Tremors from the January 12 earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, reached all the way to the Dominican Republic, which shares the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. In the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, new high-rise apartment buildings that have gone up over the past several years swayed but did not collapse. The brand-new metro system closed in case of aftershocks. In most cases, however, the biggest issue was motion sickness.
The tremors will be felt in other ways, particularly in their impact on the long-complicated relationship between the two countries. It may not be a tectonic shift, but more likely a series of lurches for the better, even keeping in mind the new challenges to the ties between the two nations.
Dominicans mark their independence from Haiti, won in 1844 after a brutal and corrupt 22-year occupation which left long-lasting resentment. Yet it’s often forgotten that Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture helped Dominicans win independence from Spain in 1821; that Dominican leaders at first welcomed the Haitian presence as a way to discourage European ambitions of reclaiming the entire island; and that Haiti provided essential assistance in re-winning Dominican independence from Spain in 1865, after a relatively brief re-annexation to the European colonial power.
Haitians remember the 1937 massacre of an estimated 25,000 Haitians near the Dominican border, an ethnic cleansing ordered by the Dominican dictator, General Rafael Trujillo, who was openly inspired by Hitler’s eugenics. Yet Haitians were not Trujillo’s only victims; he brutalized his own people as well.
Above all the conflicts between the two countries have stood out, but they have much in common as well. Their shared history of tragedy includes colonial occupations by France and Spain, repeated twentieth-century occupations by the United States, long dictatorships and authoritarian governments supported in part as Cold War proxies who promised to keep Communism at bay, and struggles with poverty and political instability.
In the mid-1990s, a formerly antagonistic relationship between the governments of both countries began to shift as the Dominican Republic and Haiti made significant strides toward greater democracy. In the Dominican Republic, generations of light-skinned presidents—including the octogenarian Joaquin Balaguer, who stoked fear of Haitian and African heritage as a way to stay in power—ceded to the election of a mixed-race young lawyer as president. At his election victory press conference in 1996, Leonel Fernandez made a point of answering questions from Haitian reporters in French.
Relations were improved by the departure of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was often antagonistic to his cross-island counter parts. Aristide’s early political career was bolstered by criticism of the Dominican deal with the Duvalier dictatorship for Haitian cane cutters, who were treated badly. But Dominicans are so fond of Aristide’s protégé, current Haitian president René Préval, that his nickname is “marasa” (or “twin” in Haitian Kreyol, which is based on French and African languages).
As a result, trade between the two countries has grown. The number of Dominicans estimated to be living in Haiti more than doubled as Dominican businesses have capitalized on relative stability in Haiti and improved cross-border ties.
But over the past few years even as government relations have mostly been at a high, there have been setbacks, devolving into lynchings of Haitians in a few well-publicized cases. Some observers attribute the tensions to perceived increases in Haitian migration—a long-standing sore point between the two countries—following a series of hurricanes that devastated homes and crops in Haiti. In another setback to relations, feathers were ruffled (so to speak) when Haiti banned poultry imports after avian flu was detected in Dominican chickens.
Nevertheless, just as the tsunami altered the dynamic of the long-standing civil war in Sri Lanka, the earthquake has put human compassion above historical and political difference. All Dominican government buildings flew flags at half mast over the weekend following the earthquake with two days of official national mourning decreed on behalf of Haiti.
More than 200 civil society groups and aid agencies have been active in rescue efforts, and Dominicans are keen to point out that their government was the first country to respond. (Indeed, online forums reflect some pique at Venezuela’s and Brazil’s claims to that status.) The Dominican government donated mobile kitchens and clinics, 39 trucks of food, 46 doctors, eight ambulances, along with water, medicine, bulldozers, and technicians to help reconnect communication lines.
Thousands of people have been evacuated to Dominican hospitals for treatment. Aid logistics stations have been set up near the border. The country will play an essential role in transport of supplies, aid, and relief workers to Haiti, as well as in supplying engineers, technology, and equipment for rebuilding. The first international meeting on the rebuilding of Haiti was convened for January 18 in Santo Domingo.
Yet for all the goodwill, there will be special challenges to the relationship. Two Dominicans were shot Saturday while distributing aid in Haiti.
As the closest and easiest escape valve, the Dominican Republic will face the biggest consequences of the quake’s aftermath as Haitians decide to seek a better life elsewhere. The U.S. government has offered Temporary Protected Status for Haitians already living in the United States. Other Caribbean islands—particularly the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, and Jamaica—have also received significant Haitian migration in the past. But the Dominican Republic has always received the lion’s share of Haitian migrants.
Dominican president Leonel Fernandez told reporters that he did not expect a massive influx of Haitians. However, migration authorities ordered border crossings to be strengthened, although they also ordered a halt to forced repatriations of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.
Dominicans welcome the opportunity to show the world their compassion for their sister nation and to counteract what they feel—rightly or wrongly—has been an unfair image of the tensions between the two countries. The rest of the world should recognize the special role that the Dominican Republic plays in aiding Haiti and in being the first affected when tragedy strikes in Haiti.
By giving Haiti the support it needs, the international community will help both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and help ensure that this tragedy can also be part of the foundation of a better shared future for both nations.
Michele Wucker is executive director of the World Policy Institute and author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola.