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.

9 thoughts on “The Dominican Republic and Haiti After the Earthquake: Nervous Ties and Fractious Tensions Persist

  • August 30, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Your article is very well written and in general accurate. The only thing that struck me was when you said “In the months following the earthquake, a feared mass illegal migration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic never materialized.” And later on you affirm, “Almost one million Haitians have moved to the Dominican Republic since Haiti’s devastating stroke”. Kind of confusing because as far as it’s known the post earthquake mass migration hasn’t taken place and in fact, one million is the estimated number of Haitian immigrants established in the Dominican Republic mainly before the disaster.

  • August 31, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I would agree with Rafael Tavares. Having said that, I object to calling the new Dominican constitution discriminatory. It reduces the objectivity of your well written article. First, everybody discriminates, therefore use the expression with care. Second, the purpose is to stop abuse of a basic constitutional right. Other countries would do the same, certainly when at risk of massive illegal immigration. Having said that, Fernandez should issue a pardon for those who can prove to be born in the DOM.Rep. before the law came into being. However, I fear still many may not be able to deliver that proof. Of course, there are ways to deliver indirect proof, but that is prone to corruption and discrimination. May be better to put these people under the general law allowing legal foreign residents to acquire Dominican nationality. There is no quick solution.

  • September 1, 2010 at 3:02 am

    To bad that your article, although in general objective, keeps harking on "entrenched animosity" and discrimination against Haitians. I think that these kind of generalizing Dominicans is counterproductive and only serves to fan the ire a certain class of xenophobic dominicans.
    I live and work in the DR over 15 years together with Dominican and Haitians and experience that relations between them are much better than those of Americans and Mexicans (not to even mention muslims) in the US. Discrimination in the DR is against the poor in general !
    The lack of documentation is a serious and widespread problem among the rural poor, independently of national origin.

  • September 1, 2010 at 6:52 am

    I was in the DR this month to help with a water project. It was sociologically interesting to be so close yet so far from Haiti. Though this article is interesting, I find the conflict sources to be glossed over, am I incorrect in believing both sides in Hispaniola were pawns in Machiavellian games of imperial powers? Am I incorrect in believing the US systematically undermined Haiti to create cheap labor for sweat shops? Am I wrong President Clinton was responsible for destruction of rice farmers in Haiti? That he who now runs a relief foundation was also destructive of the corn farmers of Mexico, and increased militarization of the US Mexico border because the effects of NAFTA were predictable? It seems to me that these logic directions are those which will bear most results when examining the conflicts in hemispheric affairs and searching for a peaceful future. The unending havoc of US wars of imperial economic hegemony is the root of a large portion of planetary discord and impending environmental catastrophe.

  • September 4, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    In Defense of the Dominican Republic

    Short Response to E. Sahner’s COHA article on supposed “fractious tensions” between Haiti and Dominican Republic

    I don’t agree with the flamboyant remarks of Elizabeth Sahner of COHA, which seemingly aim to promote destructive propaganda while intending to undermine the friendliest presidential relations that Haiti and Dominican Republic have ever seen in the history of the two Caribbean countries.

    • September 5, 2010 at 2:15 pm

      Dear Sir,

      Thank you for your response. I certainly did not intend the points made in my article to promote "destructive propaganda" or undermine progress toward increased bilateral unity. Instead, my purpose was to highlight the false steps that have hindered progress along the way in the hopes that the recent goodwill can lead to a broader reassessment of the countries' relationship and the treatment of migrants on both sides of the border.

      Elizabeth Sahner

  • September 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    To begin with there's no so-called "Haitian" discrimination present at any level in Dominican society! What you have is a massive amount of undocumented poor people, which can cross at will a non-existent border at any given time of the day. Suffices to visit the most militarized checkpoint across both borders in Dajabon/Ouanaminthe to see that with the naked eye. While some make it across the top of the bridge with some type of document/checks, a greater number just walks over the knee-deep waters both ways under the same bridge!

  • September 9, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Tensions will always be present when a new set of poor overtake what little a poor country like the DR can offer its own poor, while Haitians do the same work for considerably less pay and pay little to nothing for the state funded services others must share as well with the newcomers.

    To any effect less than 25,000 Haitians still work for the US owned sugar barons in the DR, meaning that the rest works in all other sectors of the job offerings. Public hospitals in the DR must render the same services to both Dominicans and Haitians by law, the same happens with public schools and state funded institutions. Add to that the medical assistance that the DR offers to Haitians, where pregnant Haitians can cross the border and get free pre/birth and post natal care in the same public hospitals. These women enter the DR have their babies under the humane program and never return to Haiti! That's something no other country does or dares to do in any comparable situation, save none!

  • September 9, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Is there abuse of Haitian employees in the DR? Are they not present in every developed country today? Even the bastion of human rights like the US is not free to say that!
    Is there abuse of Haitians in the DR just because they're Haitians? Impossible! Just need to actually visit the border towns in the DR side to see how ignorant is to try and pick apart who's 100% Haitian or Dominican for that matter. Think on the level of trying to say that Alfonso Soriano (MLB) is not Dominican while Alex Rodriguez (MLB) is! Dominicans are a very mixed bunch of people and racial discrimination is something imports have brought up to the local lexicon.


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