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In Dominican Republic, conflicting attitudes toward Haiti

The unease over the influx of Haitians mirrors the immigration debate in the US.

“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.”