Markets as cultural intersections II: The economics of Dominican-Haitian social relations

In my last post I wrote about how longstanding differences in Dominican and Haitian national identities and economy are reflected throughout their production chain, from their creation by cultured subjects, their distribution in Santo Domingo's tourist markets, and also in the consumption by tourists who are drawn to their 'naïve' or 'colonial' aesthetics.

I wanted to make the point that while differences between the two nations are certainly real, the art markets themselves are somewhat artificial spaces where the cultural products for sale have been disembedded from the contexts of their production. They take on a kind of performative role that, while 'saying something' meaningful about identity, also flatten out its complexities.

In this post I propose that markets and the marketplace are the basis of Dominican-Haitian economic and social relations, in both their national and local manifestations, and their positive and negative aspects. The institution of slavery cemented the importance of markets from the beginning, by imposing a distinction between human beings as commodities and human beings as producers of economy and culture. [1]

Whereas slavery was the dominant mode on the French side of the border, it was nowhere near as ubiquitous on the Spanish side, largely because the latter were too poor to invest in a captive labour force. But relations between the two sides were cemented by the trade of Santo Domingo-produced products (especially cattle) to the much wealthier Haitian plantations.

This is essentially the basis upon which Dominican and Haitian identity differences have developed. Residents and scholars alike tend to agree that the market (in the larger sense) is the primary source of contemporary differences between the two sides of the islands: Haitian labour is worth less, and the Dominicans have more buying power, and this frames relations between the two populations.

Today, the economic situation has reversed and the Dominican Republic is vastly wealthier than its neighbour, but the centrality of markets to their relations remains surprisingly similar, albeit inverted.

Haitian woman selling beans in the Pedernales bi-national market. Photo by Gawain Lynch
Haitian woman selling beans in the Pedernales bi-national market

The border towns of Pedernales (Dominican Republic) and Anse-a-Pitres (Haiti) on the south coast of Hispaniola are a telling illustration of this principle. Pedernales was once a barren outpost that was developed under the dictator Trujillo in the 1930s in order to exert a Dominican presence at the border. It is still the poorest region in the Dominican Republic, but compared to its Haitian counterpart it is a wealthy, highly developed town. In fact, with its almost constant electricity and its well-maintained streets, it seems far more affluent than some parts of Santo Domingo.

Every morning, Haitians cross the border to their jobs as maids and construction workers for their Spanish-speaking neighbours, or to sell smallgoods and produce in the large, open-air bi-national market that sits on the border.

Haitians generally travel on foot, whereas the small trickle of Dominicans heading into Haiti generally travel on motorbike. Walking isn't something that Dominicans will generally do if they can avoid it, evoking a national distinction based on physicality (Haitans occupying the working class position in the physical dualism).

The economic disparity between Dominicans and Haitians is clearly visible in the bi-national market. Whereas Haitian women sell small produce, and a few Haitian men sell electronics, Dominican men bring in specialized produce by the truckload: coconuts, plastic goods, flour. Economies of scale reign supreme in Hispaniola.

The labour market and the marketplace are clearly important structures defining relationships between Dominicans and Haitians at the border. But what do these markets say about what people think of each other, and how they get along?

Bearing in mind the fact that what people say and what people do rarely coincide, let me present what Dominicans habitually say on the topic. When I was on fieldwork on the border, I was taken aback by the number of Pedernales residents who said to me something along the lines of 'Relations between Pedernales and Anse-a-Pitres have always been good because we trade with each other'.

Rather than jump immediately into obvious criticisms regarding the greater wealth of one and the exploitation of the other, I tried to understand what they meant by this common motif. This effort involved mobilizing all of the relativism I could muster, much like in my attempts to understand how Santo Domingo's squatter settlement residents view themselves as middle class.

In a broad sense, I think they have a point: relations between Dominicans and Haitians on the border may be riddled with all sorts of problems, but it appeared to me that there was a level of interpersonal socialization that supersedes that seen in other parts of the country, including high levels of intermarriage and greater ease of access for Haitians to Dominican services (such as children of Anse-a-Pitres attending primary school in Pedernales).

Woman selling cloth in the Pedernales bi-national market. Photo by Erin Taylor
Woman selling cloth in the Pedernales bi-national market

However, this greater level of socialization does not mean that differences disappear: rather, proximity tended to exacerbate both cooperation and conflict, especially when coupled with economic disparity.

One Dominican woman who worked for a local NGO was highly concerned with the sexual exploitation of young Haitian women; a young Dominican man told me that he never goes to Anse-a-Pites because locals will think that he is going there to buy drugs.

Residents of Anse-a-Pitres, for their part, had a lot of complaints about harrassment by Dominican border control. Race and religion were also brought up as points of difference, but they tended to be superseded to economic issues.

My fieldwork on the border led me to hypothesize that markets remain a defining feature in the shaping of Dominican-Haitian relations today, whether positive (we get along because of trade) or negative (the economic disparity causes problems).

This is not to discount the importance of race as a marker of identity and stratification, as demonstrated in the excellent work of Dominican scholars such as Silvio Torres-Saillant. But border zones such as Pedernales and Anse-a-Pitres are good places to test the import and mobilization of a range of identity distinctions due to the proximity of the two societies. Unlike looking for identity in art, actual relations are being performed in the context of their production.


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