In Dominican Republic, conflicting attitudes toward Haiti

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — It’s not as if Fabiola Jean had much back in Haiti. The “boutique” she recalls romantically was really just a tiny wood stall, scantly bigger than a walk-in shower.

But in a city where vendors sell food, clothes and shoes from blankets and makeshift tables, Jean's shack gave her a leg up, even if it was only a shack. Until it fell down, just like her little house, on Jan. 12, when “Goudou Goudou” destroyed Port au Prince. Haitians refer to the 7.0 quake that killed at least 300,000 and displaced 1.2 million as “Goudou Goudou” because, they say, that’s the sound the ground made that day.

Like so many Haitians before her, Jean crossed the border for the Dominican Republic, a wealthier neighbor on the eastern two-thirds of the shared island of Hispaniola. Today, she sells fruit alongside dozens of other Haitian immigrants on a busy market street in the capital Santo Domingo.

The Dominican migration director, Sigfrido Pared Perez, estimated that the earthquake led to a 15-percent increase in the Haitian migrant population. Because most are not documented, a reliable population count doesn’t exist. The government has suggested it’s as many as 1 million, researchers say it’s about 300,000. Regardless, Haitians make up the largest foreign population.

“Not everyone had what I had in Haiti. I never had plans to leave Port au Prince,” Jean said in broken Spanish, relying on a handful of Haitians to help translate from Creole, “especially not to come here.”

Haitians have migrated to the Dominican Republic for nearly 100 years, first to work on the vast sugar plantations and later to construction sites and to jobs at the country’s famous beaches. Cheap Haitian labor helped the Dominican economy surge, growing at nearly 10 percent some years, according to the World Bank.

At the same time, they’ve faced widespread discrimination and have been blamed for a litany of maladies, from rising crime to overcrowded hospitals. It’s a contradiction best captured by the title of the most authoritative book on the topic: “Needed But Unwanted.”

But migrants like Jean who have come since the earthquake add a complicated new twist to an old conundrum: The Dominican Republic has won international praise for its commitment to helping Haiti recover and rebuild from the earthquake, but its government and society are so intolerant of Haitians that they’ve drawn international criticism.

When Dominican President Leonel Fernandez was in Washington in mid-July, President Barack Obama said the Dominican Republic “saved lives.” It was the first country to provide humanitarian aid and to help rescue Haitians trapped in rubble. Fernandez has pledged ongoing assistance and to promote trade and economic ties. Dominicans have even gone to lengths to help Haiti preserve its cultural patrimony.

On July 31, Fernandez met with Haitian President Rene Preval to formally relaunch the bilateral commission. The two leaders pledged to cooperate closely in several areas, including tourism, agriculture, trade, education and health projects.

Fernandez called it the dawning of a new age of cooperation between the countries. “We can encourage the process of development between the two countries and find solutions to what have traditionally been conflicted and misunderstood areas, like that of migration,” he said, according to a transcript.

The two countries have long been urged to work more closely to solve shared problems like environmental degradation and poverty. But the paramount issue has always been migration.

“Before you can get to any other area, like trade, you need to address migration,” said Bridget Wooding, a researcher and author of “Needed But Unwanted.”

In many ways, the situation mirrors the immigration debate in the United States. Both involve a porous border that separates a wealthier country from a poorer neighbor. Migrants leave in search of a job. They send money home. Many end up staying, illegally. And like the anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S., the Dominican argument against Haitians comes down to economics. The Haitians, they say, are a drain on the government. They take jobs. They strain already overcrowded health clinics and hospitals. Dominican authorities deported an average of 20,417 Haitians a year from 2003 to 2008, according to a report from the Universidad Centroamericana.

“They cost us money,” said small business owner Julio Sanchez, 45, while walking in a popular public park in Santo Domingo on a recent weekday morning. “The idea that we Dominicans hate Haitians is nonsense.”

Sanchez had never been to Haiti before January. But after the earthquake, he went with a group of volunteers for a week.

“It was just impossible not to help,” he said. “We share the same island with them. The concern here is more about the economic impact. … It’s definitely gotten worse since the earthquake there.”

But historians say Dominicans see Haitians as their rivals, their natural enemies, a feeling that has roots in the 22-year Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic in the 1800s. Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was almost single-handedly responsible for the modern anti-Haitianism sentiment, said Lauren Robin Derby, a UCLA historian who specializes in Haitian-Dominican relations. As part of a campaign to “whiten” Dominican society, he infamously ordered the massacre of an estimated 6,000 Haitians living near the border in 1937.

“Anti-Haitianism … derived from [Haiti’s] former economic supremacy and colonial grandeur, in stark contrast to the poverty of the Spanish colony,” Derby wrote in a paper on the subject. “Finally, the idea of Haiti derived from its status as an occupying force and thus the traditional enemy of the Dominican Republic. … the Trujillo regime resurrected and re-inscribed.”

Today, “Haitians are scapegoats,” Derby said in an interview. “On a personal level, the relations between Haitians and Dominicans are often fine. But there is an anti-Haitian rhetoric that exists.”

No Haitian immigrant “expects to be treated the same as a Dominican,” Jean said. “Even if you speak Spanish, they know you’re Haitian. You’re darker. You don’t look the same.”

A United Nations Development Program report in June said Haitians live in precipitously worse conditions than poor Dominicans. Improving conditions for Haitian migrants is integral if the country is to improve its worldwide human rights standing, the report said.

Government officials did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.

Dominicans have taken pride in their government’s post-earthquake work in Haiti, and rightly so, Wooding said. But the important next step is that the two countries use that as a building block for renewed cooperation.

“This was a defining moment for Haiti and between the two countries,” she said. “There was real progress made. How they move forward is what remains to be seen.”