The Dominican Republic and Haiti: one island, two nations, lots of trouble

One is about to hold elections. The other has not had a proper government for months. The differences go deeper than that


MAX, a young Haitian, lives in Pequeño Haití in Santo Domingo but does not feel welcome there. “Dominicans want all this island for themselves,” he says, referring to Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He pulls down his shorts to display scars on his legs, inflicted by a machete-wielding Dominican in an argument over payment of a debt. A barber a few streets away offers a Dominican point of view of Haitians: they are “dirty and do not like to bathe”.

Despite their shared possession of Hispaniola a chasm separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Each country is home to roughly 10m people, but the Dominican Republic’s GDP is nearly ten times that of Haiti (see chart). The gap in measures of health and education is similarly large. The Dominican Republic’s general election on May 15th will underscore another contrast: the disputed outcome of the first round of Haiti’s presidential election last October has left the country without a proper government for months.

This divergence in fortunes has many causes, starting with geography. The Dominican Republic is the greener, rainier side of the island and has better farmland. France, Haiti’s colonial overlord, imported vast numbers of slaves to work the sugar-cane fields. Spanish rule of Santo Domingo, as it was known, was less brutal, in part because Spain had more lucrative possessions in other parts of Latin America to exploit. When Haiti gained independence in 1804 it was an overpopulated plantation economy. The Dominican Republic started out as a society of small farmers. It has retained closer ties with its former Spanish masters than Haiti has with France.

The neighbours have fought for centuries. Independence Day in the Dominican Republic commemorates the end of 22 years of Haitian occupation in 1844. Haitians still grieve over the Parsley massacre on the border in 1937, triggered by Dominican complaints of cattle rustling and theft. Nowadays the main tension is over the treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. In 2013 the republic’s constitutional court issued a ruling that stripped citizenship from some 200,000 people of Haitian descent because their parents had come to the country illegally. Some 17,000 were deported between July of 2015 and March this year, though expulsions have slowed recently.

In 1960 the two countries were equally impoverished. The Dominican Republic pulled ahead in part because it was luckier in its dictators. Rafael Trujillo, who ruled for 31 years until 1961, was a brute but at least encouraged the development of industry. What came after was a sham democracy, backed by the United States, but it did allow for the development of political parties. The Duvalier dynasty, which governed Haiti from 1957 to 1986, stifled enterprise, in part because it mistrusted mulattos, who dominated business.

The post-Trujillo Dominican Republic has acquired a reputation as a Caribbean powerhouse. Its economy is the largest in the region; its growth rate of 7% in the past two years has been the fastest in the Americas. “Tourism is looking bright; remittances are quite robust; foreign investment is through the roof,” says Franco Uccelli, JPMorgan’s chief economist for the country.

The Dominican edge in tourism comes partly from the country’s forests, which cover more than 40% of the country (against less than 4% in Haiti). It takes in double the amount in remittances, in part because its diaspora is larger and located mainly in the United States and Spain. A big chunk of expat Haitians are in the Dominican Republic.

Not all Dominicans are sharing in the good fortune. The sectors that employ the most people, such as farming and retailing, are not doing as well as less labour-intensive activities, such as mining, finance and telecoms, points out the Inter-American Development Bank. The poverty rate has fallen more slowly than GDP has risen.

But Dominicans are feeling prosperous enough to make the re-election of the president, Danilo Medina, a near certainty. His Dominican Liberation Party has been in power for 12 years, but he has governed only for four. Polls suggest he will win 60% of the vote in the first round. He has been helped by the weakness of the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), which split off from a party that is now aligned with Mr Medina. His moustachioed visage smiles down from countless posters; Luis Abinader, the PRM’s candidate, is nearly invisible.

Across the muddy border, most Haitians would gladly swap their problems for those afflicting the Dominican Republic. The growth rate in Haiti is a miserable 1.2% and inflation is in double digits. Reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in 2010 is proceeding slowly.

Improvement will not come until Haiti has a fully functioning government. Three attempts to hold the second round of presidential elections to choose a successor to Michel Martelly (who was a professional musician known as “Sweet Micky” before he was president) have been postponed. Jocelerme Privert, a former president of the senate who now leads a transitional government, says he has one mission: to restore constitutional stability by overseeing the election of a new leader as quickly as possible. “Having a provisional president is seen as a malaise by the international community,” he says.

A five-man “verification commission” appointed by Mr Privert is to report by the end of May on the conduct of the first round, which was denounced as farcical by the candidate who came second, Jude Célestin. The commission will recommend whether to rerun the first round or to hold a runoff between Mr Célestin and Jovenel Moïse, who is Mr Martelly’s protégé.

Some observers view the commission as an obstacle to resuming normal politics. John Kerry, the American secretary of state, demanded in an interview that an election should be held forthwith. The international community’s patience had a “clear limit”, he said. Many Haitians are less impatient. They want an election whose results will command broad acceptance more than they want a quick one. Under Mr Privert’s administration the streets are calm. A freer, fairer election is in prospect. That will not transform Haiti into the Dominican Republic, but it will be progress.


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