How Haiti and the Dominican Republic Made Peace

After the Jan. 12 earthquake that ravaged Haiti's capital city, international relief organizations flooded the country with emergency aid, including food, water, medical supplies, and construction equipment. The United States sent warships and Israel flew prefabricated hospitals that they erected on the spot to serve as emergency trauma units. Next to those efforts, the contributions from Haiti's closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic, seemed earnest and magnanimous, if not exactly breathtaking.

In fact, they were. While the two countries share a single island, they also share a bloody history—built on mutual distrust and resentment. Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic from 1822 until 1824, a brief period marked by brutal dictatorship and violent uprisings. Dominicans harbored deep anti-Haitian sentiments long after gaining their independence. In 1937, for example, between 12,000 and 25,000 Haitians living along the border were slaughtered by Dominican armed forces. The bad feelings never really abated; in recent years they manifested as a violent opposition to Haitian immigration.

But after centuries of rancor, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people may finally make friends of these neighbors. Before the quake, anti-Haitian violence had reached fever pitch: Haitian migrants were routinely lynched, burned, and beheaded in the Dominican Republic. But in the wake of this most recent tragedy, Dominicans responded promptly and with great charity to their Haitian neighbors. They threw open their borders to Haitians in need of medical care, halted the deportation of thousands of illegal Haitian immigrants, and sent millions of dollars worth of urgently needed supplies—along with debris-removing heavy equipment and an army of volunteers to use it.

That began a thaw. After the most pressing crises subsided, the Dominican Republic pledged some $110 million to build a Haitian university that will be nearly a third larger than all the existing Haitian universities combined. Meanwhile, violence inside the Dominican Republic against Haitian migrants screeched to a halt. "We've had zero reports of violent attacks since the quake," says Michele Wucker, executive director of the World Policy Institute and author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola. Dominican officials have also been instrumental in helping international aid groups access their earthquake-ravaged neighbor, Wucker says. Virtually every level of Dominican government has reached out to its Haitian counterpart. And last month Dominican officials impounded stolen food aid being sold in Dominican markets and returned it to Haiti. Former president Clinton recognized the shift and, at a recent U.N.-sponsored donors' conference, praised Dominican leaders for their "astonishing change in attitude."

Experts say the earthquake has elicited more than just relief for Haiti's rescue and rebuilding efforts; it has reshaped the narrative of these two nations. "Ultranationalists can no longer use the myth of the Haitian invasion to whip up nationalist feelings," says Bridget Wooding, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences who works on Haitian-Dominican issues. "It is an unprecedented opportunity to change the course of history."

Still, the shift has not been uniform; Dominican policymakers, for their part, are ambivalent. Keen to avoid a massive influx of environmental or natural-disaster refugees as the hurricane season approaches, the government has secured its border more tightly in recent weeks and begun repatriating undocumented Haitians (including those who entered seeking medical care after the quake). The Dominican Parliament even passed a constitutional amendment that denies citizenship to the children of undocumented Haitian immigrants. The change in law was proposed in 2009 and implemented just weeks after the quake.

On the Haitian side, gratitude for all the overtures is twinged with wariness about lingering xenophobic sentiments. "It's great that the lynchings and beheadings have stopped," says Marselha Margerin, advocacy director at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. "But it's too early to tell if that change will be a lasting one." Haitian activists and human-rights groups are advocating for laws that guarantee the right of citizenship to Dominicans of Haitian descent—and immigration policies for Haitians that are on par with those for other immigrant groups. They are also calling for reactivation of the binational committee formed in 1996 to address border issues and migration policies, which would mean a level of cooperation these nations had given up on.

But even if the temblor doesn't result in a wholesale transformation of cross-border attitudes, it has meant a big change from the prequake posture. "The Dominican government was quick to provide aid," says Margerin. But there is also "a window of opportunity to address the larger issues." If Santo Domingo can stanch its innate suspicion of Haiti, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.