(Photo: Rachel Doucet, sister-in-law of earthquake victim Shirley Legagneur, hugs Heriberto Chavez of the Dominican Republic Defense Civil rescue squad after the team was unable to find Shirley alive. Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
January 21, 2010
As the world focuses on Haiti—sending donations and rescue workers—there is one curiosity: the reaction of its next-door neighbor.
For decades, the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been largely defined by tension, racism and the legacy of the 1937 massacre, when the Dominican government had close to 30,000 Haitians murdered. More recently, the weak economy in Haiti has forced many Haitians to migrate to the Dominican Republic, where they are given the lowest-paid jobs, earning as little as $6 a day, while frequently facing a barrage of racial prejudice from Dominicans.
And yet, Dominicans are responding to the crisis like the rest of the world—with compassion and aid.
A psychologist living in Santo Domingo had never spoken to her Haitian neighbors across the street, but the day after the earthquake she went to knock on their door and ask about their families. She also wanted to volunteer to help victims recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was certain Dominicans would help Haitians despite the history between the two countries. “This is a disaster. We have to help,” she said.
At the university, flyers with “Solidaridad” written in bold have called everyone to participate in relief efforts at every building entrance. The Dominican national paper, Listín Diario has published images of caravans heading towards the border, and according to another newspaper, Diario Libre, the Dominican government has sent eight mobile clinics, 10 mobile dining halls and 39 trucks filled with nonperishable food to Jimaní, which serves as a main thoroughfare to Haiti. The opinion sections of the papers have been filled with voices motivating Dominicans to help Haitians.
While these actions may be ordinary in other countries, they stand out in the Dominican Republic, which has had a long and complicated history with Haiti. The two countries have fought over the division of the island of Hispaniola since colonial times and race has been a defining feature of their relationship. The French, who ruled Haiti, owned as many as 500,000 slaves at one point, whereas the Spaniards owned 60,000, leading many Dominicans today to cite Europe as their cultural inheritance and depict Haitians as African and thereby undesirable.
The two countries have also fought bitterly over the border that is ironically now the best entry point into Haiti for supplies from international aid organizations.
Haiti, which became the first Black republic in the Western hemisphere in 1804, invaded Santo Domingo in 1821 and ruled the island until Dominicans declared themselves to be an independent state in 1844. The two countries continued arguing over the border, though, and Rafael L. Trujillo, during his 30-year dictatorship as President, made it a priority of his foreign policy to stop the migration of Haitians into Dominican territory. When the border treaty didn’t do the job, he ordered his military officials in 1937 to kill all Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitian migrants were murdered.
Now, close to a million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic. There are some alliances between the two groups especially in progressive circles in Santo Domingo, where Dominicans have been trying to change social attitudes and public policy toward Haitians since before the earthquake. However, it’s an uphill battle. A Dominican man who saw my travel guidebook Dominican Republic & Haiti, was outraged that the two countries were written about in one book. “Trujillo did not kill enough Haitians,” he said.
Haitians continue migrating here because of larger institutional forces. They meet the labor demands of builders, miners and farmers, who are only willing to pay low wages—much like Mexican and other immigrant labor in the United States who meet the needs of American business owners.
It’s against this backdrop of history and racism that this sudden surge of solidarity has emerged, leaving some onlookers to wonder: Why now? The refrain heard at NGO meetings and on the street: “They have been left with nothing.”
“When you see images of someone who has lost everything, you only see their humanity,” said one college student in Santo Domingo.
But there was little unity and cooperation during the 2008 hurricane season, when five tropical storms and hurricanes caused severe damage on both sides of the border. Some Dominicans explained that both countries had to pick up the pieces in their own territories after those hurricanes. Other Dominicans answered that they are uniting to help now because “It could have been us. We felt the tremor.” All agree that this earthquake caused the most devastating destruction they have seen in their lifetimes.
“In times of crisis, you see who people really are in their response,” said a Dominican employee at the Canadian embassy. He, like many other Dominicans, has worked day and night since the earthquake hit to offer assistance.
It’s hard to imagine, however, that after one earthquake, even one this devastating, Dominicans will no longer utter anti-Haitian remarks and will consider the commonalities they share with Haitians once the crisis is over.
There are also practical matters. The Dominican Republic is plagued by its own scarcity of resources. While the Dominican government is assisting Haiti with three generators, sectors of Santo Domingo spent the morning recently without electricity. (This article was written using an inverter powered by car batteries.) It seems likely that sooner rather than later Dominicans will be calling on their government to redirect resources back home.
And so, the real test of what has changed in the Dominican Republic will come when the worst of the crisis has passed and the international spotlight is no longer on Haiti. Then Dominicans may discover that it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get past what separates us.
Erika M. Martínez is a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to the Dominican Republic and a Hedgebrook Writing Residency. She is currently working on a poetry collection entitled One Day My Hands Will Touch the Ceiling and Quisqueyanas, an anthology of Dominican women’s narratives.