Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Same Island, Different Worlds

  • Posted on: 21 May 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

The relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic could be described as schizophrenic.  On one hand, the heads of both governments get along well.  This has opened up opportunities for cross border cooperation in health, business, and infrastructure.  For example, the Dominican government now sells subsidized propane to Haiti.  Recently, the Dominican President even called for the Ibero-American Community to admit Haiti as a gesture of solidarity.  However, the mistreatment of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic prevents both countries from becoming less like adversaries and more like neighbors. 


Why is the situation between Haitians and Dominicans so strained?  After all, both countries share the same island and it is in the best interest of each to have a productive, stable neighbor.  Both countries were once colonies and each has African roots, although one denies them and the other embraces them.  Many Dominicans perceive their European/Hispanic identity to be superior.  Few Dominicans will ever visit Haiti, which they see as backwards and dangerous.  For this reason, few will understand what a unique and interesting country Haiti is.


The mistrust goes back centuries.  The Dominicans have never forgotten that Haiti once had control of the entire island.  In fact, the Dominican Independence Day celebrates freedom not from Spain, but from Haiti.  In October 1937, President Trujillo ordered the massacre of as many as 20,000 unarmed men, women, and children along the border and in Western Cibao.  The U.S. has sent troops to Haiti and the Dominican Republic on multiple occasions.  Both have been manipulated by other counties, negatively impacting governance.  While open conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic does not take place, the Dominican Republic has at times been a staging ground for Haitian rebels.


It is easy to forgot today that both countries had comparable economies forty years ago.  While the Dominican economy grew, Haiti's diminished as a result of internal power struggles, rapid population growth, environmental degradation, embargos, and unfair stigmatization over HIV/AIDS.  


The village of Thomonde where I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer was not far from the border.  Many of the men in my town could at least get by in Spanish.  Most were well aware that they would be treated poorly in the Dominican Republic and preferred to stay in Haiti as a result.  Lacking opportunities, many would travel seeking either seasonal or long-term employment.  All would send back remittances to their families.   


Migration to the Dominican Republic has been taking place since the beginning of the 20th century, when Haitians were actively encouraged to work in the Dominican sugar industry.  From the 1950s through the early 1980s, migration was entirely legal albeit often exploitative.  In fact, it was promoted by the sugar industry and the government.  As the Dominican sugar industry gradually modernized, fewer workers were required. 


Haitians in the Dominican Republic are hard workers, neither free loaders nor parasites.  In a special issue devoted to statelessness, The Forced Migration Review states that as employment in the sugar industry declined, other industries and services have taken advantage of an inexpensive, unregulated, and unprotected labor force.  Women find work in the homes of Dominicans as domestics.  Men work and live, sometimes with their wives and children, on construction sites.  Others remain on former sugar plantations in limbo, without opportunities for employment, education, and freedom of movement.


Workers who migrated under these bilateral migrant worker agreements have had children in the Dominican Republic over several generations.  According to Refugees International, the Dominican government remains unwilling to establish a legal framework compatible with international norms to address the nationality of the descendants. 


This lack of a legal framework means that as many as one million people of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic are functionally stateless, people not recognized as citizens of any country. To be stateless is to be denied health care, education, employment opportunities, and vulnerable to exploitation.  Many Dominicans dispute whether Dominicans of Haitian descent are indeed stateless, believing that they could easily acquire Haitian citizenship if they wanted it.  


Imagine for a moment being born in a country that doesn't acknowledge you because your parents are from a country that you have never even seen.  The legal reality is that there are several groups born outside Haiti who do not have automatic access to Haitian nationality.  


In the absence of government action, a single individual stands out for her monumental efforts to end bias against individuals of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.  Sonia Pierre was born in a migrant worker camp (batey) in 1963 to parents of Haitian descent.  At the age of 13, she organized a protest by sugar cane workers seeking better shelter, pay, and tools.  Though she was arrested, she succeeded in bringing enough public attention to the issue that the workers' demands were met.


In 1983, she founded the Movement of Haitian-Dominican Women (MUDHA).  MUDHA advocates for tolerance of differences among people, carrying out campaigns, seminars, and conferences to raise awareness in Dominican civil society, government agencies, and the international community. You can view the website here, although as of right now, it is only in Spanish. 


In 2005, Pierre petitioned the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the case of two ethnic Haitian children who were denied Dominican birth certificates.  The case, Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic, was a landmark in that the court "upheld human rights laws prohibiting racial discrimination in access to nationality and citizenship."  The court also ordered the Dominican government provide the birth certificates.  Unfortunately, the Dominican Supreme Court then ruled that "Haitian workers were considered 'in transit,' even if second or third generation, and that their children are not entitled to citizenship. 


While Pierre has been villified by many within her own country, her efforts have been recognized and honored by the international community.  Pierre was nominated for the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education in 2002, received Amnesty International's 2003 Human Rights Ginetta Sagan Fund Award, and was awarded the 2006 RFK Human Rights awards.


The Haitian-Dominican relationship was recently strained when a Haitian man, Carlos Nérilus, was beheaded on May 1 in Santo Domingo.  Haitians were understandably upset and there were numerous protests.  The ambassadors from Haiti and the Dominican Republic held a joint press conference, lamenting his death, which was by no means the first.  Less than two years ago, for example, a Dominican mob lynched three Haitians suspected of being responsible for the murder of a Dominican store-owner.  The killer was later found not to be a Haitian.


Pierre immediately spoke out against the murder.  The same day, her house burned down.  In an interview, Pierre said "No one, black or white, Haitian or Dominican, should be treated like that.  As for the fire that destroyed my house, if it is found to be arson, I would be truly saddened by that.  I am patriotic; I love my country and my culture.  I only try to appeal to the greater humanistic and democratic ideals of my compatriots and government about the way all human-beings ought to be treated, Dominican or not.  Xenophobia has no place in our country or in the world.  Furthermore, my government must reprimand and take actions against media outlets that are propagating and inciting the citizenry to commit violent discriminatory acts and to take the law into their own hands." 


The Jacques Viau Dominican Haitian Encounter Network also called on the population and the Dominican and Haitian governments to seek agreements, dialogue and mutual respect. If you know of other individuals or organizations that spoke out, please post in the comments section below.


As Michele Wucker notes in her book, "Why the Cocks Fight", Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a common geography but are divided by language, history, and perceptions of race.  Small steps have been taken in recent years to improve the bilateral relationship.  However, as long as statelessness remains unaddressed, it will continue to hinder the Haitian/Dominican relationship.  Thankfully, there are human rights champions such as Sonia Pierre who are working tirelessly to bring change.  This would be good for all of Hispaniola.



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