Review of "Divided Island: How Haiti and the DR Became Two Worlds"
“Divided Island: How Haiti and the DR became Two Worlds” is a commendable Vox documentary that seeks to explain how the disparity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic came about. Although the work is well researched, the narrator at times misses the mark and leaves out pertinent details which would strengthen his main thesis that the island’s current asymmetrical development is rooted in its painful history.
The documentary begins by revealing the “asymmetry” and intense “discrimination” that exists on the island. The narrator accurately traces the roots of this present condition to the colonization and enslavement introduced into the island by Spain and France. The island was the first place in the “New World” to receive African and European newcomers: the Africans came as enslaved workers; the Europeans came as colonists and that set the tone for color prejudice present in the Americas today.
Under French control, nearly one million Africans were imported to work as slaves mainly in the sugar cane fields of the western third of the island. The Spaniards did not create a parallel sugar producing colony on the eastern side of the island. Instead, after having decimated nearly the entire indigenous population of the island, they moved on to conquer other places such as Mexico and Peru. The narrator explains how the Spaniards “did not bring nearly as many slaves to the island” as the French did, but asserts that the Spaniards had a more sustainable economy and political system than the French, leaving viewers to wonder what exactly was sustainable about genocide. Who did it sustain?
Although important to the history of the island, the actual proportion of Africans to Europeans on the island is not stated by the narrator. But it is indeed this large discrepancy in the number of enslaved victims to perpetrators of enslavement which fueled the Haitian Revolution and allowed for the collapse of the slave system. In 1791, Africans outnumbered Europeans on the island by a ratio of 7 to 1. Of the one million Africans brought in by France, nearly half had survived to revolt against the slave system and to eventually secure the independence of the island from both Spain and France.
The documentary does not mention that Spain withdrew from the island in 1795 because it was overextended in the Americas and for that reason, its forces could not sustain its control over the western side of the island. It relinquished the entire island to France in the Treaty of Basel. So hasty was Spain in its departure, that it apparently inadvertently left the remains of either Christopher Columbus or his brother, Bartholomew, on the island. And even to this day, as Dominicans are identified by their government as “Indios” and are expected to honor Columbus, nobody knows who is really buried in the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo Este.
When the Africans/Haitians defeated France in 1804, they declared the independence of the entire island. Today, numerous Dominican historians try to circumvent the implications of the Treaty of Basel that made the island one territory under French rule. After Spain left in 1795, a few colonists remained on the island, some sympathetic, others hostile. The same pattern was repeated in 1804 after France left. A few colonists remained, some sympathetic, others hostile. Led by rogue French General Jean Louis Ferrand, many hostile colonists colluded to challenge the authority of those who opposed slavery. Unity was a difficult goal to attain on the island. Racism from within the island and from the then leading foreign powers impeded unity. Rather than remain united as part of Haiti, the Dominican Republic seceded in 1844, rebelling against the unbearable burden of paying the independence debt imposed upon Haiti by France. The US, France, Spain, and England pounced on the internal conflicts to help break the island apart.
The division of the island into two separate countries and the US occupation of the island were probably the biggest predictors of what was to come. The division was asymmetrical. It left almost 20,000 square miles of the most fertile land in the hands of 100,000 Dominicans, while the remaining 10,000 square miles of mountainous land was left for 700,000 Haitians. The United States' participation in dividing the island led it to recognize Dominican independence from Haiti the same year that it occurred in 1844, while it would take the US 6 decades to recognize Haitian independence.
When the United States invaded Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the 1920s, it enforced a border between the two nations. It also established many sugar cane plantations or bateys on the sparsely populated DR side of the island, encouraging Haitian migration to the eastern side to find work in the bateys. In other words, it established a system whereby sugar production with Haitian labor would become a dominant industry enriching batey owners, just as sugar production had enriched colonial plantation owners. Today, it is predominantly the children and grandchildren of these workers, Dominicans of Haitian descent, who are having their citizenship retroactively revoked going as far back as 1929. Professionals such as doctors and lawyers are also being targeted especially if they have darker skin or Haitian sounding last names.
In searching for the roots of the economic disparity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the narrator speculates that the Dominican Republic has been more stable than Haiti, but history belies this. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the Dominican Republic was less stable than Haiti and had far more coup d’ etats and presidents. Much of the disparity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a fairly modern development because up until the 1950’s, the economies of the two nations were comparable. Today, the economy of the DR has diversified and no longer depends on sugar production. Some of the sugar cane bateys are being converted to tourist resorts.
Some of the current poverty in Haiti is a result of geopolitical cold war policies that led the US to bolster Duvalier’s dictatorship as a bulwark against the spread of communism from Castro’s Cuba. Despite Duvalier's devastating impact on the Haitian economy and on the social fabric of Haitian society, he remained a supported client of the United States. Much of the disparity on the island is the result of the racism instituted in the Americas since the landing of Columbus. That racism, clearly evident in this documentary, was first instituted in Haiti and the Haitian people continue to bear its deepest scars.