Let's talk Latin America

A quickfire look at Dominican-Haitian relations

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Sam Benstead discusses the long-lasting tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The aptly named Massacre River forms the northernmost part of the international border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was into this river that Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator between 1930 and 1961, ordered the bodies of 20,000 innocent Haitians to be dumped after the Parsley Massacre in October 1937, a five day government-sponsored genocide of the Haitian population living on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. The massacre marked the beginning of an era of poor Haitian-Dominican relations that are still present today.

The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, the latter making up the Western third. Despite being geographically similar, the histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic could not be more different. On the one hand, Haiti was turned into one of the most brutally efficient colonies in the world by France as a result of the 400,000 slaves imported from Africa. Revolution followed and in 1804 Haiti became the first post-colonial black republic in the world after the slave rebellion successfully dispelled Napoleon’s forces. In contrast, the Dominican Republic had to wait until 1821 to gain independence from Spanish rule, and 9 weeks later they were conquered by the Haitians. The Haitian occupation lasted 22 years and left a legacy of suffering and bitterness among Dominicans that is still prevalent today.

Relations between the two countries in the late 19th and early 20th century were relatively good. They were both occupied by the USA in 1915 for 20 years and free labour movement existed in order to fill the demand for plantation workers in the Dominican Republic. However, the Parsley Massacre, combined with the growth of the Dominican economy and the stagnation of Haiti’s due to political instability, led to a period of poor relations. Trujillo institutionalised a hatred for Haiti during his regime. He had clear ideas on the racial differences between the two countries; Haiti was made up of black slaves whilst Dominicans descended from the supposedly racially superior European colonisers. This idea of Haiti’s racial impurity spread relatively easily within the Dominican Republic due to the government’s extensive use of propaganda and the fact that the two countries had taken very different economic paths.

The modern day situation is extremely complex; the Dominican government seem to be juggling two very different views of Haiti. On the one hand, it subsidises propane to Haiti and cooperation exists in the realms of health services and business. They rely on each other for trade both formally and informally through markets that operate along the 360km border. Furthermore, it was the Dominican government that responded first to the 2010 Haitian earthquake by sending aid and doctors, whilst also opening up the usually strict border controls to allow victims to enter the Dominican Republic to receive emergency healthcare. It is estimated that 200,000 Haitians crossed into the Dominican Republic in search of security and treatment; this was undoubtedly the high point of their relations.

However, the Dominican treatment of migrant workers cannot be ignored. Many Haitians have entered the Dominican Republic through legal and illegal means in order to find work, but citizenship has been denied to them and their children through constitutional reform in 2011. This has left a generation of people belonging to neither state who are under constant threat of deportation. The way in which the Dominican Republic has treated these workers is unfair to say the least, especially considering that these Haitian migrants are vital to their economy and many have been living in the country for a long period of time.

Economic dependency has done nothing to ease tensions between the two nations. It is common for Dominican politicians to play the ‘Haiti card’ by proposing harsh treatment of Haitians in order to gain popularity, and there have been a number of lynching cases, most notable the beheading of Carlos Nérilus in 2009. Another indication of relations is the Dominican Republic’s selected date for Independence Day. Unlike most former colonies they do not celebrate their Independence Day on the date they broke free from Spain, but instead on the day they broke free from Haitian rule. This speaks volumes about the Dominican position on Haiti, a position that is not likely to change any time soon.

Header photo: Propaganda sign celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Era de Trujillo in 1955, to be hanged on the walls of private homes (translation: In this household, Trujillo is a national symbol).