Back to the Future: A History of Haitian-Dominican Relations

Imagine there’s no countries.

It isn’t hard to do.

 Nothing to kill or die for.

And no religion, too.

Imagine all the people.

Living life in peace.

 – John Lennon

Introduction

One of my most vivid memories of the Dominican Republic is when my little cousin and I were walking on our way to the beach. I was 12 years old. I remember walking through this rocky road, surrounded by a dried-up field, and chickens running around. There, I saw a man. A black man, working the land under the sun. Then, while pointing at him, my little cousin shouted: “¡Mira este haitiano!” (look at this Haitian man!). At that moment, I could not understand how she knew he was Haitian. To me, everyone there was black. My father is black, and she is black. How could she know, who was of Dominican origin and who was not, at six years old? What difference did it make? Today, I understand.

Indeed, Haitian-Dominican relations are complex because of the island’s history. In short, the Hispaniola Island is divided between two distinct sovereign nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti was a French colony, while the Dominican Republic was a Spanish colony. Hence, while the island’s inhabitants are both of African descent, there was always a sense (real and imagined) of ethnic and cultural difference between the two countries.[1] With this in mind, this article argues that on the island of Hispaniola, perceived ethnic and cultural differences between the two nations, as well as key historical events involving both countries, have had a socially damaging impact, dividing the peoples in both countries. However, this does not mean that Haitian-Dominican relations remained the same over time, or that they are bound to stay the same. Therefore, the history of Hispaniola, and the different perspectives on this history, offer insight into what makes Haitian-Dominican relations so complex.  

A short history of Haitian-Dominican relations

To better understand the complexity of Haitian-Dominican relations, a survey of key events, actors and ideologies is necessary. Between 1822 and 1844, Haiti – which had gained its independence in 1804 – occupied the Spanish side of the island, which officially became the Dominican Republic after fighting the Haitians back.[2] This “attempt at political domination over the entire island has wide currency in the Dominican Republic,” and is often used by scholars and officials to justify anti-Haitian feelings. However, in 1844, after the Dominican Republic declared independence, many Afro-Dominicans wanted to remain united with Haiti “out of fear that slavery would be reimposed after the Haitians gave up power.” [3]

In the late nineteenth century, the Dominican Republic became “the stronger and more prosperous side of the two,” and thousands of Haitians worked under harsh conditions on Dominican sugarcane plantations. This presence of poor Haitians immigrants led to anti-Haitian feelings within elite Dominican society.[4] In 1937, General Trujillo organized the Haitian Massacre in the Dominican Republic (also called the Parsley Massacre, La Matanza, El Corte, Kout Kouto-a), a genocide, in which many poor Haitian immigrants were slaughtered in the frontier zones.[5] Yet, Dominicans and Haitians were living in harmony in the border region. Many Dominicans were against Trujillo’s ideology of anti-Haitianism and attempted to hide and save Haitians. Sadly however, since Trujillo’s death (1961), anti-Haitian campaigns have been used by Dominican politicians “as a diversionary tactic.”[6]

In 1997, the administration of Leonel Fernandez deported thousands of undocumented Haitians.[7] In the twenty-first century, “despite the Dominican Republic’s invaluable assistance in providing support to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake,” there are still forced deportations of Haitians and shooting of Haitians trying to cross the border illegally for a better life. [8] In 2005, following the murder of a Dominican woman near the border, many Haitians were brutally deported.[9]

What conclusions can be drawn from this? It is clear that very specific historical events have had an impact on Haitian-Dominican relations and have been used by government officials, elites and scholars of both nationalities to construct or reinforce racist ideas – and, in turn, influence state policies. Still, instances of cooperation and peaceful cohabitation surely have helped inter-state relations and have contributed to a sense of togetherness. There lies the complexity – if not the paradox – of the relationship between Haitians and Dominicans.

A controversial issue

The topic of Haitian-Dominican relations in general is one that is subject to great debates among scholars. In fact, Michiel Baud argues that “the social and political relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and especially their racial and ethnic contents, are extremely difficult to approach in an even-handed and unbiased way.”[10] This very important argument demonstrates how controversial this issue is and how it has been studied and interpreted differently by social scientists and historians. Therefore, a brief review of the scholarship on Haitian-Dominican relations will reveal the different perspectives regarding the history of Hispaniola.

Dominican anthropologist Samuel Martínez argues that the idea of the ever-going fight between the Dominican Republic and Haiti needs some rethinking. He stresses that there is an old widely accepted “fatal-conflict model,” which perpetuates two false ideas: that the two neighbours unconditionally hate each other and that each country is fighting to get control over the island of Hispaniola. He therefore concludes that the real origins of conflicts are buried under monolithic arguments which mostly focus on Dominican anti-Haitianism.[11]

Richard Turits makes the important point of seeing the 1937 Haitian Massacre as more than a story of “Haitians versus Dominicans,” but instead as being also a story of “Dominicans versus Dominicans, Dominican elites versus Dominican peasants, the national state against Dominicans in the frontier.” Indeed, Trujillo’s nationalist dictatorship was mainly popular in elite groups who considered themselves to be superior due to their “whiteness” compared to Haitians. This type of nationalism did not have the same impact in the border areas, and Dominicans were also affected by this violence.[12]

Haitian writer Jacques Roumain writes that during the 1930s, Dominicans felt proud about their “limited percentage of black blood,” but that this alone is insufficient to justify this inhumane act. Instead, he puts the blame on Trujillo’s extreme nationalism and on other Dominican elites. Therefore, although the two nations have a different perspective of the event, he confirms that most Haitians don’t blame the Dominican nation as a whole.[13]

Edward Paulino provides an analysis of recent acts of violence and injustice towards Haitian communities living in the Dominican Republic. He suggests that these acts are part of an anti-Haitian legacy, which goes back to the 1937 Haitian Massacre, and that there is still potential for genocidal violence in the Dominican Republic.[14]

As Dominican scholars, Edward Paulino and Scherezade García argue that it is of the utmost importance for the Dominican nation to think about the Parsley Massacre in terms of a genocide and are alarmed at the fact that no one responsible for the massacre was punished for their actions. They blame the Trujillo administration as well as successive governments for not pushing further for Haitian rights.[15]

Considering all of this, how can we characterize Haitian-Dominican relations? My goal was to find as many different perspectives as possible in order to show that there is no “right answer” to this question. What I mean by that is that, the “right answer” might be a combination of every argument above. However, I tend to go along the same lines as Baud, Turits, and Martínez. I believe that some scholars have been too focused on racism, bitterness, and mutual hatred as “go-to” explanations for Haitian-Dominican relations. Indeed, many have often overlooked – or dismissed – important facts as well as instances of cooperation and good relations between the two countries. And that in itself can be dangerous for a peaceful climate on the island.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this article has argued that real and imagined ethnic and cultural differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as specific historical events involving both nations, have had a socially damaging impact, which divided the peoples on the island of Hispaniola. Moreover, a brief review of the scholarship on Haitian-Dominican relations demonstrated the extent to which this topic can be controversial and difficult to approach objectively.

However, Baud, Turits, and Martínez have important arguments because they focused on what other scholars’ arguments lacked: objectivity. There is no doubt that there are still tensions, racism, and violence on the island, but I think it is always best, in any complex matter such as this one, to avoid generalizations. And like Martínez said: “Were the whole story be told, the end product would be a story full of contradictory emotions and impulses – of tenderness and violence, love and hatred, incorporation and rejection of the Haitian “other” – that no theme as monolithic as ‘anti-Haitian ideology’ could contain it.”[16]


[1]. Michiel Baud, “Race and nation in the Dominican Republic,” New West Indian Guide 76, no. 3 (2002): 312-313, accessed March 19, 2019, https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/13822373-90002539.
[2]. Michiel Baud, “Race and nation in the Dominican Republic,” New West Indian Guide 76, no. 3 (2002): 313, accessed March 19, 2019, accessed March 19, 2019. https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/13822373-90002539.
[3]. Samuel Martínez, “Not a cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations,” Latin American Perspectives 30, no. 3 (May 2003): 84-86, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3185037.
[4]. Michiel Baud, “Race and nation in the Dominican Republic,” New West Indian Guide 76, no. 3 (2002): 313, accessed March 19, 2019, accessed March 19, 2019. https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/13822373-90002539.
[5]. Michiel Baud, “Race and nation in the Dominican Republic,” New West Indian Guide 76, no. 3 (2002): 313, accessed March 19, 2019, accessed March 19, 2019. https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/13822373-90002539.
[6]. Samuel Martínez, “Not a cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations,” Latin American Perspectives 30, no. 3 (May 2003): 94, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3185037.
[7]. Ibid.
[8]. Patti M. Marxsen, “Dictatorship and Dissent: Jacques Roumain’s “La Tragédie haïtienne, 1937,” Journal of Haitian Studies 23, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 110, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26431820. 
[9]. Edward Paulino, “Anti-Haitianism, Historical Memory, and the Potential for Genocidal Violence in the Dominican Republic,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 1, no. 3 (2006): 265, accessed March 19, 2019. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/gsp/vol1/iss3/5.
[10]. Michiel Baud, “Race and nation in the Dominican Republic,” New West Indian Guide 76, no. 3 (2002): 312-313, accessed March 19, 2019, accessed March 19, 2019. https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/13822373-90002539.
[11]. Samuel Martínez, “Not a cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations,” Latin American Perspectives 30, no. 3 (May 2003): 80, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3185037.
[12]. Richard Turits, “A World Destroyed, A Nation Imposed: The 1937 Haitian Massacre in the Dominican Republic,” Hispanic American Historical Review 82, no. 3 (August 2002): 591.
[13]. Patti M. Marxsen, “Dictatorship and Dissent: Jacques Roumain’s “La Tragédie haïtienne, 1937,” Journal of Haitian Studies 23, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 113, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26431820. 
[14]. Edward Paulino, “Anti-Haitianism, Historical Memory, and the Potential for Genocidal Violence in the Dominican Republic,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 1, no. 3 (2006): 270, accessed March 19, 2019. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/gsp/vol1/iss3/5.
[15]. Edward Paulino and Scherezade García, “Bearing witness to Genocide: The 1937 Haitian
Massacre and Border of Lights,” Afro-Hispanic Review 32, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 111-118, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24585148.
[16]. Samuel Martínez, “Not a cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations,” Latin American Perspectives 30, no. 3 (May 2003): 81, accessed March 19, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3185037.

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