Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Crisis, Ties With Neighbor Improve

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic—President Leonel Fernández paid an unannounced visit to his Haitian counterpart, René Préval, less than 48 hours after last month's earthquake devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Mr. Préval had regrouped with surviving members of the Haitian government in a grimy one-story police station near the airport. "I found him alone in a darkened office," says Mr. Fernández in an interview in an ornate gilded hall of the presidential palace here. "We quickly began to make plans to see what immediate measures we could take" to help.

For two centuries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been the most uneasy of neighbors. The two countries share the small island of Hispaniola, but speak different languages, and their bloody and confrontational histories have made each distrust, fear and resent the other. In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 quake, people on both sides of the border see an opportunity to improve relations.

In addition to millions of dollars in government and private aid, the Dominican Republic has sent 15 bus-size field kitchens to Haiti that each serve more than 60,000 hot meals a day, as well as dozens of generators and teams of electrical workers to help turn on the lights in Port-au-Prince. Dominican doctors turned a planned clinic on the border into a hospital where thousands of injured Haitians have been treated.

"The Dominicans were the first to arrive with help, with doctors, food and aid," says Alice Blanchet, a special adviser to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. "They were stellar."

"I think the tragedy has had the blessing of bringing our countries closer," says Mr. Fernández. Still, he warns, if a mass of Haitians cross the border, it would pressure strained public services, potentially threaten the Dominican government—and could turn into a regional security problem for the U.S. "We could turn into failed states," he says, referring to the possibility of Haitian collapse.

Race has been an important factor in the island's history. Haiti's black slave revolutionaries, who wrung independence for their nation from Napoleon's grenadiers in 1804, quickly overran the eastern, Spanish part of the island. It was only in 1844 that the Dominican Republic won independence from Haiti. Spanish-speaking and relatively light-skinned, Dominicans simultaneously looked down and feared their Creole-speaking, predominantly black neighbors.

Did not know that history.

Generations of Dominicans were brought up on the national narrative of how Haitian troops slaughtered Dominicans during the country's war of independence. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo ordered the massacre of an estimated 30,000 Haitian migrants, most of whom worked in cane fields.

The Dominican Republic has made steady progress since it began to emerge from the shadow of the 31-year Trujjillo dictatorship in 1961, but Haiti has plunged into chaos again and again after 29 years of dictatorship by the Duvalier family ended in 1986. Haiti's gross domestic product is less than $6 billion. The Dominican Republic has a GDP of $45 billion.

Mr. Fernández says he hopes the international community will invest the billions needed to "re-found" Haiti. But he and others here fear international attention will wane, and the pressure of a failed Haiti will spur migration. The quake has spurred an outpouring of support from individuals as well as businesses.

"We see in this tragedy an opportunity for development on the island," said Fernando Capellan, a Dominican businessman who is president of Grupo M, which operates a free-trade zone on the Haitian side of the border where some 4,000 workers assemble items of clothing.

Lisandro Macarulla, spokesman for Conep, a Dominican chamber of commerce, says there are opportunities for Dominican companies. But he echoed Mr. Fernández's worry that the international community will lose interest. "The situation presents both an opportunity and a danger," he says.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A14

Americas News
February 18, 2010

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