SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic – Angela Solis de Pena remembered the story that her parents told her of a Haitian man who tried to rape a Dominican woman; after the woman escaped the man chased her and hacked her to death.
“I was petrified of Haitians,” Solis de Pena said. “It made me think of them differently for a long time.”
Now a 34-year-old administrator of a pre-school here in Santiago, Solis-de Pena said she doesn’t know whether the story was true or not. But what she does know is that it made her fear and loath Haitians until she went to college and began reading the bible and interacting with Haitian students that she realized that perhaps that tale was stretched a bit.
Four months after the January 12th earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince, there are signs that the almost 200 year tension between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola, may be reaching a seminal moment for the better.
On that January day when the earthquake struck, the Dominican Republic rushed in tons of food, water and supplies to help Haitians. They also opened their borders to international aid workers coming into Haiti and gave university students with ties to Haiti conduits to go back and help their families without any penalty. In addition, the Dominican people and officials organized fundraisers and donated money to the Haiti relief effort.
That reaction surprised many in the international community who are too familiar with the history of the tensions where bad blood boil on both sides.
“I think that the Dominicans realized that we are people like them and that this could have happened to them,” said Chilet Regis, a chemist who has lived in Santiago for more than 10 years. “I know they will be compensated for helping Haiti.”
According to Dominican officials, the country has already benefited from the compensation Regis wished to happen. The country’s Gross Domestic Product increased to 6 percent these past three months, compared to the same period in 2009.
The interactions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has also changed, more than ever, it now serves as a transit point to post earthquake Haiti, a place where people shop for goods en route to provide aid to Haiti.
Beyond the recent thaw in relations between the two countries, a longer change of heart has been occurring for the last 15 years. Haitian high school graduates with no social connection to enter the country’s prestigious State University system, began to look at the universities in the Dominican Republic as an alternative.
The Haitian students excel despite limited Spanish in the beginning of their freshmen year. Dominicans, who had thought of Haitians as illiterate manual laborers, began to see Haitians in a different light.
“You know they really challenge us to excel in education,” said Solis de Perez. “People were amazed that Haitians could come here and in some instances are at the top and we had to work hard to keep up with them.”
Solis de Perez said she believes that about 70 percent of Dominicans have a positive view of Haitians and that number is expected to rise. Though her views are thoroughly unscientific, a score of Haitian university students here agreed with Solis de Perez; they report little humiliating experiences at the hands of Dominicans. However, many will quickly tell you that Dominicans are color conscious, but they respect people who have money and are educated.
But the majority of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are not part of the Talented Tenth. Instead, they make up the bulk of the manual labor force of the country and their lot is far from being good.
Many Dominicans say that the “construction” workers depressed local wages by accepting work for considerably lower salaries than Dominican. Haitians working in the sugar cane camps or bateys also live in subhuman conditions according to international human rights observers.
The animosity between the Dominican Republic and Haiti dates back to the 1800 when Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer invaded the Dominican Republic and ruled the eastern part of Hispaniola for more than 25 years. The reign was brutal and to this day, Dominicans have never forgotten that period.
Some Dominicans say that stories of Haitian atrocities are taught in school because officials don’t ever want them to forget that part of their history. Some say that Dominicans have an innate fear and resentment of Haitians because of that period. Even while the Dominican Republic has made strides that are the envy of Latin America, Dominicans feel a certain shame at being ruled by Haiti, a country that has now earned the moniker of “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “
For its part, the Dominican Republic, under the presidency of Rafael Trujillo, ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians and has still refused to give Dominican citizenship to children born of Haitian parents, some three generations removed.
Such strained history will not be mended easily, but Haitians and Dominicans interviewed say that a change is coming.
During a recent conversation with a group of Haitian students in Santiago, all of them voiced frustration at the Haitian government for failing to take the country out of its miseries. While they acknowledged that they receive fair treatment from Dominicans, they say that the other Haitians could be better treated.
They say that unless Haiti gets its act right, the relationship between the two countries, and above all, universal respect for Haitians will not be sustained.
“It’s impossible for improved relations,” said Wolf Perceval. “Haiti has to advance. Our basic problem is that we’re struggling for survival. That can’t be a good thing.”
For instance, the students criticized harshly the Haitian government’s rush to reopen school, arguing that the government should have taken this time as a healing period for children who remain traumatized three months after the quake.
“They’re talking about opening schools,” said Judith Despiot, a nursing student. “This is not the time to study, this is a moment to recuperate our mental health, our mindset. People are still dying and they can’t concentrate on studying.”
It has always been young people at the offset of positive change. For Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the youth has taken the first steps to amendment.