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Tourists pose for a picture on the beach in Samana, Dominican Republic. (EDUARDO MUNOZ)
Tourists pose for a picture on the beach in Samana, Dominican Republic. (EDUARDO MUNOZ)

A tale of two nations Add to ...

They have been both been colonized, oppressed and exploited. They have lived through brutal dictatorships and U.S. invasions.

The two countries that occupy the tiny island of Hispaniola may have a shared history, but they have developed into two startlingly different places. The massive earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince left many people in the Dominican Republic, just 250 kilometres away, feeling nothing worse than a little dizziness.

"In the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, new high-rise apartment buildings that have gone up over the past several years swayed but did not collapse. The brand-new metro system closed in case of aftershocks. In most cases, however, the biggest issue was motion sickness," historian Michele Wucker wrote on her blog.

These neighbouring nations are worlds apart.

The life expectancy in the Dominican Republic is 73; in Haiti, it's just 60. The Dominican Republic is a popular tourist destination and winter escape for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, where Donald Trump develops luxurious golf courses and avocados are a major export.

To most Canadians, Haiti has been largely visible through a series of escalating humanitarian crises broadcast on the nightly news.

Ms. Wucker, author of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola, said the way the countries developed since their colonization has led to their divergent realities.

"The Dominican Republic has actually benefited from not being on the radar of the world as much as Haiti," she said. "There's been a lot of international meddling in both countries, but Haiti has been given much less of a chance to really have a say in its own destiny."

Originally dubbed La Isla Espanola by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the island was a colony of Spain until it formally ceded the western third to the French in 1697.

But the Spaniards were not that interested in their colony as they were preoccupied with the riches to be had in other parts of Latin America, Ms. Wucker said.

Haiti, on the other hand, was seen as a key asset to the French. They reaped profit from its natural resources and the labour of hundreds of thousands of imported slaves. And when those slaves revolted in 1804, making Haiti the world's first sovereign black republic, they demanded indemnity. Haiti was forced to pay 150-million francs in exchange for recognition as an independent state, a designation that would allow them to trade with the rest of the world.

It is this debt that many see as the beginning of Haiti's decline. The country did not finish paying it down until 1938. By that time, the mismanagement of their resources had led to massive deforestation, crippling its potential for agriculture, while the other side of the island flourished.

"Haiti was basically in bankruptcy since the beginning of its independent life," said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Toronto academic born in the Dominican Republic.

His native country, by contrast, declared its independence from Haiti and was left with much more agriculturally viable land and a less densely populated nation. Infrastructure, political institutions and trade relations were able to develop without as much interference from foreign interests.

Both countries struggled with political stability and were occupied by The United States at different points during the 20th century. Coups, revolts and political uprisings plagued both sides of the border, as did the rule of violent dictatorships.

Haiti suffered the oppressive regimes of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, while the Dominican Republic was traumatized by the power of general Rafael Trujillo. But after his assassination in the 1960s, the Dominican Republic began its transition toward democracy. Ms. Wucker said the country now has a confidence in its political system that does not exist in Haiti."The Dominican Republic has essentially had a head start."

That does not mean the island will remain so sharplydivided. On Monday, Haitian President René Préval addressed Dominican President Leonel Fernandez at a meeting on disaster relief, indicating a willingness to forget past grievances.


Study in contrasts


Dominican Republic


9.03 million

9.65 million

Land mass

27,560 km{+2}

48,320 km{+2}

Population density



GDP per capita



GDP growth rate



Poverty rate



Urban population



Life expectancy



Median age



Birth rate

29.1 per 1,000

22.4 per 1,000

Death rate

8.7 per 1,000

5.3 per 1,000

Infant mortality

59.7 per 1,000

26.0 per 1,000

Fertility rate

3.8 per woman

2.8 per woman




Homicide rate

11.5 per 100,000

23.57 per 100,000

HIV-AIDS prevalence



Internet hosts



Television stations



Paved roads

1,011 km

9,872 km

Sources: UN, CIA Factbook, World Bank

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