The Conflict Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

The Conflict Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic:

Originally posted by Jalisco Lancer in AllEmpires Forum.

Whites. In fact the two countries merely coexist on this small island -- conflict arises almost everyday between the two governments. These cultural differences may be at the root of the long-standing Haitian-Dominican conflict culminating in the murder of more than 25,000 Haitians in1937 by the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas.

What is the explanation for these cultural differences? How did the island the Tainos called Hayti come to be divided into two countries, and inhabited by two peoples of such different cultures? A look at the colonial past of Haiti and the Dominican Republic contains the answer to these questions. Both countries have a colonial background that has made them into what they are today. The division of the island into Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a perfect example of how colonialism and the plantation system shaped the geography, demography and psychology of the New World; shaping it in ways that eventually led to perpetual friction, including the Haitian-Dominican conflict of today.

The present day division of the island of Hispaniola is a consequence of the bitter European struggle for control of the New World during the 17th century. When Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492, he named the island of Hayti where his crew disembarked Hispaniola – Little Spain. The Spaniards soon established themselves permanently on Hispaniola, building the city of Santo Domingo, from whence they ruled their colonies in the New World. By 1548 however, the Indians were decimated and the reserves of gold in the colony were declining. At about the same time, Hernan Cortes was discovering Mexico (1521) and Pizarro was overrunning Peru, both of which were rich in gold and silver. Santo Domingo then became of less value to Spain and most Spanish settlers quickly left the island for the richer lands of Mexico and Peru.

Then the first French settlers came to Hispaniola and established themselves on the island of Tortuga ( Ile de la Tortue) on the northwest coast of present day Haiti. These French settlers, known as buccaneers entered into trade with the Spaniards on the mainland. Then, in what Miguel Aquino has called a "tactical error of unimaginable proportions", the Spanish governor of Hispaniola, in1605 encouraged the Spanish inhabitants of the western part of the island to move to the eastern portion, in order to end the trade with the French. Contrary to what the Spaniard governor expected, over the next fifty years the French pirates settled in western Hispaniola establishing the impromptu French colony of St. Domingue, a translation of Santo Domingo. These French settlers entered into a bitter struggle with the Spaniards for more land.

By 1664, France created the French West Indian Company to signal their intention of permanently colonizing St. Domingue. During that time, Spain was in decline as a world power and could barely withstand the English, Dutch and French attacks on its colonies in the Caribbean. Therefore, by the treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Spain abandoned the western part of Hispaniola to the French, who then established the colony of St Domingue legally. The two rival colonies, Santo Domingo under the Spanish and St. Domingue under the French, followed different paths that would greatly effect their future.

About a hundred years later, Spain ceded the eastern part of the island to France under the treaty of Basle (1795). Toussaint L’Ouverture, the later author of the Haitian Revolution, was at that time fighting for the French, helping to unify the island under French rule. Thus in 1795 he declared that the island was "one and indivisible". In 1801, after taking control of St. Domingue in the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint invaded Santo Domingo to transform his words into action. In 1802, while battling the forces of Napoleon for the independence of Haiti, Toussaint, as part of his strategic plan, withdrew his soldiers from Santo Domingo. After the capture of Toussaint by the French General Leclerc, Toussaint’s successor Dessalines carried on the revolution and defeated the French, creating the State of Haiti.

From the very day that Haiti became independent, January 1, 1804, its leaders believed that in order for Haiti to remain independent the entire island must be unified under Haitian rule. The French retained a small foothold on the eastern section of the island and the Haitians feared that the French, or another European colonial nation, might invade from there. Henceforth Haiti’s policy toward Santo Domingo would be directed by this belief. The Haitian leadership wrote a clause into the first Haitian constitution that the island was indivisible. By 1805, Dessalines invaded the eastern part of the island and only pulled his forces back from capturing Santo Domingo when reports reached him that a French naval squadron was approaching Haiti.

By 1808, the Haitians, in their ongoing struggle against the French, helped Spanish colonists who had returned to Santo Domingo to expel the French. Santo Domingo was then returned to Spanish rule. Under the Spanish the colony plunged into economic decline. This period, known as EspaZa Boba ( Foolish Spain), convinced the Dominicans to seek independence along the same lines as Simon Bolivar’s Latin American state. On November 30, 1821, Jose Nunez de Caceres announced the colony’s independence under the name of Spanish Haiti, and sought to gain admission to the State of Gran Colombia created by Simon Bolivar. However, before the Dominican request could be ratified, the troops of the Haitian president, Jean Pierre Boyer, invaded the new nation, unifying the island.

From 1822 to 1844, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were united. In 1844, the Dominicans took advantage of the fall of President Boyer of Haiti, and regained their independence. The rebellion was carried out by the Trinitaria movement, founded by Juan Pablo Duarte in 1838. The Haitians repeatedly tried to invade the new nation; their last attempt only ended in 1855. A boundary agreement was finally signed between the two nations in 1936, establishing the definitive border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The final consequence of the European struggle for control in the Caribbean was the division of the island into two countries.

The division of the island into the two colonies of St. Domingue and Santo Domingo resulted in the creation of two distinct peoples. After the signing of the treaty of Ryswick (1697) between France and Spain, the two colonies on Hispaniola followed different economic paths. This would influence the development of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The French quickly developed St. Domingue into the most productive colony of the Hemisphere, if not the world. By the 18th century, St. Domingue’s production of sugar surpassed that of all the English colonies. This growth in production made St. Domingue economically important to France. To bring St. Domingue to this level of production, the French early on took a number of measures. The colonists on St. Domingue foresaw a growing world market for sugar, so they tried to maximize their profits by importing huge numbers of African slaves. By 1790, the Black population surpassed the Whites and a new demographic group was created: the mulattos. St. Domingue at that time had more than 500,000 Black slaves, compared to 30,000 Whites and 27,000 freemen, this last class of men containing both Black and mulatto individuals.

In Santo Domingo the Spanish colonists did nothing to develop sugar plantations. They were not motivated by the goal of supplying sugar to the European market like the French were. Since they were not as wealthy as their French counterparts, and less concerned with market pressures, these landowners did not import slaves in large numbers. This policy enabled the domestic labor force to practice subsistence agriculture as well as sugar cultivation. Thus by 1790, when St. Domingue was in the midst of a population explosion, Santo Domingo consisted of 125,000 White landowners, 25,000 Blacks or mulattos, and about 60,000 Black slaves. Clearly, on Santo Domingo, the Blacks were a minority. This was the demographic basis for the present composition of the population of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

When the Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791, thousands of Whites fled the colony both during and after the revolt to escape the wrath of their slaves. Those few remaining were massacred by Dessalines in 1805 to protect the revolution. As a consequence, Haiti was a nation with a large Black majority and a relatively small number of mulattos. In Santo Domingo, the contrary was true. Racial intermarriage between the Spaniards and the Blacks created mulattos who are today the majority. In 1822-1844, Boyer, the Haitian president, tried to influence the population composition of Santo Domingo. He encouraged 10,000 free Blacks from the U.S.A. to settle there. However, this policy failed since the majority of these Blacks quickly left the island. The remaining few had virtually no impact on creating a population similar to that of Haiti as Boyer probably wanted. This difference in racial makeup helped amplify and worsen Dominican-Haitian rivalry.

A third consequence of the treaty of Ryswick (1697) was to shape the mind-set of Haitians and Dominicans, causing them to view each other as irreconcilable enemies. Today, to be a Dominican is above all else not to be a Haitian. The Dominican definition of their identity as a people was based upon this. Schools and newspapers spread propaganda with the goal of dismissing the African heritage of the Dominican Republic and to distinguish between Dominicans and Haitians. The Dominican people are described as a White people of Hispanic descent. Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic, celebrated the concept of la Hispanidad (Spanishness). However, when a person’s skin left no doubt as to their Black heritage, a concept of "Indianness" was quickly created to explain that Dominican’s complexion. Thus, a Dominican whose skin color is midway between a mulatto and a Black is identified as being of Indian origin. Countless dubious studies were conducted to prove this "Indianness" of the Dominican people through analysis of blood types, facial features and varying dental patterns. Of course, the definition of the Dominicans’ identity as Indian is highly doubtful since the first inhabitants of the island were decimated in less than 50 years by the Spanish (see Tainos in History Page). This obsession by the Dominicans to define themselves as something as not Haitian and African, stems from relationship with Haiti, going back to the colonial era.

When Haiti freed herself from French control in 1804, she quickly undertook to protect her freedom by overrunning the island’s eastern parts, Santo Domingo. The Haitians saw the island as indivisible. Eventually the Haitians occupied the Dominican Republic for twenty-two years. Jean Pierre Boyer, the Haitian president, sought to secure his control of the Dominican Republic by the destruction of its Hispanic culture. He closed the university and prevented contact between the Dominican Church and the Catholic hierarchy in Europe. He broke up the large estates of the Dominican nation held by the Church. These policies increased anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic.

When Trujillo was elected president he defined the Dominican Republic as a Hispanic nation, Catholic and White, as opposed to Afro-French Haiti which largely practiced "vodou" as a religion. He portrayed Haiti as both a threat and the antithesis of the Dominican Republic. He dreaded the growing influence of Haitian culture in Dominican territory. His fear of Haitian "darkening" of the Dominican population led him to conduct a policy of "Dominicanness" which ultimately led to the murder of more than 25,000 Haitian on the Haitian-Dominican border. After having signed a boundary agreement between the Dominican government and Haiti, Trujillo realizing that the people on the border, Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, spoke mainly creole and used the Haitian gourde as their currency. He undertook to define Haitians as racially separate from Dominicans. Under Operation Perejil, Trujillo killed thousands of Haitians and dark skinned Dominicans residing on the border zone. These people were asked to pronounce the word "perejil", believed to be hard for Haitians because of the "r" and the "j". Everyone who failed at the test was systematically killed.

Years later, the Dominican president and Trujillo’s ideological heir, Joaquim Balaguer, continued his policy of discrimination and racism against the Haitians. In his book, La Isla al Reves, he outlined his hopes and fears for the Dominican nation. This book is a monument to the fear that Haiti, as an Afro-Caribbean nation, instilled both in the author and the Dominican people. It warns of Haitian imperialism as a "plot against the independence of Santo Domingo and against the American population of Spanish origin". Haiti is a threat primarily for "biological reasons", its people multiplying themselves "nearly as rapidly as plants."

Although we must acknowledge that the Haitian-Dominican conflict stemmed from the occupation of the Dominican Republic by Haiti, it would be dangerous, and unfair to the Dominican people, to attribute Trujillo and Balaguer’s acts and ideology entirely to the same origin. Balaguer and Trujillo were both racist mulattos and politicians who used the past for their own interest. The Dominican people did not participate in Trujillo’s massacre of the Haitians.

Many Haitians were saved by good-hearted Dominicans who could not imagine and could not accept the killings of thousands of innocents for petty reasons. The best example of this fact is the Dominican politician, Jose Maria PeZa Gomez, who is believed to be of Haitian descent, and who escaped the massacre because a White Dominican family adopted him. He grew up to become Balaguer’s most feared opponent in the Dominican elections. Despite his color (a proof that color is not a real obstacle in the Caribbean) he was very popular among Dominican voters. To fight him Ballaguer had to cheat in the elections of 1991, and spread propaganda about his Haitian origin. The old Haitian-Dominican conflict was thus used by Dominican politicians to keep themselves in power; depicting the twenty two years of Haitian rule as a period of repression and savagery.

According to Juan Bosch this mythology was forged by traditional Dominican historians who deliberately "have falsified the historical truth". Bosch contends that the majority of the Dominican population welcomed the Haitians. For the slaves, it meant emancipation; for other Blacks it promised a break from the racist hierarchy of Spanish colonialism. Haiti at that time had a more developed economy than Santo Domingo. Union, it was believed, would improve economic conditions for the poor. Radical land reforms did indeed benefit the poorest section of the population. These reforms broke up many of the largest estates and Church-owned lands, which were then distributed to the small holders. This provided a basis for the economic independence of the Dominican peasantry.