By Eugenio Matibag.
268 pages
New York: Palgrave - Macmillan, 2003.
ISBN # 0-312-29432-6

Comments of Bob Corbett
January 2003

Eugenio Matibag presents a bold theory toward understanding the relationships between the Dominican Republic and Haiti which attacks the standard view held by most historians. Further, Matibag’s is an “activist” history, in that his interest is not pure scholarship. He is convinced that both countries are in serious need, Haiti more so that the Dominican Republic, and that one critical factor in prohibiting them from helping one another is the traditional accepted theory which he called the cock-fight theory. He denounces this view as oversimplified and tries to establish his “counterpoint” theory in its place. Matibag is offering a new and very bold theory, which, if sustained, would allow for a very different assessment of the future of possible relations between the two nations of this island.

The view which Matibag attacks as the “cock fight” view, take its name from Michelle Wucker’s 1999 book WHY THE COCKS FIGHT: DOMINICANS, HAITIANS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR HISPANIOLA.

He doesn’t suggest that Michelle Wucker is the originator of this view, but he seems to like the metaphorical nature of her way of explaining it. On Matibag’s view of Wucker and the standard view, Haiti and the Dominica Republic stand like two owners of cocks, in the pit, circling each other with wary eyes as the cocks fight themselves to death.

Matibag believes there are two things wrong with this view. It is false and oversimplified on the one hand, and at the level of activism, it precludes cooperative action and thus condemns the countries to going in along in their mainly negative relation to each other, whereas a more cooperative use of the common land mass would offer each country distinct advantages.

So he develops a different history and different metaphor. His view is that the relations between the two countries are like a modern symphony with harmonies and counterpoint. There are distinct and individual melody lines, but at the same time there are subtle disharmonies mixed in the with main melodic theme, and to really appreciate and understand the symphony we must understand the subtle relations of the counterpoint.

He then launches into historical analyses of several periods of Haitian history to give evidence that despite the main motif of dissonance and friction, there are significant areas of cooperation and connection which have always existed, “a lesser-known, holistic narrative of interdependencies and reciprocal influences which have shaped each country’s identity.”

He argues that the essence of the cock-fight thesis is centered around the four “I” s:

In opposition to these he prefers to focus on the counterpoint moments of creation of unions:

  • Territorial community
  • Economic interdependence
  • Clandestine economy
  • He put s a great deal of emphasis on the close relations between folk religion in both countries, the Dominicans being said to be deeply influenced by and related to Haitian Voodoo in their religion of Gaga.

    Further, there is a somewhat confusing notion in which he places great stress on relations along the border of the two countries, especially in his treatment of the clandestine economy. Yet at other times he seems to push this theme to the side and talk about relations of interdependence between the countries which are not located geographically in any one region. The two themes are not contradictory, yet I found myself a bit confused since at times he seems to argue the border relations are central to his thesis and at others times not.

    The next piece of Matibag’s argument is tricky to evaluate. He follows the common contemporary distinction between the notions of nation and state, citing two Haitian scholars who had led the way in this analysis, Gerard Pierre-Charles and Michel Rolph Trouillot. (For comments on Trouillot’s contribution to this notion see my review of his book HAITI, STATE AGAINST NATION: THE ORIGINS AND LEGACY OF DUVALIERISM.)

    Matibag allows that the major relationship between the two state governments (the “states” in this distinction) does not mirror the nature of relationships which individuals and segments of the people themselves have created (the “nation” in this distinction). Thus he sets out to show these positive connections in the nation as well as the origin and conception of the negative state relations, particularly coming together in the joint dictatorships of Trujillo and the Duvaliers.

    One especially interesting sub thesis in this section is that the anti-haitianism of the Dominicans and the anti-dominicanism of Haitians (which he allows is real), is less an issue of foreign policy than it is of domestic policy, a tool of the authoritarian leaders to control their own people. He makes a very strong case for this thesis.

    Like Matibag, I have been influenced especially by Trouillot’s book, but wonder to what extent a slightly different dichotomy might account for the dissonance as well – what I would call the two Haiti’s, in which one is the Haiti of Port-au-Prince and the next 7-8 towns of size all except for Hinche which are on the coast, and then the huge interior of the country where the mass of population and peasant farmers live and struggle for survival. I don’t know the Dominican Republic well-enough to know if that country can as easily be seen as two separate entities within one “official” state.

    I think without question he makes a strong case that these connections, these positive moments of relationships among people certainly exist. The question is: are they really strong enough to make a significant difference and are they enough on which to build this positive and cooperative recreation of the nature of relations between the two countries. Can such a policy really begin to have an impact on the two countries and help each of them separately and jointly move the island of Hispaniola onward toward greater prosperity and harmony?

    I was disappointed by what seemed to me a general lack of specificity and detail in Matibag’s recounting of the counterpoint moments. Further, I wonder just how powerful these forces on in shaping the identify and destiny of each nation. That they exist there is no question. The dispute would seem to be just how strong is the counterpoint.

    I would call attention to one piece of his book that seemed especially original, that is chapter 7 “Close Encounters: Haitians in Dominican Literature.” In this chapter he analyzes the attitudes of Dominican writers and their views of Haiti and Haitians. He concludes that the fictional images of Haiti and Haitians supports his case, and, as he tells it and recounts them the argument looks very strong. But then I worry as I always do, just to what extent the intellectuals and artists really impact the everyday reality of common people. Matibag’s book is about the existing images each country has of the other and how that impacts everyday life and the future of their interrelationship. But, who do the writers of the Dominican Republic influence? Who reads these more positive images of Haiti and Haitians, and how does it compare with the mass propaganda which he has so well documented which is used by the Dominican government to reinforce an image of Haitians which is useful for Dominican domestic policy?

    A great deal is demanded of Matibag’s demonstrated moments of counterpoint. I must admit that I come away from this book very happy that Eugenio Matibag has made his case, a bit astonished at the audacity and significance of his central thesis, wishful that he is right about it all, but not quite optimistic that his position is strong enough to really create this coming utopia of cooperation after such a long history of war, occupation, hatred and suspicion. Is the counterpoint really that strong? That is the question.

    Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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    Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu