Originally: Hispaniola and Us

10 August 2005

?The island of Hispaniola is home to two failed States.? That was the judgment pronounced recently by a U.S. NGO, drawing the wrath and indignation of the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández. In Haiti, on the other hand, so accustomed to these types of comments, it seems not to have drawn any reaction in particular.

I do not know the Dominican Republic well. I?ve made four or five short trips over the last fifteen years, always on business and never for more than five days. But I know from statistics that it is an underdeveloped country that is working hard, holding regular, acceptable elections, and trying to improve its governance.

I even think that in terms of geopolitics Santo Domingo is one of the most important capitals for Haiti. The decisions made and talks held there have a general effect on Haitians who live there. All the more so since, unlike other lands of refuge for Haitians, their status in the Dominican Republic leaves much to be desired. It is not even known how many live there: over a million according to the Dominicans, the Haitians say 500,000. But I fear that in Haiti itself, before long we will begin to speak of over a million, since Haitians seem increasingly accepting of the figures put forward by the Dominicans. Regardless, the significant presence of Haitians in the Dominican Republic weighs heavily on that country?s fragile social infrastructure.

In the 1990s, the Dominican Republic was the only country in the region to show an 8% growth rate for three or four years in a row. At the time, people were even talking of ?a Dominican tiger? about to emerge. But the dream was short-lived. Lean times soon replaced hopes of prosperity: an energy crisis, a banking crisis, corruption, natural disasters, unemployment, and the consequences for tourism of the events of September 11, 2001, abruptly muted the triumphal spirit on the rise. But to go from there to speaking of a failed State?in my opinion, the NGO took a major leap a bit too blithely.

I do think, however, that this phrase would not have been used to describe both countries, if the habit of applying it first to Haiti had not been picked up. This is done at random. And since both countries are referred to by the name Hispaniola, the NGO could not make (or see) a distinction. Moreover, the way things are going, no one should be surprised to soon hear the word ?Hispaniolan? used to designate both Dominicans and Haitians.

I do not write this with pleasure or humor. ?Haiti? is what the first inhabitants named the mountainous island. Haiti is the name taken by Dessalines to rechristen the island that Toussaint-Louverture had unified under his command. Independence was thus proclaimed for the entire island of Haiti. As children we learned?and our children still learn?that the entire island is called Haiti. My teacher for the last year of elementary school placed great emphasis on the fact that ?Hispaniola? was the name given to the island by the proslavery colonizers.

A few years ago, the IDB organized a Conference in El Salvador that brought together the countries of Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. For conciseness, the organizers called it a conference on Central America and Hispaniola. When I indicated that Haitians prefer the two countries to be named separately rather than under the name Hispaniola, the IDB immediately changed the title of the conference.

Unfortunately, when I informed the then Haitian Chancellor of the matter, he responded with disconcerting candor that, considering all of Haiti?s problems, he didn?t have much time to devote to such details. At the time, I regretted that he and I hadn?t had the same lessons in elementary school. But upon reflection, I think he simply skipped that class.

Getting back to the Dominican president?s indignation, I found it to be entirely legitimate. At first. I thought the comment was both exaggerated and unfair. I told myself that, to prove this impertinent NGO wrong, the Dominican Republic should stay its course of continuing to strengthen its economic and political governance. But President Fernández adopted a strategy that surprised me. Instead of trying to use facts to demonstrate that his country was not a failed State, he was outraged that someone had dared to put the Dominican Republic in the same basket with the Republic of Haiti. ?The Haitian State does not exist,? he proclaimed. ?How can the Dominican Republic be compared to a State that does not exist??

This attitude makes me think of an indulgent parent who freely admits that his or her son is a hooligan, but takes comfort that he is not as big a hooligan as the neighbor?s son. Some consolation!

I am sorry that President Fernández saw fit to knock Haiti again in an attempt to defend his country. Feels like old times! But not even that. Nor do I want to confuse one time with another. I know the era of Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo y Molina is over. So much the better for the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But I wonder whether the same holds true for what Joaquín Balaguer wrote in his book La Isla al revés? I?ll leave it to others to answer this question, if they want to. Personally, I will not develop the idea any further.

The irony in all this is that in international circles the Dominican delegates, with President Fernández first among them, make statements that easily place them among the friends, and even defenders, of Haiti. What are they really thinking in private? Hard to know. And does it really matter? Let us be satisfied, then, with acknowledging President Fernández both for his pro-Haiti comments and for his indignation. Let us also wish the Dominican Republic luck. It needs it as much as Haiti.

My fellow countrymen, my only request is that the two countries be named individually and that reference to the island as Hispaniola be avoided. Otherwise, let us organize a campaign to revise our history and geography books. Our children are still learning that the entire island is called Haiti. I am not asking that the name Hispaniola be replaced with Haiti. I am simply proposing that the two countries not be lumped under the single name Hispaniola, and that preference be given to saying and writing the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

At the risk of belaboring the point: ?Hispaniola and us? is not a very compatible proposition. And even less compatible are ?Hispaniolans? and Haitians.