Mutual incomprehension is perhaps the best way to describe the current relationship between the Anglophone Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. Although in recent months the focus has been on the complex concerns surrounding Haitian migration and residence, the regional divide has much deeper origins.
Having worked for more than 25 years in both the Anglophone and the Hispanic Caribbean, it is clear to me that the preexisting gap between perception and reality has widened over the last eighteen months.
At the heart of the matter, is the failure by both parties to understand how to relate to size: the Dominican Republic is large and diverse, and has a population of nearly 10m compared to the fragmented 5.5m living in the whole Anglophone Caribbean.
More importantly, there is an absence of any deep or emotional understanding of the history of the other. Each has very different various experiences of slavery, occupation, colonial rule, dictatorship, invasion, culture and social structures, let alone how these have shaped national sentiment and the view of the world beyond.
When it comes to size, in much of Caricom there is a fear that the Dominican Republic may overwhelm the Anglophone part of the region through its success and drive if there were ever to be a full economic opening.
It is easy to see why this underlying fear exists. Dominican GDP has been growing rapidly with 4.8 per cent growth forecast for this year. The country has demonstrated that it can out-compete the Anglophone Caribbean in sectors such as sugar and bananas; once thought of as the domain of Caricom producers through their now long-gone post-colonial preferential arrangements. Its tourism sector is highly competitive, is growing rapidly and is well on its way receiving the 10m annual visitor arrivals it projects by 2022. It can demonstrate that it can attract overseas investment from global manufacturing companies that can take advantage of the free trade opportunities on offer from both the US and Europe, and has a dynamic, increasingly outward-looking business community with an interest in investing in the region and beyond. There is the possibility that the country may in time become a regional energy hub.
But at a much deeper level, there are other less-discussed concerns within Caricom. There is a perception that the Dominican Republic is a country where most from the English-speaking part of the region would be culturally or socially unwelcome. More recently this stereotype has been reinforced by suggestions in the media that the country is an abuser of the human rights, despite the extraordinary numbers of previously undocumented Haitian migrants it has absorbed and is now legalising for citizenship.
Unfortunately, the perception is often just as negative in reverse.
In the Dominican Republic, the nations of Caricom are seen as small, distant, socially incomprehensible (despite their proximity), and struggling to overcome a post-colonial worldview; all these ideas were fostered by the negative rhetoric of former President, Joaquín Balaguer.
There is also incomprehension and anger that some in Caricom speak about the Dominican Republic in the context of Haiti in ways that Dominicans find culturally and intellectually insulting. Dominicans in significant positions feel stung by accusations that they find hard to reconcile with their pride, pragmatism and educated internationalism. There is also a view, usually unspoken, that most in Caricom have no idea what it is like to live next to the poorest country in the western hemisphere, to have porous borders, or to have once been subject to Haitian control. Dominicans argue that Caricom nations would not expect their constitutional order to be arbitrarily overturned, and point out that Caricom has failed to be critical of those of its own members that have been taking tougher and sometimes judicially questionable actions on migrants.
None of this should be taken as an apology for the many shortcomings of the Dominican Republic or for those within Caricom who have failed to understand that globalisation has changed its world; nor is it to underestimate or dismiss often passionately held views on the subject of Haiti and the Dominican Republic that are voiced in the region and beyond.
There will of course always be ultra-nationalists within the leading political parties in the Dominican Republic, as well as those in Caricom who see short and long-term political value in a division and all but formally breaking relations, making the present impasse not easy to resolve.
Despite this, and beyond the high-level steps now being taken to try to effect a reconciliation with Haiti, there is a strong case for establishing a much longer-term approach that involves people-to-people contact, visits, understanding, and day-to-day information flows in ways that encourage dialogue and normality between the Anglophone Caribbean and the Dominican Republic.
This is not rocket science and could start for example with much-improved media coverage, informal contact between leading members of the business community, and academic exchanges once key election dates in Haiti and Caricom have passed.
There is already a base of contacts to build on. Some companies, notably in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean are doing business with one another. For example, regional private sector organisations such as the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Association and the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association have for many years been fully integrated. And it cannot be beyond the wit of newspaper proprietors who believe in the free exchange of information to reach some form of arrangement on carrying news and comment from both sides of the linguistic divide.
There are also many opportunities for the longer-term private sector and government dialogue. There is the US$2bn bi-national private sector Quisqueya development project which is intended to spur economic development across the Dominican-Haitian border to create employment and stability. There may also be value in exploring new economic relationships that might be created between the economies of the Northern Caribbean as Cuba’s dialogue with the United States develops.
The Dominican Republic is an essential part of the Caribbean region offering potentially huge economic synergies. At a time of change, failure to find ways to heal the rift between the Dominican with CARICOM would be a historic mistake.