This reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
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There is a sense of predictability on how the conversation will go whenever I introduce myself to a Dominican person in the United States. “We’re neighbors,” is the first thing that I hear from my acquaintance, punctuated with a seemingly sincere smile.
This bonhomie often perplexes me because of the tortured history between the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola. Why is it that Haitians and Dominicans get along so well in the U.S. and have frayed relations back home?
I’ve always wanted to answer that question, and The Haitian Times attempted to find some answers and took a deep dive into the relations between the French and Spanish colonizers’ influence that is alive and well today. This is a topic that books have been written about, but few journalists, if any, have attempted to delve into this issue for a mass audience.
I got a small glimpse of this in 2010 after the January earthquake that flattened parts of Port-au-Prince and killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Dominican Republic became a transit hub, and my curiosity piqued even more. I wrote a couple of stories and got a superficial sense of the tensions. I learned that Dominican school children are taught to fear Haitians and that we are viewed as a little less civilized, to put it mildly. However I’m not sure if that remains the case today.
With a grant from the Pulitzer Center, we spent nearly a year reporting from both sides of the island and produced a series of articles that we internally referred to as the journalistic version of War and Peace, the infamously long novel by Leo Tolstoy set during the Napoleonic Wars. The series, called Distant Neighbors, set out to hear the voices of Haitians and Dominicans and go beyond the tropes and stereotypes that have been at the center of the tensions between the two nations. We did that brilliantly.
Lately, tensions have risen again as Dominican president Luis Rodolfo Abinader, closed all borders between the two countries. The former economist’s latest tirade targets Haitian farmers who are building a canal to get water that they say is necessary for their survival from the Rivière Massacre.
Ironically, that river is where thousands of Haitians were murdered in 1937 during the regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Scholars often tell us that history doesn’t repeat itself, but that there are trends. I’d say we have a trend here.
This border closure is on top of a wall that Abinader has begun erecting to keep Haitians from overflowing and overtaking his country, in the right-wing politician’s point of view. We know that similar actions by former president Donald Trump have generated righteous outrage from many quarters across the world.
As an economist, Abinader surely knows that, by and large, neighboring nations are usually each other’s largest trading partner. He also knows that we live in an interconnected world and closing borders and building walls are demagogic, and not logical.
Stoking anti-Haitian sentiment is a tried-and-true trick that Dominican right-wing politicians have used when they see their poll numbers plummet and their power waning. So I wonder why in Hispaniola, they have not been met with the same indignation. It could be that Hispaniola is insignificant in a global economic context or that there is another more pressing crisis, like the War in Ukraine.
I think there is a racial component in that when we Black and Brown people are at each other’s throats, it does not raise an eyebrow. Whereas when White people are the aggressors, it’s a better narrative and receives wider coverage. South Africa under apartheid comes to mind.
But what about my Dominican American friends? Why do they remain silent and not put more pressure on their government to stop making fools of themselves and embarrassing Dominicans here? Our primos here know that while Haiti is deeply misgoverned, Haitians outside of Haiti are achievers and a critical fabric of this society.
Simply put: Give us a fair shot so we can excel and the conditions under which we live in Haiti are not a reflection of our ability per se. There are forces that benefit from the current situation and have no interest in having people in Haiti live in dignity. I’m reminded of the way West Africans mistreated Ghanaians in the early 1980s. Now Ghana is a country on the move, becoming the mecca of diasporic pilgrimage to the continent.
The Dominicans living on the island should be told that whatever image they have of Haitians is warped and they are not inherently inferior. They go toe to toe with us here. Heck, many of the Afro-Dominicans have Haitian lineage, from when Haitians migrated in large numbers to the western side during the early 1900s to work in the sugarcane field.
This is yet another issue that is also crying out for some leadership from the Haitian diaspora. Are we able to tackle this one? I doubt it. We have been slow to create the institutions necessary to move forward collectively. Our personal success is tangible. Our communal strength remains aspirational. That must change.
Few of the Dominicans who are happy to say that we are neighbors have visited Haiti. Many have not visited for one reason or another. Are we destined to remain Distant Neighbors?