Haitians in Dominican Republic
Haitians queue up to legalize their status at the Interior Ministry in Santo Domingo, on June 16, 2015. Photo via msnbc.com

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 “” that occupy our government, we wouldn’t have to be the drifters, unwanted by almost everyone, including our neighbors. If only.  

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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4 Comments

  1. I am a retired American living with Haitians in the Dominican Republic. I have been here six years. I subscribed to the Haitian Times because I’m trying to learn as much as I can about Haiti.

    Some of the things you write in this article are certainly true. Some of the things you claim I have never seen.

    For instance:

    >>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.<>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.<<

    I ride public busses here in the DR regularly and I have never observed any of this. My Haitian friends have never mentioned anything like this. My friends are scared of the Dominican government, not the Dominicans.

    I would gladly serve as a reporter for you here (for free). Two of my friends here are very well educated and speak Kreyol, French, Spanish, and English. They can help me with researching things.

  2. [I’m reposting this part. I edited my comment offline and it was perfect. It got mangled after I posted it.]

    >>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.<<

    This is a rational fear. Right now the Haitian folks I live with in Boca Chica have expired papers and they are certainly worried about being deported. I need to pay for them to regularize their status but my funds are limited.

    This mandate from the Dominican government to pay for new papers every two years seems like a huge scam to me.

  3. [This part was also mangled.]
    >>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.<<

    I ride public busses here in the DR regularly and I have never observed any of this. My Haitian friends have never mentioned anything like this. My friends are scared of the Dominican government, not the Dominicans.

    I would gladly serve as a reporter for you here (for free). Two of my friends here are very well educated and speak Kreyol, French, Spanish, and English. They can help me with researching things.

  4. It is both a erroneous and an unfair assessment to ascribe with “insecurity” the Dominican authorities’ posture in response to Haiti’s perennial crisis and inability create anything that slightly resembles an organized nation. It is erroneous because it is not insecurity that drives the very pragmatic measures that the Dominican authorities take in response to popular clamor to curb Haitian migration and decongest the mass presence of unwanted migrants in the country. It is unfair because it attempts to demerit what are very pragmatic, legitimate measures to safeguard a country’s internal political, social stability that has the misfortune of being the only state that shares an insular border with a failed state, that is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest in world. To any country in the world, even developed economic powerhouses, this would present a grave threat to its socio-economic stability, and development. To not acknowledge this would be hypocritical.

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