One Island, Two Worlds: Conflict between The Dominican Republic and Haiti

by Guest on October 22, 2013

Cristo Rey, directed by Leticia Tonos Paniagua, 2013.

Cristo Rey, directed by Leticia Tonos Paniagua, 2013.

By Thomas Zajac 

“One Island, Two Worlds” describes the experience shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, both located on the one island in the Caribbean that is shared by two nations. Recently, the Dominican government has ruled to take citizenship away from all children of Haitian immigrants born after 1929. It is also the phrase that introduces the film Cristo Rey (2013), which recently made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film is set in present-day Cristo Rey – a fictional slum in the Dominican Republic that is ruled by a gang leader. The main character, Janvier, is of both Haitian and Dominican descent (James Saintil, the actor who portrays him, is a Haitian who currently lives in the Dominican). In order to make money that he can send back to his mother in Haiti, he becomes a bodyguard for the gang leader’s daughter. He later falls in love with this girl in what is a classic element of cinema: a retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

Facts are not the main preoccupation with most historical films. Instead, they bring significant issues to our attention. These films motivate audiences to learn more about the issues portrayed on screen. This was particularly the case at TIFF, as Ron Deibert, a professor from the Munk School of Global Affairs, interviewed the cast about their experiences and the film’s political undertones after its screening.

Many of the current problems between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are based on the fact that millions of Haitians are currently living in the Dominican. Even though some of them were born in the DR, the police and the general public still mistreat them. They have been accused spreading cholera, taking jobs, and increasing crime. Cristo Rey is not the first film to deal with the issues experienced by Haitian migrants living in the Dominican Republic. The Price of Sugar (2007) is a documentary that shows how Haitian immigrants are exploited for the production of sugar. These films also speak to a recent policy by the Dominican government to crack down on Haitian immigrants, many of whom emigrated from Haiti because of continuing political instability and high unemployment.

Stories of immigration — and the issues that arise from it — are ones that many North American audiences can relate to. Yet the Dominican Republic and Haiti have a history of tension that existed long before the earthquake. The island of Hispanola was one of the first colonies of the Spanish Empire. It was later ceded to France during the French Revolutionary Wars 1795. During this period Toussaint L’Overture led a slave revolt, which led to the formation of Haiti (to date this is the only successful slave revolt). France still controlled the Spanish-inhabited portion of the island after Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned Toussaint in France.

After Napoleon’s defeat in Europe in the early 1800s, the island returned to Spanish control, but Haitian forces succesfully attacked and controlled the territory, not for the first time. The Haitians imposed a heavy tax on the Dominican and nationalized most private property, both of which led to economic decline. The Dominicans rebelled against this Haitian government, and the legacy of animosity between these two countries grew.

This animosity reappeared in the worst way in 1937 when thousands of Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border were massacred by the Dominican army. Part of the anti-Haitian rhetoric is rooted in the propaganda of the Trujillo government, which was responsible for the massacre. A good book on this particular era is The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (2009) by historian Lauren Derby.

The tension between both countries serves as one example of how many conflicts across the globe today have their roots in the conquests of colonial empires (whether it is Spanish, British, French, or otherwise). Since then, people have had to learn how to cope with the national identities and borders that were laid out for them by their colonial masters. Yet people today are not without agency and blame rests only partly on past aggressors. History provides us with lessons, but it should not be used to place blame on any one group.

Thomas Zajac is an Ontario Certified Teacher and currently a Masters candidate in the Department of History in York University.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ramesh Sujanani November 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

In the present day conflict, which is leading to war and deprivation, there is no sign of conflict resolution. Perhaps lawmakers from both colonial countries should meet, or the UN to arbitrate for a resolution; at the very least peace keepers should be organized to protect lives.

Michael Johnson December 4, 2013 at 10:27 pm

My first visit to the Isle of Hispanola was August of this year. It just so happen to be a surprise honeymoon for my new bride. Wr are both African-Americans and I consider myself to be a student of history, thou I must admit I didn’t know much about the Islands history until we returned home. My wife is of a lighter complexion and was often mistaken for Dominican and I am darker and was mistaken for Haitian. I speak French and Spanish. One comment was “how did he get a white..” in Spanish. Let us just say it will be our last trip to the D.R. In this country when it comes to racism we sometimes say Willie Lynch still lives well it seems in the Dominican Republic Rafael Trujillo still lives.

Lyman S. Gibbs January 23, 2014 at 11:52 am

I worked in Haiti and go to Dominican Republic often to relax. My observation between Haitian and Dominicans when it come to bigotry I category in poverty level. When I am around more influential people there are no problem. When I near the poverty area in Haitian and Dominican I hear the complaint.What happen in 1930′s is history move on educate yourself keep progressing. Ignorance and poverty go together with crime when you are making money who cares everyone see green. People do not care if you Haitian, Dominican , Cuban , Puerto Rican, Jamaican or whatever. I am Black American my people face overwhelming odds in a country constitution counted us as SLAVES. White Americans pulled together with us and warred. In a country where 8 percent of the population were African decent we warred along sides whites.Some whites still despises blacks but black people are strong built we chase money and education. I must add my faith in Christ is my foundation. I want people to see Christ in me but sometime they only see success.

jay May 29, 2014 at 6:23 pm

The Domincan government is just creating more hate with this, next thing you know, centuries from now, Dominican republic will be needing a hand from us and we’ll just repeat the same thing they did and it will be just this whole systematic of hate going back and forth, Dominican republic need to stop while they’re ahead before this gets too ugly

torombola192003 June 3, 2014 at 9:26 am

I will NEVER understand why haitians don’t want to make THEIR country better… They just abandon ship and cross over WITHOUT documentation as if this is their backyard and they don’t need any paperwork smh

80% of haitians live abroad, what does that tell you? You all want the DR to carry with your problems! Why don’t you all abroad get together and try to help out YOUR country? I see, it’s easier to just dump the problem on the DR right? RIGHT?!

Not to mention that EVERY OTHER COUNTRY is deporting their illegal immigrants but want the DR to carry with the illegal haitians even though nobody says “here DR, here’s some money to alliviate the load the illegal haitians are dumping on you” but NOOOO we’re suppose to just fuse the island into one nation right? RIGHT?! Gtfoh

Tin June 4, 2014 at 7:54 pm

The I must say that although some Dominicans can be racist most of us are not. Most dominican households employ Hatians and treat them as part of the family. Yes some may say that racism is still alive in Dominican Republic because they want illegal immigrants to get out of their country; however all other countries in the world deport illegal immigrants that enter their country especially the United States and as for racism it is still present in modern days United States. The U.S does not only discriminate against the Blacks but they also discriminate against any other culture except for their own or our we hiding the fact that discrimination goes on everyday against Hispanics, Asians, Muslims and many more. In my opinion saying that the Dominican Republic is getting rid of the Hatians because of Nationality and race is an ignorant and hypocritical thought. It is not the fault of the Dominican Republic that the illegal immigrants that enter their country are Hatians.
To understand a topic you should both sides of the story.

Michelle July 3, 2014 at 1:33 pm

While I agree that Haitians living in the DR should have the same rights as anyone

I acknowledge that DR can not sustain 10 million immigrants from Haiti many women cross the border from Haiti to DR just to give birth and Dominican Hospitals do not turn them away.

It’s sad because many nations are quick to judge the DR but what are they doing to help Haiti?

I firmly believe that a country that is 30% below the poverty(Dominican Republic) line can not sustain a country that is 80% (Haiti) below the poverty line.

Poverty needs real solutions and real reform.

Ironically DR does help Haiti and I do admit that there are struggles and there is a lack of acceptance from both countries.

Immigration is not the same as tourism because usually tourist come spend some time and money (hopefully) then leave both countries.

Michelle July 3, 2014 at 1:34 pm

DR has 1 to 2 million Haitian Immigrants and Descendants, Give me a break
There are cultural differences and differences within the people this is true
But that is neither here nor there

I am convinced that if we lived in a borderless world people would still segregate themselves
I pray for Haiti and it’s people and the DR as well but once again don’t expect DR to just fix and provide for it’s neighbor when there are issues and problems in the DR as well
Not because it shouldn’t but because it can’t economically

Further more Caricom and other caribbean countries wanting to penalize and punish the DR even though an immigration reform did go through… Questions

Where were these countries when the earthquake hit Haiti?
Where were these countries during the worst of the cholera epidemic taking place in Haiti? What are these countries doing for Haiti now?

It’s very easy to gang up against another country and it’s people when it benefits you,
There is shadeism, colorism, and racism everywhere and all over the caribbean

But what is being done to tackle the real issues in Haiti…

The fact that there was a cholera epidemic brought by the U.N. and they are not being held accountable

The fact of wide spread deforestation caused by over population and need for charcoal

The fact that 4.5 years after the earthquake people are unfortunately still living in deplorable tent camps

What are the NGO’s doing besides getting money from donor countries

What are real solutions to the problems in DR and Haiti and the island of Hispaniola in general

Michelle July 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm

According to many in order for Dominicans to embrace themselves and their Black lineage they have to embrace Haiti as well

They are two different people wether you want to accept it or not
The island does not belong to Haiti

Haitians should fight for rights against the U.S government against NGO’s against the UN who introduced cholera into the area and against the French who made them pay 150 million francs to be recognized as an independent country

Your idea for the DR is to Haitionize the island in order for us to really embrace who we are… with your over population technique

How many Haitian immigrants do you think the DR can actually support, there is poverty on both sides and the DR government has responsibility towards Dominicans first and foremost

Forget race I admit there are issues with Black identity in the DR but that also occurs in the African Diaspora in general you have skin bleachers in Jamaica and the light skin versus dark skin debate amongst African American

Nothing is said or done no one protest when the U.S coast guards sends back Haitians trying to get to Florida nothing is said or done when Brazil, Peru, and the Bahamas deport Haitians but if we enforce rules to protect the border and control the illegal immigration that DR can not sustain or handle we are xenophobic and racist

Michelle July 3, 2014 at 1:52 pm

If there are illegal Dominicans in the US
Do you think the US would think twice about deporting them
Why doesn’t the US simply just open the border to all Latin American Countries or all countries in general

There is a reason borders exist and that is to differentiate one country from another

Dominican Republic does not have an obligation to Haiti
Haiti’s government should have an obligation to provide and help there own citizens first and foremost

So many comments on this issue but none one actually knows or acknowledges what is truly going on

These two countries have had tensions for years and in the end DR has respected Haiti’s space while Haiti never has, never will respect DR
Why is that fair ??????

They would like to unify but is that fair to DR can DR have a say in this before the international community is ready to jump down their throat.

Other countries deport Haitians all the time, the US coast guards sends them back before they are able to reach the US mainland while they are more permissive of Cubans reaching Florida the same route???

Also the US deports illegals Haitians because they were caught commenting minor crimes, knowing they are sending them back to Haiti where there are economic issues, environmental/deforestation issues and rampant poverty, knowing there is a cholera outbreak.

When U.S. deports Haitians to Haiti, they are sent to Haitian jails despite not committing a crime on Haitian Soil.

None of these articles state the truth

Dominican Republic is a good country with good people wether you believe it or not,
You are trying to ruin it’s image when it comes to Haiti but what obligation does the DR have towards Haiti.

Why make the DR repair the situations Haitians are facing, when DR is a poor country itself.

That’s what people forget.

annoyed September 29, 2014 at 1:17 pm

too much words.

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