Divided island: How Haiti and the DR became two worlds


Let’s pause here. I’m driving on the road
that separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Right here. It’s the border that
divides two very different countries. If you’re born in Haiti, you’re
2.5 times more likely to die as a baby than if you’re born in the DR. You’ll be almost ten times poorer and you can expect to have a much shorter
life. I came here to find out how the two countries that share this one island can
be so different, with a politically volatile and impoverished Haiti on one
side and the stable and relatively rich Dominican Republic on the other. How did this line produce two totally different worlds? My journey starts here, at this beach
village in southern Haiti, where Haitian merchants, most of them women, are
preparing for a nighttime boat ride. The women boarding this boat have one goal:
to make it to the border where they will be let into a Dominican market, to buy
and sell goods before returning to their villages. It’s international trade at its
most informal. We’re taking these boats because the next door mountain range
makes the land journey almost impossible. These worn-out wooden boats have been
making this exact journey twice per week for decades and yet the process remains
chaotic and unorganized as if it’s happening for the first time. All of this energy, time, and effort all to transport a handful of goods that, in most
countries, would be shipped in bulk inside one of these. We make this seven-hour journey to the
border town arriving around, 4 am. The sun rises and we walk to the border
market. This market was established right on the border as a partnership between the two nations, to give vendors from both sides a place to buy and sell on equal footing. As we approach the border I quickly realize that’s not what’s happening here. So I’m looking across the border right now, into the market and you can see that
Dominicans are already setting up. This is one of the big complaints of the
Haitians: they’re stuck on this side waiting to cross the border and the
border guards are just delaying it and meanwhile the Dominicans are able to set
up and get the best spots. These Haitians come from miles away on this grueling
boat journey, that I know now firsthand is very grueling, and they get to the
border and the guards stop them for no reason. They’re supposed to open it up for
everyone at the same time. The guards keep the Haitian women from
crossing, not letting anyone know how long it will be. The tension grows and
then finally, hours after the Dominicans were allowed to enter, the guards open up
the bridge. They buy and sell for the day, before
returning to the boats to make the journey home. The grueling boat journey,
the senseless discrimination, it embodies the asymmetry that exists on this island.
Watching it happen, it’s impossible not to ask how it got like this. There are a
few key things that explain how this island produced two very different
countries, but if you want to get at the very root of it you have to go back to
when this island was owned by two European powers: France and Spain. This
island is actually the first place that Christopher Columbus set up a colony in
the new world on his first voyage back in like 1490. France wanted a piece of
this island because it was rich in resources like sugar and coffee, so they
fought a war with the Spanish and they ended up splitting the island in two: one
side would be the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo and the other side would
be the French colony, with the same name, Saint-Domingue, just in French. And that is
the most important part of understanding this whole thing, is how these imperial
powers treated their colonial posessions. The French exploited the
land. They brought in tons of slaves and they were interested in making Saint-Domingue solely an economic producer. They destroyed the soil from aggressively
harvesting the same crop year after year, and they created a group of very
resentful, overworked, and abused slaves that eventually rebelled. The Spanish had
a different approach. After establishing domination on this island by massacring
the indigenous population, they didn’t exploit it like the French did. Instead they went to places like Mexico and Peru, to look for gold. So they didn’t bring nearly as many slaves onto this island, and as a result they weren’t nearly as profitable a colony. Instead, the Spanish integrated with the remaining indigenous population, by recognizing the native leader’s authority and intermarrying with the locals. The result was a smaller and more racially mixed
population, with a sustainable economy and a political system, something totally absent from
France’s colony. This becomes really important in the
early 1800s, when independence comes around. Haiti declares independence,
fights off the French, and basically declares itself the first black, former
slave republic in the world. They do so with very little framework for a society
and for a government and they also do so with land that has been exploited, year
after year, with the same crop which basically destroys the fertility of the
land. And to add to all of that, because they were this first black Republic, the
world essentially isolated them. The United States didn’t want to recognize
the independence of a black nation. They thought it might become a slave empire
and seek revenge. The French showed up on Haitian shores
soon after independence, and said you owe us a debt for all of the assets that you
stole from us when you became independent, all these economic assets,
you owe us that debt and you have to pay it over the next thirty years. This
crippling debt Haiti did pay back over years, but it really hampered their
development. This history doesn’t exonerate the dictators and corrupt
politicians that have plagued Haiti’s development since its independence, but
it helps explain them. Suffocating embargoes and the independence debt, as
well as the lack of any tradition or investment in governmental institutions,
guaranteed Haiti’s failure from the moment it was born, and a racist world
made sure of it. That racism isn’t just embedded into Haiti’s history, it is in
fact very alive today. As I drive up the border, by coincidence my driver is also
a Dominican border patrol official. We have hours in the car, where he slowly
and cautiously tells me about how immigration policy has changed in the
Dominican Republic in recent years. “Regularization Program”. That’s a euphemism. He’s talking about a policy of targeting anyone of Haitian
descent, even citizens, rounding them up and deporting them.
There’s always been anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic,
usually resulting in racist violence, but since 2010, that sentiment has been
seeping into legislation. The Dominican Constitution that was drafted in 1929,
says that anyone born in the country is automatically a citizen, even if your
parents were undocumented immigrants. This is the same in places like the
United States, but the DR rewrote its constitution in 2010, to only give
citizenship to those born on DR soil, to legal residents. Then, in 2013 the high
court in the DR ruled that this new definition would be applied
retroactively. All the way back to 1929, meaning any citizen who had been
born in the DR to undocumented parents would have their citizenship revoked. More than 200,000 Dominican citizens, were suddenly stateless. It is clearly an illegal act, it is an
immoral act, it is a racist act by the Dominican government. And it’s happening
because these people are black. Dominican law said that if these
stateless people wanted to stay in the DR, they would have to go to a government
office and put their name on this foreigner registry. The government gave
these people one year to either get their name on the registry or face
deportation. Over 55,000 have been officially deported since the
June 2015 deadline. The UN estimates that 128,000
people have voluntarily fled to Haiti, a country many of them have never lived in.
Some came here to this camp on the border, where they’ve been living in
limbo for years. The moment I cross into the DR, I start
to see what this crackdown looks like. On a 75km bus ride, we pass eight
security checkpoints in which security personnel board the bus, to eye who was on
it, and in some cases check papers. But each time we stop, they seem to only
check the papers of the same few passengers. That’s my translator, Pascale. He’s an American
citizen, but everywhere we go in the DR, security forces keep asking him
for his passport. Halfway through the journey, we pull off the road into a facility where a few young military guys are sitting around. And our driver brings
this woman and her two children over to the military guys. She’s speaking in
perfect Dominican Spanish to them, claiming that her children are Dominican
and that the driver brought us to this checkpoint to turn her in because she’s
black. None of this seems to matter, she doesn’t have her papers and her skin
color seems to be all the guards need to see. Haiti’s land and people were abused
when it was a colony of slaves. The world then shunned it, with embargoes and
independence debts when it was a new nation, and today Haitians in the DR
experience racism that is overt enough to be enshrined in law. As we drive up this very curvy road, I
have the DR to my right and Haiti to my left. Back when the French were here, this
was the richest colony on earth, but that came at a price. Not only to abused slaves, but also to the land that they worked. Clear cutting and
single crop planting continued after the French left, but instead of being used to
make fancy French furniture, the trees were burned to cook food. This explains what I’m seeing when on my right there’s lush jungle. and on my left
there’s bare and eroding hillsides. Zoom out a little bit and it’s very clear. I follow the border road all the way north,
until I hit another market town. I wanted to see if the same discriminatory
dynamics played out up here as they did down south. This market was built
with money from the European Union, and the UN development program, with the specific intention of creating a space where communities from both sides could come and buy and sell on equal footing. Rolling through the market, and
once again like we saw in the southern market, the Dominicans are first setting up. I walk to the border and find this huge group of people at this gap in the
fence, paying a border guard to get in early. The dynamic is the same as down
south, only with a few more overt bribes and border guards who seem to have no
problem hitting Haitians with a stick. After hours of waiting for guards to
open the gate for everyone, the Haitians are finally let in. This is a story about a border that
separates two vastly different countries, but it’s moreso a story about policy: how centuries of racist policies, from the French, from the U.S., from the world,
from the DR, can hold a nation back from progressing. Haiti, this first black
republic, has experienced some of the most predatory and racist policy from outside
forces. For Haitians this story isn’t just their history. It’s their present. It’s the stage on which they live their lives. So, I want to say a big thank you to lululemon, who is a sponsor for Borders. They sent me these ABC pants, which are these really versatile, flexible pants. They’re super sturdy, and they’re meant to be basically used for hiking and for activewear, but also around the house when I’m kind of just hanging out, I’ve been using them for both as I’ve been making Borders. I love them. Thank you lululemon for sending me these pants, but more importantly thank you for sponsoring Borders and making this happen. If you want to try out some lululemon ABC pants, You could get a pair of your own. You should definitely check that out.

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