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Haiti and Dominican Republic Share the Island of Hispaniola but Little Else - 2003-07-02


Business is brisk at Jan Cammarata’s travel agency, not far from the U.S. Capitol building here in Washington. On a warm summer afternoon, Ms. Cammarata is busy booking reservations for customers who want to vacation at Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, one of the most popular beach resorts in the Caribbean.

Ms. Cammarata says she books a significant share, perhaps as much as 40%, of her Caribbean reservations, for the Dominican Republic. “Number one, the cost is fantastic: great deals, all-inclusive resorts, and I’ve been there. The best beaches I’ve seen in the Caribbean!” That, she says, is very different from the business she gets for neighboring Haiti, which is, “Zero. I can’t remember the last time we had a reservation to Haiti. Maybe at Christmas time for a lady to go home and visit her family, but that’s all we had.”

This pattern illustrates the contrast between the two countries. Haiti and the Dominican Republic both gained independence from colonial rulers in the first half of the 19th century. They share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a warm and sunny climate, and beaches with the potential to attract tourists from around the world.

But the Dominican Republic is a democracy with a strong multi-party political system. Its per capita gross domestic product is $5,800 a year, three-and-a-half times that of its Haitian neighbor. Industrialized countries have suspended economic aid to Haiti because of its problems with democratic government. Moreover, Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an uneasy relationship, occasionally characterized by fear and suspicion.

In 1822, Haiti, an independent, black republic, invaded the present-day Dominican Republic. Dominicans waged a successful revolt against Haitian rule almost one quarter of a century later. Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist, says Haitian occupation had a lasting impact on the Dominican Republic.

“Haitian rule was pretty brutal,” he says. “And so what has created a national political character and a national identity in the Dominican Republic is a pretty strong differentiation from Haiti. One might even argue, for example, that Dominicans, who to you and me might be of African descent, classify themselves as Indians rather than blacks. They, in some measure, deny their African descent as a way to deny any kind of relationship to Haiti.”

Professor Gamarra says the development of strong political parties and democracy in the Dominican Republic partly comes from that desire not to be like Haiti.

Political scientist Leslie Manigat was President of Haiti for four months, in 1988, until a military coup forced him into exile. He says Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince embarked on vastly different political paths, which played a crucial role in their ability to develop.

Professor Manigat says Haiti was economically more advanced than the Dominican Republic until about the 1930s, when dictator Rafael Trujillo took power in Santo Domingo. Trujillo systematically sought what Professor Manigat calls a “Western” model of development, actively seeking foreign investment. By contrast, Haiti won its independence from France in 1804 in the only successful slave revolt in history. Professor Manigat says pride in this achievement let to a Haitian tendency to frown upon foreign investment. For example, foreigners had no right to own land in Haiti until 1915.

In contrast, the Dominican Republic’s economic policies have brought about considerable progress in the second half of the 20th century. William Malamud is executive vice-president of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic. He says that for nearly two decades, the Dominican Republic has followed a successful policy of opening free trade zones, which offer significant tax incentives to foreign manufacturers.

“Parts of the economy that have been doing very well have been the free zones,” he says, “which are about 50% textiles and then the balance being a combination of light industry, medical products, jewelry, cigars.”

Leslie Manigat says that Haiti, to the contrary, suffered from a failure to advance successfully beyond a political and socio-economic order established at independence in 1804.

Professor Manigat says Haiti has always relied on its main crops, sugar and coffee, for income and revenue. But since 1804, Haiti’s population has grown from half-a-million people to about eight million people. That, he says, has forced the division of once-sprawling estates into small plots that rarely produce enough to ensure a decent income for their owners.

Professor Manigat also points out that Haiti’s economy remains in the hands of a few families that control the import-export business, which he calls the country’s only moneymaking industry. Many say that elite has shown little interest in sharing their wealth. Over the next 200 years a pattern of developed a pattern of authoritarian regimes has developed and socio-economic inequality has marred the country’s history.

In fact, Haiti remains mired in political instability. Some pro-democracy activists say that although President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his supporters have won elections legitimately, they resort to intimidation and violence to silence criticism. Mr. Aristide’s government has denied all these allegations as unfounded and has repeatedly urged foreign donors to restore aid.

What can be done to bridge the gap between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? Professor Manigat says he is not certain that Haiti can ever catch up economically to the Dominican Republic. The best the country can hope for is to move from misery to what he calls “decent poverty.” But if it is to succeed, the Port-au-Prince government must invest heavily into raising standards of living and educational standards in order to give citizens some hope.

Meanwhile, political scientist Eduardo Gamarra says Santo Domingo must overcome what he calls its wariness of and disdain for Haiti and play a part in its neighbor’s advancement.

“In the end, what you have is really two countries sharing an island,” he says, “whose future, I think is inevitably linked. And I think this is why current presidents and future presidents of the Dominican Republic are going to have to realize that no matter what they do, they are always going to have to deal with their poor neighbor across the border. And as long as they don’t do anything with their poor neighbor, they’re going to face some dramatic sets of circumstances at home as well.”

This year again, tens of thousands of Haitians will attempt to move illegally to countries like the United States, Canada, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic in search of a better life.

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