Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Same island, different societies?

On the 18th March, 2011, I arrived in Santo Domingo after a nine-hour bus ride from Port-au-Prince. I had been visiting the Dominican capital for years, but I had never arrived from Haiti. \

Entering Santo Domingo was a shock to the system after spending two months in a Haitian disaster zone. Newly painted glass-and-concrete buildings stood in neat rows, nestled in tropical foliage. Well-dressed pedestrians flowed sparsely and smoothly along the evenly-paved sidewalks.

It struck me that a parent could actually push a pram along one of these sidewalks with no difficulty at all. Luxury vehicles were directed along well-maintained roads by instructional signs and physical barriers. It was eerily quiet. Santo Domingo appeared to my Haiti-filled senses to be a strange, shining example of order, governance, and care. It looked, I thought at the time, like California.

I don’t know what shocked me more: to find that Haiti and the Dominican Republic are materially so different, or to find that my new impression diverged so starkly from when I first arrived in September 2004. Back then, Santo Domingo looked–and was–distinctly run down. Bent signposts, a plethora of litter, and potholes large enough to swallow entire families were the order of the day.

Today, six and a half years since I first visited the city, much has visibly changed. There is far less rubbish on the streets now, thanks to a government program employing people to pick up litter by hand. Maintenance and construction projects have improved the aesthetics and utility of transport routes, and colourful kids’ playgrounds bring life to numerous plazas–not just in the city centre, but in poor barrios as well.

More than ever, Santo Domingo contrasts sharply with Port-au-Prince. Fourteen months after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the Haitian capital, piles of rubble and condemned buildings still dominate the built environment. Streets are impossibly congested and the traffic appears to invent its own rules in a semi-random fashion.

Every park hosts a camp of internally displaced persons, and the entire city looks like one giant open-air market, with vendors (mainly women) selling clothes, food, and electronics on the sidewalks. Most luxury cars are utility vehicles owned by NGOs, reflecting in a not-too-subtle manner their view of the need for utility in Haiti, and negating the possibility of leisure.

And yet when I first arrived in January 2011, Port-au-Prince felt oddly familiar. Although I knew that Haiti and the Dominican Republic are quite different places, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being back in Santo Domingo.

Economically, the Dominican Republic is far wealthier than its neighbour; culturally, the two nations differ in their linguistic and religious practices, and politically, the Dominican Republic has been stable for longer.

Yet despite their economic differences, and the damage caused by the earthquake, Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince retain a common aesthetic. Concrete buildings painted tropical colours, recycled or polyester clothing, people playing dominos on the street, and smells of food and diesel in particular triggered my sense of being en la dominicana.

While I could intellectualize the differences, my body was telling me that the two cities are materially and phenomenologically similar.

Few people would agree with me. Dominicans, Haitians, and foreigners alike draw strong contrasts between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, mostly along axes of security/violence, order/disorder, black/indio, stable/unstable. Haiti speaks French and Creole, has an overwhelmingly black population, and vodou is a national religion (though orthodox Catholicism is growing rapidly).

The Dominican Republic speaks Spanish, has a mixed population, and is largely Catholic (though has more voudou than it cares to admit). The economies are vastly different: the Dominican Republic’s GDP per capita is $5,855, compared to just $673 in Haiti.

Little wonder that thousands of Haitians have migrated to the Dominican Republic in search of work and higher wages. If you must work as a domestic servant or a construction worker, better to earn $15 per day than $5.

Ironically, though, some of the differences that foreigners and Dominicans identify turn out to be similarities after all. One MINUSTAH captain was stunned when I showed him photos of the squatter settlement where I do research in Santo Domingo. ‘This is in Santo Domingo?’ he exclaimed, ‘But it looks like Cité du Soleil!’ He knew Santo Domingo well, but he had no idea that there are areas with a level of poverty that rivals Haiti’s most infamous slums.

Like their Haitian counterparts, many residents of Santo Domingo’s barrios are at risk of some of the worst effects of destitution. Proximity to the Ozama River and poor sanitation mean that infectious diseases such as typhoid and dengue break out regularly. Local newspapers assert that the barrios were the epicentre of an outbreak of cholera in May 2011, implicitly drawing parallels between their poverty and that of Haiti.

On the 27th August, 2008, a landslide caused by tropical rains killed eight people, and many more are living in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions. Barrio residents recognise–and appreciate–the material improvement programs that their governments have undertaken in recent years, but change is slow and insufficient.

Yet residents of Santo Domingo’s squatter settlements share with their compatriots a strong view that they are distinct from Haitians in every way. This is not merely an illusion: Haitian economic migrants tend to settle in Santo Domingo’s barrios, and may accept wages that are far lower than their Dominican neighbours.

My experiences on the island of Hispaniola, across time and place, left me puzzled as to what poverty actually is, and why there is such a large gap between experience and representation. Clearly poverty is real: access to resources shapes the choices that one can make, and a lack of resources can lead to physical harm or death.

However, poverty is also relative: a person may be considered poor within their own social group, but well-off in another. What counts as wealth may differ from one culture to the next. How people experience and classify poverty involves a complex interplay of two forms of materiality: the actual physical effects of possessing things, and the systems of signification pertaining to object forms.

I suspect that residents of Santo Domingo’s squatter settlements understand this better than most people: witnessing abject poverty around them, and the push factors that bring economic migrants from Haiti, they often described themselves to me as ‘middle class’ because ‘I eat every day’ or because ‘I have a refrigerator’.

Far from being victims of Marx’s ‘false consciousness’, I think they have quite a balanced view of their wealth and wellbeing relative to the people around them. Nor are they short on the ‘capacity to aspire’, as Arjun Appadurai (2004) has called it: it’s primarily resources they lack.

In this, Haitian and Dominican poor undoubtedly share a common predicament.