The Racial Divide In Hispaniola

Basil Wilson's picture

The ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court that the children of Haitian migrants born in the Dominican Republic are not entitled to Dominican citizenship.  The ruling is retroactive to 1929.  The decision has set off alarm bells that the government of the Dominican Republic is about to embark on that country’s version of “ethnic cleansing”.  The decision reflects the endemic racial divide that has marred relations between Haitians and Dominicans who share the common island of Hispaniola.

Despite the territorial commonality, the historical experience has been distinct.  What is ironical is that from Haiti obtained its independence in 1804, the Haitian ruling class presumed their freedom to be in jeopardy unless the island was free of European colonialism and thus unified.  This eventually led to Haiti seizing control of Santo Domingo in 1822 and asserting imperial domination of that section of the island until 1844 when the Dominicans were able to recapture their right of self-determination.

In the Caribbean, the nature of the economy invariably determined the composition of the population.  In places like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, these islands were not characterized as plantation economies.  Islands like Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti were essentially plantation economies specializing in the export of sugar to European principalities.  These plantation economies needed an insatiable amount of African “slave” labor to maximize sugar-cane production.  Islands like Puerto Rico and the eastern part of Hispaniola were not directly linked to the global markets and engaged in subsistence agriculture or ranching.  Even though there was the presence of African blood on these islands, the racial composition was more variegated.

In the case of plantation societies like Haiti and Jamaica, the African population constituted a majority and the size of the unit of production facilitated large scale revolt against the system of slavery.

The division of labor has had a profound impact on race relations in the Caribbean.  Guyana has had a crippling racial divide that has hampered that country’s developmental process.  At the most recent election in Guyana, the electorate opted for a trans-racial slate of candidates and how that unity slate governs will determine the future of race relations in Guyana.

No such rapprochement has taken place between the people of the Dominican Republic and the Haitian people.  The Dominicans have defined themselves racially in a curious way.  Under Trujillo’s dictatorship, the line of march of the government was that the Dominican Republic was of Hispanic heritage, Catholic and white.  Trujillo, a mulatto, suffered from an African-phobia and sought to distance Dominicans as far away as possible from Haitians.  Dark skin Dominicans were redefined as Indians.  This indigenous and peculiar form of racism has created an ongoing dialectic among the two nationalities who share the island of Hispaniola. It is Trujillo’s quasi-fascist ideology that led to the massacre of over 25,000 Haitians in 1937.

Nonetheless, the two nations are not only geographically tied at the hip, but economically, Haitians provide the back-breaking labor for the cutting of sugar cane in the Dominican Republic.  The working conditions of Haitians in the “batey” have always been deplorable.  This labor dependence goes back to the early twentieth century and that is presumably why the Dominica Court made its ruling retroactive to 1929. Over the decades millions of dark-skin Haitians have become an integral part of Dominican society.

In addition to the Afro-phobia, the disparate developmental experience has been a factor in the antagonistic relationship.  Haiti has struggled economically to meet the material needs of its 10 million citizens.  Per capita income in Haiti is estimated at $891 in contract to over $5,000 in the Dominican Republic.  Over 80 percent of the Haitian population lives below the poverty line and in the case of the Dominican Republic, approximately 34 percent of citizens fall below the poverty line.

The Gini Index which measures inequality of wealth is higher in Haiti despite the underdeveloped nature of the Haitian economy.  The Gini Index in the Dominican Republic is fairly high at .45 but in Haiti it is at .59.  The Gini Index of Scandinavian countries and much of Western Europe is in the .30 or less.

Although Haiti has an extremely high poverty rate, their homicide rate is 10 per 100,000 whereas in the Dominican Republic it is 22 per 100,000. It is high but not as astronomical as Honduras or El Salvador.  Apparently one of the causes for the rising tension between Haitians and Dominicans in the latter’s homeland is that there appears to be a feeling that Haitians are responsible for some of the urban crime.  A lynching of someone of Haitian descent occurred quite recently.

Even though the GDP of the Dominican Republic was almost eight times larger than Haiti’s GDP, the Dominican Republic has a comparatively high rate of unemployment.  This combination of racial phobia and the complexity of Haitian-Dominican economic relationship is the cause of this threat to de-nationalize and deport a massive number of people of Haitian descent even though most have no roots in Haiti.

The world witnessed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the United Nations, the United States and CARICOM cannot sit idly by and allow gross violations of human rights to make hundreds of thousands of folks born in the Dominican Republic to be deemed stateless. The legislature and the President of the Dominican Republic need to pass legislation that recognizes the humanity of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

*Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: