By Michele Wucker. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. ISBN # 0-8090-3719-X.
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Life for humans is most often contradictory. Any given person is likely to be both honest and dishonest, generous and stingy, reliable and unreliable. These contradictions are seen not only in us as persons, but in our social institutions and our nations and their policies. A curious contradiction is that we are trained to attempt to describe the world in our writings and even in our conversations, as though it were not contradictory, to get the "essence," the correct description. The "correct" description is at least to be a non-contradictory account and critics will accuse us if we are contradictory. Our very criterion for correctness is, at least in part, contradictory. It is to give a non-contradictory account of some aspect of the world; a world I am claiming is, in fact, significantly contradictory.
The irony, if I am correct (and non-contradictory) about this, is that the realities about which we try to give non-contradictory accounts are themselves contradictory, thus our accounts tend to fail. The irony is that I'm now trying to give a non-contradictory account of Michele Wucker's recent intriguing book about the island of Hispaniola and the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Yet both the reality Wucker reveals and her book itself, are contradictory.
To get a better grasp on the book we need to examine the notion of "the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti." That can mean we are relatively equally concerned with the interrelationship between the two nations such that we'd want to know how the DR is toward Haiti and how Haiti is toward the DR, and what the tensions might be in the clashes, if any, of these connections. Or, we might want to focus on how the DR is toward Haiti and Haitians. Or, we might want to focus on how Haiti is toward the DR. There are tensions, ambiguities and different possibilities even in the notion of the relationship between the two. Which relationship is be described?
Michel Wucker has chosen two central metaphors to describe this relationship between the two nations. The cockfight and the relationship between Prospero and Caliban in Shakespeare's "The Tempest." This choice leads to both a richness for the book, and tensions of contradiction at the same time.
The opening chapter entitled "Roosters" is 23-page treatment of cockfighting. It is fascinating, gory, insightful and perfectly descriptive of the hand full of cockfights I've seen in Haiti. While the chapter could be read as an independent journalistic account of cockfight in the Dominican Republic with a glance at Haiti (to paraphrase an 1889 book on Hispaniola), Wucker has bigger fish to fry and introduces her lead metaphor, and what I believe is her own view of her book's central thesis: the structure of the cockfight is very much like the structure of the interrelationships among people in each nation. These are nations where violence, even killing, is a dominant manner of resolving disputes. These are nations of people, at least men, who find this dance of death, violence and danger, to be very attractive and alluring, calling them back to the ritual time and time again. In each nation there is a dramatic split in the way the institution of the cockfight itself is carried out in the different social classes. The basic reality is the same, but in the privileged class there is the appearance of more gentility and civilized behavior, but at root it is the same cockfight dressed up in nice clothes and trimmings. There is, on her account, very little to differentiate the structure of the cockfight in the two nations.
And this structure reveals a deep structure of social relations among the people of each nation. But what of the interrelationship between the two nations? Is that, too, a cockfight? On Wucker's account I think not. It is here that her second dominant image comes to play, the relationship between Caliban and Prospero in "The Tempest." Unlike the cocks, where there is at least a serious attempt at pitting equals in this life and death struggle, the relationship of Caliban and Prospero is inherently a relationship of unequals. The Haitian Calibans have "invaded" the Dominican Republic and the Dominican Prosperos must keep them in line, demean them as inferior beings, use them as near-slaves, control them, revile them, even massacre them if the need be. Gone is the macho imagery of the cockfight and enter the more troubling and pathetic relationship of domination, injustice, cruelty, even savagery.
Wucker writes well about the Dominican/Haitian interrelationship from each image. But the irony here is that the images are contradictory. In the former the combatants are equal, or intended to be equal. There is even an honor of the equality of the cockfight. In the Caliban/Prospero relationship there is no equality, the entire relationship depends upon inequality of power, attitude, purpose, even on the fundamental view of the beings involved; a relationship of unequals.
Thus we have the curious fact that the title of the book: WHY THE COCKS FIGHT: DOMINICANS, HAITIANS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR HISPANIOLA, is quite contradictory to what the book really is. This is not about the struggle for Hispaniola; this is fundamentally a book about how the Dominicans struggle to continue their domination over the Haitians in the Dominican Republic and how the Dominicans view the humanity or rather, the less than human status of the Haitians. We learn virtually nothing of the Haitian attitude toward the Dominicans as a nation, only their relationship with the Dominicans in the DR as oppressors, even potential murderers of the Haitians.
None of this is a criticism of the content of the book. Not in the slightest. I am just struggling to figure out the structure of the book, and finding there is a fundamental discontinuity between the title and the contents. The title is catchy, but doesn't catch the contents of the book as a whole.
Michele Wucker provides a very readable and insightful look at the Dominican Republic and how it treats the Haitians there. She shows that the Dominicans keep a wary eye on Haiti, believing that too many Haitians crossing the border would be disaster, that Haitians can be used to do the dirtiest work in the country, treated sub-humanly and viewed in the same fashion, then blamed for the woes of the DR when that suits the political needs of the moment -- convenient scapegoats. To the best of my memory there isn't a sentence in the book that touches upon how the Haitian government views the Dominican Republic, other than in relationship to treating (or killing) Haitians living in or "caught" in the DR.
Michele Wucker is a journalist and seemingly a good one. She has provided a series of journalistic analyses loosely tied together around the relationship of the dominant Dominicans and the subservient Haitians within their borders. However, along the way are some other less connected essays on Dominican politics (with little or no relationship toward Haiti, or with Haiti dropped in as though an afterthought), and a couple of essays about Haitian politics with only a tag-on reference to the DR.
The chapter "Massacre River," the longest chapter in the book is both on some aspects of the history of the two nations and their border and on the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the DR. "Land Columbus Love Best" is an historical overview of the island and an intriguing account of the Dominican fixation on monuments to Columbus, particularly that of Juan Balaguer. "Life on the Batey" details the horrible treatment of Haitian workers on the sugar cane plantations in the DR. "Bitter Sugar" (an oddly named chapter) is an account of the Haitian coup to over throw Jean-Claude Duvalier and the rise of Aristide. The sugar angle comes in by giving a central focus of the Dominican political response to this dramatic change in Haiti. "The Cockfight" (not to be confused with the opening chapter, "Roosters") is an account of the coup against Aristide and the Dominican attitudes toward the de facto government and period of occupation. "The Old Man," one of my favorite chapters, is the story of the rise and decline of Juan Balaguer. "Across the Water" is a vivid chapter of life of Dominicans in New York, and the complex story of Dominican politics which bridges two countries. "The Other Side" is an account of the most recent nature of the Dominican relationship toward Haiti.
Each of these chapters could be successfully read as an independent essay, yet they tie together lightly to form a whole, but what is this whole? That's difficult for me. It's not a single entity. There are some useful and interesting bits of history of the island and of each nation and of the interrelationship of the Dominican Republic toward Haiti. There is, perhaps surprisingly, almost nothing about the period of Haitian control of the entire island. There are the two chapters about Haiti from 1986 to the present. But the bulk of the book, the sense I come away from the book with, is the a portrait of the Dominican Republic today, its genesis and central political leaders, with a significant focus on how Haitians who are in the Dominican Republic are treated, or rather, maltreated.
For the past 15 years I've spent a significant portion of my life trying to get to know and understand Haiti. Many of the Haiti-related books I've read touch on the DR here and there, but always with the focus on Haiti. Now and again I've taken the time out to plunge into study of the DR itself, the most successful such work for me having been Sumner Wells' two volume history, NABOTH'S VINEYARD: THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 1844 - 1924.
For Haiti-centered folks Wucker's book is an excellent choice. It can be read as a series of relatively independent essays of under 30 pages each, written with style, attention to detail and often told as the story of someone who is an "ordinary Dominican" or "ordinary Haitian" living in the DR. Yet it all hangs together. While these are essays are discrete at one level, they tie together at another. What emerges in the end is not the cockfight metaphor of the struggle of equals, but Dominican Prosperos, dominating, using and scapegoating slave-like Haitian Calibans in their midst.
It is certainly not a pretty picture, but we all know that. Wucker lays bare the historical development and political import of this ugly reality. The reader will come away with a clearer sense of sadness. We all know the pain, struggle and suffering of Haitians at home and how endemic that suffering is to Haiti's history and politics. Here it is presented in its harshness and structural roots just across the border.
Is the Haitian situation in the Dominican Republic reversible? Is the Haitian situation in Haiti reversible? Is the only hope for Haitians to flee to North America for a piece of the American dream, or is there another book like Wucker's waiting to be written that writes discouragement into our hearts about Haitians in the U.S. and Canada? This seems a pertinent question as I come away from Wucker's book at the same time that the Louima trial is spotlighted in New York, and hidden immigration struggles continue every day for Haitians in North America.
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