The Divergent Paths of Haiti and the Dominican Republic

A History of the Two Nations of Hispaniola: The Divergent Paths of Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Hispaniola, a Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, presents a stark study in contrast. On one side is Haiti, struggling with political turmoil, economic hardship, and natural disasters. On the other, the Dominican Republic, the shining example of prosperity and development in the entire LATAM region. A striking symbol of their divergent paths is the new wall the Dominican Republic is building along their shared border. This article explores the deep roots of their differing trajectories, highlighting the historical, environmental, and international factors that have shaped their current realities.

Colonial Beginnings and Seeds of Division

Hispaniola’s history of division dates back to the era of European colonization. The island was split between Spanish rule in the east, which eventually became the Dominican Republic, and French control in the west, now known as Haiti. While the Spanish practiced a policy of limited slavery, the French engaged in intense exploitation, importing approximately 800,000 African slaves by the end of the 18th century. As a result, Haiti became one of the most lucrative colonies in the world, with prosperity built on the backs of enslaved people. However, the greed of the colonizers caused the slave population to vastly outnumber the European population, which inevitably led to rebellion.

In 1791, Haiti’s slaves initiated a revolution that resulted in the deaths of 200,000 Haitians and the exodus of the French colonial population. This uprising became the world’s first successful slave revolt and led to Haiti’s independence in 1804. But the price of freedom was high. For decades, the international community, led by France, refused to recognize Haiti’s sovereignty. When recognition was finally granted, it came at a heavy cost: France demanded crippling reparations. Haiti was also forced to accept predatory loans from French banks, trapping the nation in a devastating cycle of debt, first to France and subsequently to the U.S. This financial burden hampered Haiti’s development for centuries and contributed to the widespread deforestation seen today as a result of massive logging to sell lumber to France.

The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, gained its independence from Spain in 1821 under more favorable circumstances and without bloody turmoil. However, just one year later Haiti attempted to conquer the Dominican Republic and force it to help pay its debts, leading to a long and brutal occupation. The following decades on the island of Hispaniola were marked by political instability, violence, unrest, and an increasing dependence on foreign (especially American) capital. This culminated in U.S. intervention and occupation in the early 20th century, justified by claims of insolvency and internal conflict.

Dictatorships and Political Instability

Following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the 1920s and 1930s, both nations fell to dictatorial rule, with Rafael Trujillo taking power in the Dominican Republic and François Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc, in Haiti. While both countries endured the hardships of authoritarian rule, their paths began to diverge markedly in the aftermath of these regimes. The Dominican Republic emerged from authoritarianism and, beginning in 1966, embarked on a path of rapid economic growth that continues today. In contrast, Haiti’s political landscape remained fraught with instability, which significantly deterred foreign investment and contributed to economic stagnation.

The political instability in Haiti reached a critical point with the events leading to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s resignation in 2004. The president demanded reparations from France for the indemnity and double debt imposed on Haiti in the early 19th century, which erupted into violence and rebellion, allegedly backed by U.S. forces, that eventually seized control of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Amid the chaos, Aristide resigned under controversial circumstances and left the country. This event resulted in the U.S. and France blocking international peacekeeping aid to Haiti. In response, the United Nations intervened with force, but Haiti had to give up its claims for reparations. Aristide’s departure was seen as a forced exit that had a significant impact on Haiti’s political stability and efforts to address historical injustices.

Environmental Challenges and Their Impact

Haiti faces significant environmental vulnerabilities that compound its challenges. With only 12% of forest cover (compared to 44% in the Dominican Republic), the country is highly vulnerable to hurricanes and floods. This is partly a consequence of the reduced forest area, which prevents soil erosion and absorbs rainwater. An additional issue exacerbating deforestation in Haiti is the lack of constant access to electricity and reliance on wood as a primary energy source. The situation is worsened by the high population density. The country’s location on active tectonic fault lines, in areas significantly more populated than the Dominican Republic, results in catastrophic earthquakes, claiming many lives. The 2010 earthquake killed about 250,000 people and caused economic losses of $8.5 billion (nearly three-quarters of the country’s GDP).

In contrast, the Dominican Republic is managing its natural resources more effectively, maintaining a high forest cover and implementing policies to reduce the impact of natural disasters. Earthquakes are much less frequent and less severe than in Haiti. Between 1943 and 2021, earthquakes caused just over 2,500 deaths (99% of them in 1946 alone). The Dominican Republic’s resilience to natural disasters has been attributed to factors such as low deforestation rates, lower population density, and favorable historical conditions. These advantages have allowed the Dominican Republic’s tourism industry to flourish. In addition, the country makes efficient use of its natural resources, which translates into stable economic growth and prosperity.

Economic Disparities and Development

The growing economic disparity between the two Hispaniola countries is widening, and Haiti’s chronic political instability, poverty and natural disasters have left the country unable to attract tourists or exploit natural resources. Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and its economic development is hampered by historic debt, political instability and lack of investment in infrastructure. While there are growing calls around the world to restore Haiti’s economic sovereignty, it remains unclear what measures could permanently solve the country’s problems.

On the other side of the island, the Dominican Republic’s economic development is a story of steady growth, continued foreign capital inflows and a booming tourism sector. The country’s GDP has grown significantly, elevating the Dominican Republic to middle-income status with aspirations to become a high-income country by 2030. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Dominican Republic has been the leader in economic growth in Latin America over the past five decades, and also ranks 6th in terms of GDP. It is also the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean and second in all of Latin America. In 2023, the Dominican Republic reached a historic record by welcoming more than 10 million tourists!

Prospects for the Future

The stark differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, countries that share the same island, are a reminder of the complex interplay of history, politics, and international dynamics. It’s also an example of how seemingly small differences have huge consequences. What does the future hold for Hispaniola? The stabilization and development of Haiti absolutely requires the establishment of a strong political framework and the resolution of debt problems, which will require international intervention. The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, has the task of maintaining steady growth, which also means managing relations with Haiti responsibly and working actively for regional stability.