The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola, but relations between the two countries have been rancorous for almost two centuries. As Haiti once again teeters on the brink, I spent a week in the Dominican Republic, conversing with Haitians living there. This is the third column of a three-part series from those conversations. Read the first column here and the second here.
SANTO DOMINGO – To say that relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been strained is to put it mildly.
When Haiti got its independence from France, the new republic always feared that Napoleon would return to reclaim it as a colony. So paranoid were the Haitian leaders that they decided to “unify” the eastern, Spanish-speaking side of Hispaniola with Haiti so the island would not be vulnerable to invaders like Napoleon.
By all accounts, the Haitians’ 22-year occupation did not go well for the Dominican Republic. President Jean Pierre Boyer instituted a code that made Dominicans virtual second-class citizens in their own country. Among other things, the decree forbade Dominicans from movement, prohibited them from holding public office and closed the universities.
On October 2, 1937, Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians because they were reportedly stealing cattle and crops along the border. The number of victims of the so-called Parsley Massacre varies widely — with estimates ranging from 12,000 to 20,000. Dominican officials later paid reparations to Haiti’s government for the atrocity.
Lately, as Haiti teeters, tensions have once again flared. When I went to Santo Domingo last month to talk to Haitians from various socioeconomic backgrounds, I took a ride to Benito Market in Domingo Este.
At Benito, the vendors are almost exclusively Haitians selling goods from their homeland. You need a little djon djon for a special dinner or celebration, you’ll find it there. To be a Haitian vendor in the Dominican is to be a Dalit in India. You’re an untouchable. I spoke with Benjamin Lesponza, a wiry man with dreadlocks and he told me some of the indignities that he and his wife have endured since they moved here a decade ago.
“Right now, my son is sick, but I can’t take him to the hospital,” he told me. “ Even though he was born here, my wife and I don’t have legal papers. They will deport us if we go to the hospital to find care for him.”
Lesponza told me that on a good day, he can make $20 selling random goods like Malta and eggs in his stall that makes a New York City bodega looks like a Walmart. Despite his meager financial circumstances here, Lesponza talks about his fear of being deported because there is no opportunity for him at all on the western side of Hispaniola.
He is not alone. Lesponza’s plight is that of thousands of Haitians who migrated to the Dominican Republic in search of a better life. Poor with little education, they are treated as outcasts and are living on the very edge of society, not just in the margins. They are routinely ejected from public buses with people claiming that they smell bad, whether they do or not. Some are beaten and spat upon. Few have been killed.
The Dominican Republic has accelerated raids of Haitian migrants, even going to nightclubs and hospitals to find undocumented Haitians to send them back on the other side of the island.
The poor: Caught between DR’s hatred and Haiti’s failures
While Haitians did strike the first blow, if you will, with that occupation, the hatred of Haitians that too many Dominicans share borders on obsession. At first, I was angry about the mistreatment and asked why such hostility.
My last trip here made me realize that the Dominican political elite, which inflames this division, is insecure. Despite all the development and progress they’ve made, they remain convinced that Haiti can be their Achilles’ heel and bring it all crashing down. So, they preemptively strike to keep poor Haitians in their place.
The Haitian government, in many ways, is complicit in this crucible as much as the Dominicans. They have failed to provide their own people with the basic human right: a place where they can live. These people don’t ask for much. The ability to eat, send their children to school and afford health care. But these rights remain elusive.
I often compare Haiti with Ghana, a country that borders Togo where I lived in the late 1980s. Around that time, Ghanaians were the untouchables in Africa. Their country was mired in chaos. They were mistreated in Nigeria and other places they had sought refuge.
Ghana, like Haiti, went through some stuff. The controversial leader Jerry Rawlings, for one, declared war on corruption and executed about 300 people he accused of grift. Now, I’m not advocating any of this stuff, but many people told me that his purge was responsible for turning Ghana around.
Today, it seems every Black American wants to make a pilgrimage to Ghana. I was watching a documentary about CNN’s Don Lemon taking his DNA test, which revealed that he had Nigerian roots. But the brother went to Ghana to trace his ancestry.
I often muse that the Haitian leaders will wake up one day and decide to restore the shine of this beautifully rugged mountainous land we inherited — instead of making us the world’s problem.
I think they can start by creating universities so that hundreds of thousands of young people don’t have to migrate next door for their studies. As the government and the private sector build world class campuses across all of Haiti’s ten departments, then the vendors that litter the streets of cities in the Dominican Republic would have a decent job back home. The diaspora can invest in Haiti, if it wants to.
If only we had true patriots instead of the “