Modernity in the Dominican Republic: La Capital vs. El Batey

1 March 2012 at 07:00 15 comments

David Gorgani | KF 17 | Dominican Republic

I went to IKEA on Tuesday. I bought coat hangers, a laundry hamper, surge protectors, and (of course) Swedish meatballs.

The Santo Domingo Metro, inaugurated in 2008

In Santo Domingo, locally referred to simply as “La Capital,” it is an understatement to say that luxuries from back home are readily available. Sure, Taco Bell is considered by many to be fine dining and Hooters is a family establishment, but the sushi you find in La Capital is actually not half bad and Santo Domingo’s shiny new metro, probably its most outward attempt at showing off its modern side, is really quite impressive.

But this wonderland of IKEA, the Blue Mall, luxury car dealerships and international cuisine is the exception as opposed to the rule when viewed in the greater Dominican context. For example, here’s a photo of the batey I visited to meet with a Kiva Borrower last week:

A house in a batey outside of El Seibo, DR

Bateys are settlements that traditionally hosted migrant workers from Haiti during the sugar cane planting and harvesting seasons. Batey residents essentially lived as indentured servants, earning their housing and very small pay in exchange for hard labor. When the Dominican sugar cane industry contracted in the 1980s, most bateys became de facto full-time residences for undocumented immigrants that then found themselves without work.

Most Bateys lack basic services such as running water and electricity, and many of the immigrants’ children are denied schooling due to their parents’ residency status.  And the most shocking part? There are literally Bateys in the capital, and many more within a 30 minute drive of the center of town. It’s no wonder so many Dominicans opposed the construction of Santo Domingo’s snazzy metro when there are so many that lack electricity, health services, schooling and running water in the city’s outskirts.

Simple houses in the same batey

On the bright side, through increased attention from both the Dominican Government and the DR’s network of NGOs, living conditions in the bateys have improved significantly in the past decade. Schools are slowly being introduced, and pro bono health services are increasingly being offered to batey residents.  Both of my MFI Field Partners – Esperanza International and ASPIRE – place the challenge of bateys and the general plight of the immigrant poor in the DR among their top priorities.

I’m sure this discrepancy between the modern metropolis and the poor, antiquated village is a phenomenon many of my fellow Fellows have also witnessed. I’d love to read about any experiences you’ve had in the comments section, KF17!

(Note: A great deal of this info was gleaned from Amnesty International – This is a great read if you want to know more about bateys and the Haitian population in the DR)

David Gorgani is a Kiva Fellow serving in the Dominican Republic, helping ASPIRE get started as a Kiva Field Partner, helping Esperanza International with borrower verifications, and attempting to learn salsa and merengue on the side.

Entry filed under: Dominican Republic, Esperanza International, KF17 (Kiva Fellows 17th Class). Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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  • 1. alexkiva  |  12 March 2012 at 19:19

    Interesting post David, and judging by the other comments and my experiences here in Colombia it seems like we’re all seeing similar things. It’s always a little surreal traveling back and forth from the comunas to the high-end neighborhoods, being forced to confront the fact that there are two very different realities existing side-by-side.

  • […] to you personally about this if you’re interested, and check out the Kiva Fellows Blog (or even my first contribution) to read more about our […]

  • […] Modernity in the Dominican Republic: La Capital vs. El Batey David Gorgani | KF17 | Dominican Republic In his first borrower visits, David discovers the jarring disparity between the luxury of central Santo Domingo and the poor bateys of its outlying districts. […]

  • […] Modernity in the Dominican Republic: La Capital vs. El Batey ( […]

  • 5. Charity  |  2 March 2012 at 16:30

    The discrepancy you are talking about was very visible on my trip to Meixco as well. In many major cities, like Guadalajara and Mexico City, you can see gleaming sky scrapers and high end malls, and (sometimes literally across the street) there are barefoot men in shelters made from sticks and tarp, sitting on a tires, waiting for someone who needs auto work to stop. There are modern universities, and young children selling snacks and toys on the side of the road. There are delicious restaurants with sleek modern or relaxed euro cafe decor, and not too far away are people cooking over a fire on the street, selling food to go. Of course the US is quite like this too, except such discrepancies aren’t usually right across the street from each other (just note our Gini coefficient of 45, vs 48 for Dominican Republic, and 52 for Mexico – compared to say, the 27 of Germany). I have seen residences like those bateys in farming areas of California. And in states like Arizona and Alabama, with their new anti-immigrant laws, some families are scared to send thier children to school.

    • 6. dgorgani  |  2 March 2012 at 17:07

      Hey Charity, thanks for the comment.

      Regarding the Gini coefficient, you’re right on. I was actually considering commenting on how close that of the DR is to that of the US, but in the end decided to leave it out to make the post more readable. Man, sure says a lot about the US. Thanks for pointing it out!

      And yeah, I’ve heard that modernity discrepancy is very notable in DF, Mexico. Much more, it seems, than in Santo Domingo, in a large part due to the huge migration of rural residents to unplanned, informal neighborhoods in the capital.

      Thanks again!

  • 7. Jon  |  1 March 2012 at 19:28

    Hey David,

    Ya, here in Mongolia things are quite the same. I’m in a little bubble working with the educated middle class, and it disappoints me when I ask if they live in a Ger (Mongolian Yurt) and they say no, in a tone that means that only poor people live in Gers. So many people in these Ger districts burn ANYTHING to stay warm in winter, which makes this the 2nd most polluted city on earth, but it’s awesome to see Millenium Challenge and the MFI partner I’m working with subsidizing huge amounts of eco friendly things to increase the lives and air quality of the masses while making it cheaper for families to stay warm. I haven’t been doing any loan disbursements or meeting borrowers outside of branch offices yet, but I look forward to starting these soon, and more blogs will entail I’m sure.

    Glad to see you and CG are on better terms now 🙂

  • 8. Gus  |  1 March 2012 at 14:12

    The Haitian situation is a whole separate concept from Metropolis and living conditions of what you find in the city or the outer towns. Santo Domingo doesn’t have any bateys. A Batey is a sugar cane field where they have people living on it (mostly Haitians). Now, you can find poor ‘housing” conditions in Santo Domingo, but those are not “bateys”. Sadly, the DR economic conditions can go from very poor to very rich which comes all the way from history times of colonization. Not all good dining comes from world recognized chains in the DR. It’s a social issue that is not seen in many countries: social economic class is still very seen in this place.

    I guess this post should give relevance of NOT comparing the life inside a batey with a regular everyday life of a Dominican. Totally different worlds.

    • 9. dgorgani  |  1 March 2012 at 17:19

      Hey Gus, thanks for the comment.

      The goal of the post was specifically to point out the contrast between life inside a batey and the everyday life of a Dominican living in the capital, so I’m not sure I follow your point.

      Regarding bateys in the capital, urban bateys were not the focus of my post and I didn’t mean to imply that urban bateys are anything like the one I visited outside of El Seibo. Nonetheless, urban bateys (e.g. Batey Bienvenido in the capital) share the same history as rural bateys and also share some of the same living conditions, decades behind those of Naco, Piantini or La Julia, even if they don’t fit the typical batey description. The term “batey” is confusing (when exactly does a batey cease to be a batey?) but the difference in modernity is still noteworthy.

      And I couldn’t agree more that the best dining in the DR comes from Dominican restaurants, as opposed to world-recognized chains. Trust me, I do NOT consider Taco Bell and Hooters to be “good dining” – I prefer the comedor down the street 🙂 I was just pointing out foods from the States that are still at my fingertips…


    • 10. gringacarioca  |  3 March 2012 at 05:30

      I value the comparison the author made between rural bateys and modern life in Sto. Domingo, and I believe that the value lies precisely in comparing the “totally different worlds” you reference in your comment.

      For example, here in the US, we often compare low-income immigrant communities in Harlem with the wealth we see on the Upper West Side. Is this comparison not valid because these two populations are too heterogeneous? No, and that’s exactly why highlighting this short of socioeconomic divide is so important.

      At the end of the day, favela, batey, slum, villa miseria, pueblos jovenes are all just semantics anyway, are they not?

  • 11. gringacarioca  |  1 March 2012 at 12:01

    Al Jazeera English did a great piece a while back about the “stateless” Haitian immigrants in the bateys. Here it is!

  • 12. Esther  |  1 March 2012 at 07:55

    Unfortunately is a harsh reality we are living here the Dominicans.

  • 13. jlgreenthal  |  1 March 2012 at 07:12

    David — those are beautiful pictures of the houses in the batey. I never knew about the dichotomous living standards in Santo Domingo; thanks for shedding light on it. I’m experiencing a similar contrast here in Tagbilaran City as the shiny mall is adjacent to basic, no-frills housing, which is not unlike what you’re seeing every day. Hope you can make it here someday!

    Great post.


    • 14. dgorgani  |  1 March 2012 at 07:28

      Thanks Jamie! I guess that’s why we’re doing this, right? To try to help marginalized populations participate in the economic growth taking place in the developing world…

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