paralyzed traffic. It’s hard to know and to share this, but to go across National Road No. 1, we’ve heard, some people pay police officers to escort them in armored tanks, a practice that former soldier Ashley Laraque has denounced.
The story is long, sad and, somehow, funny. In the end, I missed the trip and this in-person event since Dominican border remains officially closed for immigration purposes and there was no time left to switch travel plans and get a transit visa to wherever else could be the new alternative.
All this, in part, because Haiti does not have an airline that flies to Brazil. Is it insecurity that prevents these companies from establishing themselves in Haiti? Is it the State, which has no commercial airline policy for the country? Is it the political crises that are to blame?
One obvious fact of life is that almost everything that concerns Haitians is linked to the Dominican Republic. It’s a near total dependency that must change. Lest Haiti’s becomes a relic, a mere historical footnote as modern nations write new narratives for their citizens through bold action.