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Haiti and the Dominican Republic: One Island, Worlds Apart

Head of Communications/International Affairs Analyst



In recent weeks, a downward spiral of violence in Haiti has resulted in the government declaring and extending a state of emergency. According to the United Nations, approximately 3,500 prisoners escaped from Haiti’s National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince in March 2024. Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned following widespread calls to step down. Groups led by gang leader Jimmy Chérizier (otherwise known as Barbecue) control most of the capital. The deterioration marks the latest chapter in a long history of tragedy that has come to define Haiti. Conversely, the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has enjoyed decades of political and economic stability. Such discrepancies result from a long history of natural and human factors. Unsurprisingly, relations between the two countries are far from harmonious. An illustration of this is currently underway in the form of the Dominican Republic’s construction of a wall along 164km of its border with Haiti. The barrier is intended to prevent the smuggling of people, goods, weapons, and drugs across the border.

History


Similar to many other parts of the world, colonialism had a devastating impact on the island of Hispaniola, administratively split with Haiti to the West and the Dominican Republic to the East. In 1492, during his first voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus arrived on the island’s northern coast in what is now Haiti. Due to conflicts with the indigenous Taino people, on Columbus’ second voyage two years later, he established the colony of La Isabela to the east in what is today the Dominican Republic. This was the first European colony in the Americas. Setting a precedent for subsequent colonies in the New World, Spain began to exploit the indigenous Taino people as slave labour for extracting gold and cultivating cash crops. Brutal treatment, combined with the accidental introduction of lethal diseases by the Spaniards, resulted in the population dramatically decreasing. With the slave labour pool significantly diminished, the transatlantic slave trade ensured a steady supply of enslaved Africans to work on Hispaniola.


By the end of the 17th Century, the island of Tortuga, located off the northern coast of Hispaniola, was under French control following an infamous period in which the island served as a pirate haven. From Tortuga, French settlers established themselves on the western side of Hispaniola, a region deserted by Spain. In addition to ending the Nine Years’ War between the European powers, the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick formalised Spain’s recognition of France’s dominion over the western side of Hispaniola, which became known as Saint-Domingue. The French reliance on African slaves in Saint-Domingue was characterised by its large scale and brutality. The colony became highly profitable through the production of sugar, coffee, indigo, cacao, and cotton.


Although far from perfect, the Dominican Republic’s colonial history was less severe than Haiti’s. Spain’s use of slaves in Santo Domingo was less extensive and oppressive compared with that in French-controlled Saint-Domingue. For instance, Spanish law permitted slaves to purchase their freedom for a small sum. This eventually resulted in the number of freedmen in Santo Domingo surpassing that of slaves in the colony, contributing to a relatively egalitarian society. On the other hand, France’s determination to maximise its exploitation of Saint-Domingue through a slave-based economy led to a population seven times greater than that of Santo Domingo. Overpopulation remains problematic for Haiti, with double the population density of the Dominican Republic.

Between 1791 and 1804, a series of conflicts in what became known as the Haitian Revolution, culminated in Haiti winning independence and becoming the first country established by former slaves. However, in 1825, France forced Haiti to begin paying reparations that would take 125 years to settle. The payments are often referred to as the “double debt” as Haiti was forced to take loans from American, French and German banks, who in turn charged interest. The New York Times estimates the debt cost Haiti between $21 billion and $115 billion in lost economic growth. Unsurprisingly, many analysts have blamed France for its role in hampering the newly formed nation's development.


Haiti also faced significant isolation from the United States (US), which feared that the Haitian Revolution could inspire rebellions among its own enslaved populations. The US refused to diplomatically recognise Haiti until 1862, impairing the country's ability to engage in international trade. Regrettably, this was not the last time US actions would have a detrimental impact on Haiti. The US occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 protected the interests of American banks. The 19-year domination led to the deaths of thousands of Haitians at the hands of US Marines and the Gendarmerie, a military police force established after the US dismantled the Haitian military. In addition, large-scale infrastructural projects, constructed with forced labour often fell short of standards and left the Haitian government in significant debt to US banks for years to come.

With the geopolitical chess game that was the Cold War well underway, François Duvalier (also known by the alias Papa Doc) was elected as Haitian president in 1957. To consolidate his power, Duvalier established a brutal dictatorship characterised by repression, human rights abuses, and a pervasive cult of personality. His regime regularly used massacres, assassinations, and public executions as tools of control and is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 30,000 to 50,000 people. The US overlooked Duvalier’s human rights abuses, viewing him as a potential ally against communism and particularly Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The US provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid to support Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, who succeeded him and ruled in a similarly brutal fashion. The US effectively sponsored the terror seen during the Duvalier regimes and can be blamed for their enduring legacies. After all, ongoing problems such as political instability, authoritarianism, corruption, economic instability, and divisions can be considered legacies of this totalitarian era.


The Dominican Republic has also faced challenges from authoritarian rule. Rafael Trujillo’s reign from 1930-1961 was the most infamous in the country’s history. To suppress opposition and maintain a tight grip on power, Trujillo curtailed citizens' civil and political liberties. In one particularly atrocious act in 1937, Trujillo ordered the killing of over 20,000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Despite this, the Dominican Republic has avoided the lasting impacts of authoritarian rule evident in Haiti. One potential reason for this is that Haiti was ruled by dictators for a longer continuous period compared with the Dominican Republic, suggesting that authoritarian principles may have become more deeply entrenched. The last time the Dominican Republic was ruled by a dictator was in 1961 compared with 1986 for Haiti. This has meant that the Dominican Republic has had twenty-five more years to transition away from authoritarian rule and develop democratic institutions.

Natural Disasters


Haiti has an exceptionally unfortunate record when it comes to natural disasters. A significant reason for this is its precarious location in what climatologists call a “hurricane corridor”. The island is also above the highly active Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. The capital Port-au-Prince is situated in a particularly hazardous site above the fault. Haiti is regularly hit by hurricanes and has a long history of major earthquakes. However, despite their close geographical proximity, the Dominican Republic has not experienced the same level of devastation from natural disasters as Haiti. This has contributed to their differential trajectories. For instance, while the 2010 earthquake led to the deaths of 220,000 Haitians, in the Dominican Republic, the impact was much less severe with some infrastructural damage and limited casualties. The natural explanation for this is that the Dominican Republic is located further away from the fault. However, Haiti’s human factors have also played a key role in exacerbating the country’s vulnerability to natural hazards.


Haiti’s inadequate mitigation and response measures can be partly attributed to weak governments which have failed to tackle the many domestic problems in the country. With 80% of the population living below the poverty line, many individuals reside in overcrowded urban areas with poor infrastructure and chronic food insecurity. These factors dramatically worsen the impacts of natural disasters on Haiti. The country’s backwardness has also resulted in a heavy reliance on the international community for aid during a crisis. This is not ideal in situations that demand a swift response.

Another human factor that has contributed to the country’s vulnerability is the link between the colonial era and topographical changes. Agricultural exploitation under the French administration included intensive cultivation and deforestation, which adversely impacted soil fertility. Economic pressures following the withdrawal of France led to further deforestation and soil erosion, as people cut down trees to cook with charcoal due to a lack of an alternative fuel source. Haiti’s landscape visibly differs from the Dominican Republic’s; this has increased the country’s vulnerability to flooding and mudslides. Although there are initiatives to reforest Haiti, undoing the damage will take a long time. Illustrating the perilous road ahead, climate change is predicted to worsen the impacts of hurricanes on Haiti.


Concluding Remarks


Examining Hispaniola’s past provides an effective means of understanding the current state of affairs on the island. It is almost certain that the dire situation in Haiti will continue in the short term. Beyond that, it will take a concerted effort from Haiti and the international community to restore order and governance. Internal divisions within Haiti represent a significant obstacle. With 1,000 Kenyan police officers set to be deployed and gang leader Jimmy Cherizier stating they would be considered “invaders”, things may deteriorate further. The omittance of gang leaders from talks surrounding the formation of a transitional government will continue to encounter numerous challenges. It is difficult to envision such a government establishing the authority necessary to govern effectively. As the humanitarian crisis worsens and the number of people internally displaced increases, the Dominican Republic may take further measures to separate itself and reinforce President Luis Abinader’s refusal to allow any refugees into the country. All evidence suggests that Haiti and the Dominican Republic will remain worlds apart.

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