On Feb. 27, Portland's residents with ties to the Dominican Republic celebrated its independence day at the Center for Cultural Exchange with traditional foods and dancing the Merengue to a live band.
Meanwhile, Haitians in Portland sat anxiously by the phone or tuned in to CNN, waiting to hear if relatives were alive and well.
Both groups of people have roots in the same island in the Caribbean. The long and tortured history of the island of Hispaniola has seen invasions, military dictatorships and protracted civil wars.
The island's original inhabitants were Taino Indians, who were overcome by disease and hardship under Spain's colonial domination after the arrival of Columbus. Supplies of gold and native slaves were soon exhausted.
The Spanish then left several thousand colonists in Santo Domingo and headed for the gold of Mexico, their new conquest. Meanwhile, neighboring Tortuga became a refuge for runaway slaves, indentured servants and pirates. The French, anxious about the growth of the Spanish empire, encouraged the pirates to settle down by supplying them with women from its prisons.
After the French took over Tortuga they spread out into the western end of Hispaniola in 1697.
The new French colony became wealthy due to large numbers of African slaves who were treated brutally in the sugar plantations. A former plantation coachman secretly learned to read and, inspired by the French Revolution, led a rebellion after the first slave uprising in 1791.
Toussaint Louverture's troops were so successful that the French abolished slavery in 1794. The French and Toussaint then took over the Spanish side of the island and abolished slavery there, too. Then Napoleon sent troops to remove Toussaint, who defeated him and Haiti declared its independence in 1804.
But in 1809, the Spanish regained the eastern side of the island, re-established slavery and even mounted raids into free Haiti to capture slaves. Haiti's army fought back, incorporated Santo Domingo into its republic and once again abolished slavery.
The former Spanish colonials in Santo Domingo resented the domination of the Haitians and plotted their own independence, which they succeeded in winning on Feb. 27, 1844.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic then settled into an uneasy relationship that occasionally flared into open conflict over disputed borders during the next century. Internally, both countries suffered at the hands of dictatorships, military coups and foreign interventions, including multiple occupations by the United States starting in 1916 in the Dominican Republic for eight years and for 19 in Haiti.
The United States occupied both countries to restore order and protect its commercial interests. To that end, it trained the armies and shifted power to the military in both. During the occupation the head of the army in the Dominican Republic was Rafael Trujillo. He made himself rich through embezzlement, beginning with military procurements.
After the Americans left, he toppled the civilian government and installed himself as dictator for life. Haiti fared even worse under the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, his son Baby Doc and their infamous death squads, the Ton Ton Macout.
For years Rev. Jean Bertrand Aristide led the struggle against the Duvaliers. When he was elected president he gave up the priesthood and moved into a section of the presidential mansion.
He was deposed by the military six months later, and the same families regained control of Haiti's resources. With President Clinton's help, Aristide returned to power and did something only one other nation in the Americas has done; he disbanded the military.
Doubtless he hoped that international aid and the U.S. presence along with U.N. peacekeepers, would help build stable institutions free of corruption. But in 1994 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were suspicious of Aristide's leftist past. So they blocked funding for nation building. The troops went home.
Nothing else was needed to doom the dream. Without something to fill the vacuum, the old ways returned. After the 2000 elections, the economy plummeted. According to The Boston Globe, Aristide encouraged his supporters to become armed, thus polarizing the country.
Today, the opposition and former members of death squads from Haiti's jails roam the streets, armed with expensive weapons. The angry 15-member group of Caribbean nations, CARICOM, is urging an inquiry into how Aristide was removed from power. Members of Aristide's administration received refuge in the Dominican Republic. Haiti's national art museums and schools have been looted, according to the BBC.
For better or worse, the United States seems incapable of nation building.
Louise Rocha-McCarthy works for the Portland school system and area hospitals as a translator and interpreter.
Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc