Haitian and Dominican Republic Relations Remain Strained Amid New Border Wall

Though Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on the same island, the politics dividing both nations makes it as though they are worlds apart

Dominican Republic Haiti

Art: US Department of State

Though Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on the same island, the politics dividing both nations makes it as though they are worlds apart. This came to a head on February 19, 2022 when the Dominican government began building a wall along the border shared with Haiti, in an effort to put an end to Haitian migrants crossing the border without documentation.The wall, expected to be 13-feet tall and covering almost half of the roughly 243-mile border with concrete, is also meant to put a stop to the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and goods. Dominican President Luis Abinader announced that is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2024. Despite their shared roots, a border has divided these countries since the invasion of the Spanish and French that continues to impact their relations centuries later.

“Haiti and Haitians are imagined [again] as an invading force that must be kept out via a stronger literal and figurative border. This does not and will not increase life expectancies for Dominicans, nor Haitians, nor rayano or border-dwelling communities. It does score cheap political points by rallying right-wing Dominicans in large numbers to be able to blame Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian origin,” Raj Chetty, co-chair of the Haiti/Dominican Republic section of the Latin American Studies Association tells HipLatina

Not only are the politics divisive but the statistics between the two could not be any more strikingly different, with the average Haitian being nearly ten times poorer than the average Dominican and the infant mortality rate in Haiti being more than twice that rate in the Dominican Republic, Vox reported. The health crisis is impossible to ignore in Haiti as Haitians are twice as at risk of HIV/AIDS than Dominicans residing in the DR. 

Usually, the conversation surrounding the division between the two countries boils down to anti-Blackness, but there is a much deeper analysis that explains why there is such a contrast between the two dating back to the 1600s. The Spanish claimed the entirety of the island of Hispaniola in 1492 until the 17th century when France took over the western part of the island now known as Haiti. With the colonization of the Spanish and French empires, the cultural, political, and economic division between the countries was created and their Indigenous history and languages slowly erased. 

However, the impoverished fate of Haiti can be entirely contributed to an economy that France had built through the enslavement of Haitians inciting the Haitian Revolution in 1804. The Haitian revolution is known as an uprising where self-liberated slaves successfully fought for Haiti’s independence against French colonial rule. However, independence would come at a great cost of approximately 90 million gold francs over a 30 year time period that Haiti would be indebted to France as compensation toward slave plantation owners that lost their property due to Haiti’s independence. This marked the start of Haiti’s economic downfall that would continue to this day. 

“I would add that another aspect that normally is overlooked is the United States role in this so-called ‘tension’; the United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. For those 8 years the whole island was under direct American control and they forever altered the economic relations between the two countries creating a model in which Haiti became the number one source of cheap labor, first in the sugar industry and later in the construction and tourism sectors,” Arturo Victoriano co-chair of the Haiti/Dominican Republic section of Latin American Studies Association, tells HipLatina

Photos: St.Johns English Department/Courtesy of Cécile Accilien/ University of British Columbia

The current state of Haiti’s economy stands as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with more than half of its population living below the World Bank’s poverty line. Coupled with the rampant gang violence: 540 kidnappings and more than 780 people were killed between January and May 2022, reported the UN Integrated Office in Haiti. Following the violence and economic decline, it is no surprise that many Haitians are crossing over to their neighboring country, where safety and possible financial opportunities may await them. However, this proves to be less likely to be true as children and adults are forced into exploitative labor in DR as employers take advantage of their vulnerable situation and lack of citizenship. Still, Haitians continue to cross and take a chance in hopes of experiencing a life that is better than the one that they refuse to grow accustomed to. Human smugglers located on the border have profited immensely from smuggling Haitians into the DR, usually paying off Dominican border guards. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights , about 500,000 undocumented Haitians live in the DR, and 70 percent of children living on the streets of Santiago, second-largest city in DR, are Haitian.

Although the root of Haiti’s political and economic demise is not directly related to the Dominican Republic, its neighboring country has made attempts outside of building a wall to keep Haitians out. Attempts that are interchangeable with blatant racial discrimination and xenophobia. The Constitutional Court’s judgment 168/13 established in 2013 stated that any person born between 1929 and 2010 are only considered citizens of the Dominican Republic if they were born to Dominican parents or legal residents that are considered citizens. The judgment also says that those who were born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents with an irregular immigration status are not able to have the right to Dominican nationality. 

The passing of the judgment disproportionately affected Haitians as hundreds of thousands of them were stripped of their Dominican nationality and left in a situation of statelessness. Additionally, the judgment has prevented children and adolescents of Haitian descent who were born in the Dominican Republic from continuing their education at school or in college despite Dominican Law acknowledging that the right to education must be guaranteed regardless of nationality or race. 

“I think the border is going to make the tension even worse and it is a way of saying, ‘you don’t belong here, you are not a part of us’. It is continuing the racism and colorism towards Haitians and I blame the Haitian government as well. The amount of money Haitians spend in the Dominican Republic, students who are going to study in the Dominican Republic and they are treated worse than animals,” Cécile Accilien, President of the Haitian Studies Association, tells HipLatina.

The only question that is left unanswered concerning the long-standing history between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is, “Will the continuation of anti-Haitianism depicted by Dominican officials ever end?” 

Although there have been Dominican social movements combatting Constitutional Court’s judgment 168/13, and there have been Dominican public figures, intellectuals, and activists taking a stand against anti-Blackness in the Dominican Republic, the progression of structural discrimination and xenophobia continues. In part because anti-Blackness has deeply seeped into Dominican and Haitian history that stems from white supremacist ideals. Acknowledging that two things can be correct is vital in the social and political history between the two countries. One truth is that not all Dominicans hold anti-Haitianism sentiments and the other is that through the infliction of anti-Haitianism, the Dominican Republic has played a major role in adding to the long list of struggles that Haitians have had to face for decades. 

“ [For many Dominicans] their whole identity is [focused on the fact that] they are not Haitians [and] they don’t have Black blood. And until that stops, this will always continue. So there has to be [this, there has to be] a willingness for Dominicans to understand their identities. And I don’t know how that can be done but it has to start with real,[ real] education,” Accilien says.

“We have to talk about cultural borders, we have to talk about the physical border,[as well as] the linguistic borders and we have to place these in historical context. It’s absurd that [for many Dominicans] when the Dominican Republic [they celebrate its independence, it’s [celebrating] independence [supposedly] from Haiti and not from Spain,” she adds. “Most Dominicans do not want to talk about that. They do not want to acknowledge [that] they’re living in a false historical reality. They don’t see themselves as being Black, even with the full Latinx movement. We have to look at all these issues and they are all back to [connect them to] the complexity of colonialism, the meat of white supremacy”.

According to 2014 data from the World Fact Book from the Central Intelligence Agency, 70 percent of Dominicans identify as mixed and 15.8 percent identify as Black. Lorgia García-Peña reported on anti-Blackness within Latinidad for North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) spotlighting how white elitism in DR has perpetuated this belief.

“In the context of 19th century global anti-Blackness, which was often articulated through disdain and fear of Haiti as a symbolic birthplace of Black freedom, the white elite leaders of the young Dominican Republic knew that in order to be admitted as a nation they had to assert a difference from Haiti, which meant portraying themselves as mixed race rather than Black,” he reported. “At the hands of the white elites, this foundational racial myth shaped the nation’s institutions, literature, history, and culture, producing the erasure of Black Dominican lives, of Black Dominican history, and of the long legacy of Dominican anti-colonial Black resistance.” He goes on to explain that it dates back to the 1540s when the first uprising of slaves against the Spanish occurred and was led by African-born leader Sebastián Lemba.

Yet, Victoriano and Chetty believe the similarities between the two countries can help to create a pathway toward peaceful relations. Through their shared histories, struggles for freedom, their art, and their way of living, they say that a better relationship is possible.

“The indications have been around for as long as Dominicans and Haitians and their ancestors in plantation and non-plantation slave systems have found common ground from which to struggle together. Of course, political and cultural elites also draw from that other part of the island’s history: colonialism, anti-blackness, anti-Haitianism,” Victoriano and Chetty said in a shared statement via email.  

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