Closed Minds And Closed Borders: Border Conflict In The Caribbean

Dominican Republican President Luis Abinader recently announced plans to construct a barrier along its Haitian border. According to the President, this 380 km fence will help curb illegal immigration, drug trade, and other criminal activities. Although the exact timeline and budget are unknown, President Abinader told Congress that he hopes to see the fortified borders proposed benefits in as little as two years. Hence, one can safely assume that the project’s start is imminent. 

Yet, there is reason to suspect this barrier’s motive is not as simple as Mr. Abinader claims. The historically strained relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are not a secret. 84 years ago (1937), this very border was the scene of mass slaughter. A scene that will certainly never be forgotten by the Haitian people. Some refer to this brutal event as the Parsley Massacre as it is said that Dominican soldiers carried parsley with them and would ask unsuspected potential Haitians to pronounce it in Spanish (perejil). Generally, those who spoke Haitian Creole primarily often mispronounced it, whereas many Dominican speakers did not. Relying on little more than this generalization, the soldiers killed those who made the pronunciation error, resulting in an estimated 9,000 to 20,000 deaths

In the following months, many other suspected Haitians were subject to extreme violence and torture until they could prove their Dominican nationality or succumbed to their injuries. In some cases, Dominican citizens risked their lives and safety to help their Island neighbours. However, in others, locals identified Haitians to the authorities. This purge, called the “El Corte,” forever changed the relationship between the two countries and likely still plays a role today. 

Before this, Haitian migrations had crossed the informal border separating the island as they pleased, with many working in the Eastern Region’s sugar plantations. But during the Great Depression, immigrants and migrant workers took the brunt and blame for the economic downfall. 

Lesly Manigat, a Haitian doctor, living in the Dominican, told BBC a decade ago that “Trujillo tried to rid the Dominican of its Haitian roots,” but the similarity and shared history between the cultures ultimately made this task fail. Manigat belongs to a group called the Border of Lights. They come together in both countries to mark the massacre’s anniversary every year, a practice that this new border barricade will surely threaten. 

However, despite the similarities that Manigat speaks of, many quickly point out the differences between the two countries. Although both countries have a population of around 11 million people,  current estimates place 500,000 Haitian migrants in the Dominican, many living there illegally. Dominicans, on the other hand, generally do not migrate to Haiti. Economic context alludes to an explanation for this one-way trend. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. The Dominican Republic, however, boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America and the Caribbean. This fundamental difference is not new and likely lays the foundation for the strained relationship between the two countries. 

Dominican Doctor Edward Paulino speaks to this tension’s history, claiming that the Dominican culture became exclusive starting in the 1930s. Despite the magnitude of Dominicans of Haitian descent, there became a sense of rejection and suspicion of dark-skinned Haitians. According to Paulino, this attitude has endured, if not deepened, over time. He cites an example of a rumour alleging that a Haitian migrant worker had killed a Dominican. Despite this never being proved, the locals suggested that all Haitians leave within twenty-four hours.

This example illustrates the deeper and darker tension that seeps into the two countries’ diplomatic relations. If a Haitian nationality erodes trust and the rule of law, becoming synonymous with criminals, crooks, and murders, then this barricade takes on a more ominous meaning. This may explain why in some “conflictive” sections, President Abinader’s “fence” would be double fortified and equipped with infrared systems, facial recognition, and motion sensors. 

Inclinations of fortified borders do not emerge without context and cause. President Abinader’s justification of curbing illegal immigration, drug trade, and other criminal activities is likely valid. There is evidence of illegal migration and rampant human smuggling, especially as the Dominican makes it more difficult for those wishing to move. However, this is not the sole justification. What the President did not cite is the longstanding prejudice held against Haitians in the Dominican, his wish to purge the country of those in financial need, nor the fact that by enacting this fence, he will be joining the politicians before him that attempted to separate themselves from the Haitian people. 

By enacting this fence, the Dominican Republic joins many other countries, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, to name a few. Indeed, long before COVID-19 forced reduce mobility between countries, there was a growing trend to enact walls, close off borders, and curb migration. Yet, in a world of barricades and closed borders, humanity and human decency are not prioritized. If we close our borders, our minds, and our hearts to those looking for a better life and those in need, we cannot claim to live in peace. World peace simply cannot be achieved through division, neglect, and long-standing grudges.  

Brynne Thomas