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Apr 2004 Journal

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Disparate Caribbean neighbours

Haiti, which has recently moved briefly into the headlines, holds a few sad records. It is one of the world's poorest countries with probably the highest illiteracy rate. But it was also the first country in which a slave population rose against the colonial plantation owners and achieved short-lived independence under Toussaint L'Overture two centuries ago.

Like other Caribbean islands, Haiti attracted a number of Jewish immigrants, mainly of Sephardi - as well as Marrano - origin. In the years before the last war Haiti also granted visas - for a price - to Jews in transit from Europe. By contrast, its near neighbour, San Domingo, boasted a sizeable Ashkenazi population in the late 1930s when the Dominican dictator Trujillo encouraged German and Austrian Jewish refugees to come to his country. His motives were partly economic and partly eugenic: he looked to the Jewish newcomers to inject a European strain into his nation's African gene pool.

If Trujillo failed with the latter objective, he succeeded with the former. The 3,000 German Jews who found refuge in the Dominican Republic helped establish a number of new industries and, although many of them did not put down roots, they left their mark on the economy.

Today, Dominica is one of the success stories of the Caribbean, while Haiti offers a vista of hopelessness. The reasons are partly political, partly cultural. For decades the country was under the sway of the corrupt Duvalier dynasty and their secret police, the dreaded Tonton Macoute. Haiti is also the only state in the world where the Voodoo cult is accorded the semi-official status of a recognised religion.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Exodus and retro-exodus (editorial)
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