The Dominican Republic and Haiti After the Earthquake: Nervous Ties and Fractious Tensions Persist

July 12 marked the six-month anniversary of the earthquake that took the lives of more than 200,000 Haitians and left about 1.5 million homeless. The natural disaster helped revive international attention to the disappointingly slow recovery process in Haiti. It also brought to the fore the historically tenuous relationship between Haiti and its closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic. The countries share a history that has been marred by violence and distrust since the 19th century thanks to periodic aggression on both sides. However, last winter, Dominican President Leonel Fernández and numerous Dominican citizens responded swiftly to Haiti’s devastation by providing emergency medical services, volunteers on the ground, and millions of dollars in aid.

In the subsequent months, President Fernández has advocated Haiti’s cause internationally, urging countries to deliver pledged aid funds and supporting René Préval’s government as it tries to wrest control of aid money from the hands of NGOs. The Dominican Republic has independently committed to spending $40 million of its funds on a new university in Haiti, the Universidad del Norte, that will serve 10,000 students. The university, which represents the core of the Dominican Republic’s wide-ranging relief activity in Haiti, is scheduled to be inaugurated on the two-year anniversary of the earthquake in January 2012.

During President Fernández’ international tour in July, he discussed aid for Haiti with leaders in France, Germany, and the United States. After Fernández visited Washington, President Obama commended the former’s leadership: “I think that the Dominican Republic’s role, President Fernandez’s role in particular, in helping to facilitate a rapid response was extraordinarily important. It saved lives and it continues as we look at how we can reconstruct and rebuild in Haiti in a way that is good not only for the people of Haiti but also good for the region as a whole.” Eric Schwartz, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, underscored the United States’ commitment to reconstruction and humanitarian efforts in Haiti when he traveled to Santo Domingo in late July.

As the Dominican government has emphasized the Haitian government’s right to control its own country’s recovery, it has also embraced its own role as a chief conduit for diplomatic responses to the need for earthquake reconstruction and promises of long-term investment in development projects. However, the Dominican constitution still marginalizes Haitian immigrants living in the Dominican Republic by reinforcing social prejudices, making Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic the victims of extreme social inequity.

A Precarious Truce

Official relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which have been bitterly unfriendly for decades, if not centuries, are rapidly improving. In the months following the earthquake, a feared mass illegal migration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic never materialized. Préval and Fernández have finally held a series of planning sessions after several years without any official visit on either side. The goodwill spurred by post-earthquake interactions has led to the revival of the Dominican-Haitian Mixed Bilateral Commission, a forum that addresses common issues ranging from the two nations’ economies to agriculture, tourism, and the environment. The Commission met four times between 1996 and 2000, but then relapsed into inactivity until it was jolted by the earthquake’s devastation this year. Delegations led by Presidents Préval and Fernández gathered in Ouanaminthe, Haiti on July 31 to reignite talks. There, they affirmed the nations’ pledge to confront shared challenges, and Fernández praised Dominicans for investing capital in development projects in Haiti. During his visit, President Fernández received a warm welcome from crowds of Haitians when he broke ground for the university in Limonade, Cap-Haïtien. The upturn in bilateral relations is in marked contrast to the longstanding acrimony between the countries, especially toward Haitian migrants and their descendents living in the Dominican Republic.

Tortured Past and Persisting Tensions

The entrenched animosity between Dominicans and Haitians can be traced to centuries-old conflicts and the differing defining colonial experiences of French St. Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo. From 1822 until 1844, Haitian forces occupied the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. One of repeated invasions, the Haitian Occupation is recalled with resentment for its violent dismantling of Santo Domingo’s colonial system and the repression of its citizens. Between the 1930’s and early 1960’s, Dominican president Rafael Trujillo institutionalized a racist and brutal attitude toward Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo presided over the 1937 Parsley Massacre, when the Dominican military slaughtered tens of thousands of Haitians living along the border. Trujillo’s supposed salve for his country was to promote the perception of Haitian migrants as an encroaching and inferior presence which was doing grave damage to Dominican economy and society.

The diplomatic harmony that has emerged between Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince since January is practically canceled out by the painful daily realities faced by numerous Haitians living in the Dominican Republic and their descendants. The new Dominican constitution, which went into effect on January 26, 2010, revoked the citizenship rights of those born in the Dominican Republic to parents who were illegally residing in the country at the time. Article 18 of the constitution states that Dominicans are “people born in the national territory, with the exception of the sons and daughters…of foreigners who are in transit or reside illegally in Dominican territory.” This development has particularly affected residents of Dominican bateyes, marginalized communities where sugar cane workers and their families live in dilapidated housing and often have limited or no access to basic services such as sewage systems or running water.

Numerous children and grandchildren of Haitians who migrated to the D.R. beginning half a century ago to work in the cane fields are now unable to procure the necessary documentation for marriage, enrollment in a university, or other processes that require government identification. The Dominican government does not classify these residents, many of whom grew up in bateyes, as citizens. Nor are they recognized as Haitians within Haiti, as many of them have never set foot in the country and speak better Spanish than Creole. Thus, many Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic are technically stateless. According to a United Nations Development Programme report released in June, the lack of documentation “translates to fewer educational and employment opportunities and contributes to [Haitians’] marginalization and the persistence of elevated levels of inequality” in that migrant community. The report also shows that although an increasing number of Haitian immigrants are settling in Dominican cities rather than rural areas, substandard living conditions still reflect “socioeconomic exclusion and social vulnerability.” Such permanent social separation only promotes an intensified hostility toward Haitians for crowding cities, as well as straining Dominican public services and the country’s job market.

Fernandez’ Responsibility

Although Haitians did not migrate to the Dominican Republic en masse in January and February, almost one million Haitians have crossed the border since Haiti’s devastating stroke. Steady migration throughout the rest of the year could possibly rekindle tensions between Dominicans and Haitian immigrants. The conditions suffered by Haitians both in Dominican bateyes and in urban centers, along with the discriminatory constitution that has been in place since January, have all undermined the brief post-earthquake progress in bilateral unity that appeared to be taking place.

Dominicans certainly cannot solely be blamed for the longstanding mutual prejudices. Discrimination and unfair stereotypes are a fact of life on both sides of the island. However, with Haiti in disrepair, Santo Domingo should seize the opportunity to begin to reform its official treatment of Haitians. In the initial aftermath of the earthquake, many Haitians were rushed to Dominican hospitals for emergency medical care. Now, more than seven months later, President Fernández should not only tout his government’s commitment to recovery within Haiti, but should also develop new visions for Dominican-Haitian reconciliation on the Dominican side of the border. It would be naïve to suggest that tangible changes will come immediately and easily, but if President Fernández takes advantage of the recently improved rapport with Haiti to encourage reassessment of Dominican attitudes toward Haitian residents, the reconciliation process may be hastened.