Current Affairs

Haiti & the Dominican Republic

First of all, it goes without saying, our thoughts and prayers continue to be turned to the people of Haiti.  The mind boggles at the scale of devastation.  Latest estimates say 111,000 people dead — out of a total population of less than 10 million.  That would be like Israel losing 70,000 people at once — far more than have been lost in every single war and every act of terrorism since Israel's founding sixty years ago.  It would be like America losing 3 million people — and think of how traumatized the country was when 3,000 people died in 9/11.  Please do what you can to support relief efforts.  Israeli readers can make donations to Magen David Adom, in America there is the Red Cross or the American Jewish World Service.  In addition to making a personal donation through MDA, I got my company to agree to make it possible for a couple of our medical people to volunteer by paying their air fare and continuing to pay their salaries for a few weeks while they volunteer in Haiti–something I'm a little proud of since it will have a lot more impact than the modest donation I could personally make.

All of the recent attention on Haiti, of course, has also drawn attention to the fact that even before the earthquake, Haiti was something of a disaster zone.  I flew into Haiti in a small plane back in 1979 (landed at Port au Prince airport), and was struck by the poverty and dismal conditions, and it hasn't improved a lot since.  Anytime you read about Haiti it is always accompanied by statements about how Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, etc., etc.  And there are frequent comparisons to Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic, which is prospering while Haiti is languishing.

A few years ago I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon in which I spoke about the role of culture in societal development in general, as well as the role of culture in the prospects for peace in the Middle East.  I made a comparison between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which given the current interest in Haiti is worth revisiting:

…But that only raises a further question.  Why is it that some former colonies are developing rapidly, with McDonalds and Starbucks opening on every corner, whereas others are dependent on international handouts for survival?  Why have so many countries, especially since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet Union, become thriving democracies, whereas others are run by warlords and corrupt plutocrats?

There are many factors, but one dominates – and that one is culture.

People of my generation may feel uncomfortable with that statement.  It seems politically incorrect.  We grew up in an age when we were taught to respect all cultures.  Some anthropologists said that “progress” was a Western idea we were trying to impose on other cultures.  However, as Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington put it in their book “Culture Matters,” the vast majority of the planet’s people would probably agree with the following assertions:

Life is better than death.
Health is better than sickness.
Liberty is better than slavery.
Prosperity is better than poverty.
Education is better than ignorance.
Justice is better than injustice.

And the truth is some cultures do a much better job of creating societies where those values flourish than others.
One of the clearest examples of the influence of culture is to compare the Dominican Republic with Haiti.  The two countries share one island, Hispaniola, so they have the same natural resources and climate.  Both countries were largely populated by slaves from Africa overseen by a European ruling class.  But today one country is democratic and prospering, the other has been suffering for years from violence and poverty.

Two hundred years ago Haiti was wealthier and more powerful than the Dominican Republic; today, it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  The two countries have very different cultures.  Over half of the Haitians still practice an animist religion, voodoo.  As Lawrence Harrison points out in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” voodoo has a lot of features that resist progress.  Voodoo does not concern itself with ethics, and practitioners believe their fates, good or bad, are controlled by capricious spirits.  Lawrence says “Voodoo discourages initiative, rationality, achievement, education.” 

The people of the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, abandoned paganism and  adopted the religion, values, and culture of the Spanish colonialists.  Haiti’s economy and government resemble those of the worst-off African countries, while the Dominican Republic resembles the more prosperous Latin American countries.  Maybe Judaism’s rejection of paganism was one of our greatest contributions to the economic development of Mankind.

Culture also explains why Israel is an island of democracy in the Middle East. 

If you want to read the rest of the essay, click here.

I pray that as the international community helps Haiti rebuild, we help them deal with some of the underlying problems they have been facing for decades.  And, it is worth pointing out, in recent years Haiti has been making some progress–it's just been pretty slow, and sometimes one step forward, two back.  May it be God's will that this tragedy eventually bring about some good by furthering the transition of Haiti to democracy and prosperity.

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

4 thoughts on “Haiti & the Dominican Republic

  • David

    Culture is the hardest thing to change.

  • Those who survey the DOminican Republic from the 4th tee see a thriving nation. But the few who venture off the course may observe not only abject poverty in the DR (on the same scale as Haiti), but also the government-condoned slavery of a hundred thousand Haitian children in the Batays of the DR.

  • I found this blog by chance in doing research of the Dominican Republic. I think you oversimplifying the story of the island of the Hispaniola. Haiti and the Dominican Republic have a totally different history. IT is not a fair comparison. I’m Dominican and I sympathize with my neighbors struggles because history treated the Dominican Republic better. Although we were both colonies and had a slave representation, the differences I note below are very important:

    1) Haitians were colonized by the French a much more oppressive colonizer than the Spaniards. If you do some research on any former French slave colony you’ll notice the same trend. The french didn’t setup the same society infrastructure prevalent in the Dominican Republic. The Spaniards added roads, schools, churches, gov’t offices, etc.
    2) Haiti had to pay billions (in todays money) to France as blackmail after declaring independence.
    3) Dominican Republic was not a country covered in slavery like Haiti. Please do some research on the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic. They were mixed or they were descendants of Spain. I’m not putting down the slaves and questioning their intelligence. But the truth is they were dragged across the ocean, with no culture, no education and no rights and now are being asked to create a country in a Western world.


  • Hi Pablo, thanks for your thoughtful comments. If I read what you are saying correctly, you’re not saying culture is not important — especially in the end of your comment — but you are saying there is MORE to it than culture alone. Fair enough: real life is complicated and there always multiple factors that go into creating reality. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened in Haiti if more of the French had “gone native,” and left a ruling class that was French or mixed–but still with the other liabilities you point out.


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