Tragedy bridges longtime cultural gap
2 South Florida teens see their countries cooperate after earthquake
When a massive earthquake struck Haiti last January, centuries of mistrust, violence and discrimination seemed to vanish between the impoverished country and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic immediately sent Haiti food, water and machinery to help remove the rubble. It was the first nation to send aid. Dominican media were also the first in the world to send out a video of the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince.
“I can assure you that the average Dominican views the Haitian differently” – and for the better, said Dominican blogger and social media expert Joan Guerrero.
His attitude is shared by people from both cultures.
“There ain’t no problem with the Dominicans; they’re cool!” said Adrian Merritt, 17, a Haitian American attending Killian Senior High.
But many doubt the goodwill will last beyond the Haitian rebuilding effort.
Relations between the two countries have been strained for centuries. The two share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but have been divided by cultural and economic differences.
Haiti was settled by French colonists while Spain took control of what became the Dominican Republic.
After winning independence, Haiti invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in the 1800s. The Dominicans spent years freeing themselves and then fending off Haitian aggressions. Relations remained haunted with 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians massacred while living in the Dominican Republic in 1937.
Carlos Levy, a Dominican social media entrepreneur, said that the Dominican Republic gave aid after the earthquake as a humanitarian gesture. It made the Dominican Republic look good to the rest of the world – but he said it doesn’t mean that the tensions have disappeared.
Levy heard derogatory comments about Haitians from Dominican crews bringing in aid. He said the comments implied that Haitians “are ungrateful” and that “everything we’re wasting here in Haiti we could be using in the Dominican Republic.’’
Levy replied to the aid workers: “The Haitian isn’t a bad person; he’s simply in a difficult situation.”
Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor, said it is unclear whether relations between Dominicans and Haitians here in South Florida have improved since everyone was caught in a rush of humanitarianism to provide aid to Haiti. That rush looked beyond past tensions.
In recent years, tensions have arisen between the two countries, such as when 137 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent were falsely accused of burning a Dominican flag in 2001 at a Holy Week festivity called the Gaga.
Immigration has also generated strained relations with some Dominicans complaining of Haitians who don’t have the legal paperwork to be in the Dominican Republic. They believe the illegal Haitians are providing cheap labor and taking jobs away from Dominicans.
In turn, some Haitians think they are not treated fairly in the Dominican Republic.
One Haitian complained to the media that Dominican authorities give Haitians a harder time, whether they are in the country legally or not.
In late January, just two weeks after the earthquake, the Dominican government approved a new constitution that denies citizenship to babies born to parents illegally in the Dominican Republic.
Haitians took it personally since most of the illegals in the Dominican Republic cross over the border from Haiti. The Inter-American Council on Human Rights has condemned the legislation.
Still, hopes are being raised that relations between the two countries will continue to improve. The two governments are now working together.
The Dominican-Haitian Mixed Bilateral Commission, which is made up of representatives from both countries, is scheduled to meet July 30 to work toward achieving a strategic alliance.
Haitian President René Préval, for one, is striking an optimistic – and complimentary – tone, saying he has “admiration for the Dominican sister nation which has been so generous with the government and the people of Haiti after the earthquake.”
So is the Dominican Republic.
Dominican Economy Minister Temístocles Montás said his country wants to create a “strategic alliance between both nations.’’
It is of “great importance,” he said.
Blogger Levy, however, remains skeptical of lasting change.
“There have been … great achievements,” he said, “but we also need to be able to see everything with a critical eye.”