Dominican Republic: What Would Juan Pablo Duarte Do?

Blog, Dominican Republic, Issue 4 - June 2016, Issue 4 Blog

By Vierka Vasquez

I had an epiphany of sorts about ten years ago when I found myself arguing with protesters on Times Square over the fact that they were publically calling my country, the Dominican Republic, racist and demanded equality for all the Haitians who lived there. I was offended. How could they say that? Didn’t they understand that Haitians wanted to take over my country and only went there to “rape and steal.” Or, at least, that’s what I grew up believing. Rapists and thieves … these were the slurs that were taught in school and that people around me used every day. Ironically, the confrontation helped me realize that the protesters were right. Haitians in the Dominican Republic—or DR, as it’s known colloquially—really have been treated disgracefully.

It is widely acknowledged that the hostility faced by Haitians today has its roots in the shared post-colonial histories of the two nations. Barely one year after winning independence from Spain in 1821, the Dominican Republic was annexed by neighboring Haiti, a former French colony. While most Haitians had been previously enslaved Africans, most Dominicans in the Spanish-controlled East were primarily of European ancestry, explained Jonathan Katz in a recent article. During the twenty-year long occupation, Dominicans did everything they could to distance themselves socially, culturally and politically from their occupiers, and many historians believe that this is when Dominicans’ views on citizenship, identity and race were shaped.

In 1844, after a long struggle, the Dominican Republic won independence from Haiti. The birthday of Juan Pablo Duarte, the revered Founding Father of the Dominican Republic, and Dominican Independence Day, are celebrated every year throughout the entire month of February. Duarte’s dream was the creation of a just and fair nation for all. Sadly, this never came to pass. Today, it is fair to say, many Dominicans and most of the country’s governing elite are far removed from Duarte’s ideals of fairness and social justice. Yet, it hasn’t always been quite this bad.

From 1929 until 2004, anyone born in the Dominican Republic was entitled, by law and based on the principle of jus soli, to Dominican citizenship. The only exception were children born to parents “in-transit,” meaning individuals who planned to stay in the country for ten days or less, such as tourists, and to foreign diplomats. In the last decade, however, a series of changes to the Constitution have eliminated birthright citizenship in the Dominican Republic.

A 2013 decision by the Dominican Supreme Court, #168-13, stripped Dominican citizenship of anyone with foreign ancestry born after 1929. This has resulted in over a quarter of a million stateless persons, principally Haitians and Haitians of Dominican ancestry, and left them unable to receive an education, get a job, get married, vote or receive any kind of benefits or welfare protection from the state.

Women are disproportionately affected by these new policies. In direct violation of international law, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision upheld a 2010 constitutional amendment that stipulated that it is the mother’s legal status, not the father’s, that determines the legal status of a child. Furthermore, new legislation passed immediately after the Court’s decision altered the meaning and application of “in transit.” As a result, the new law stripped birthright citizenship from all children born in the country to foreign parents and all individuals considered “in-transit.” Even if the child’s father is a legal resident, it is often impossible to obtain a birth certificate as it is stipulated that the mother must be the one registering the child with the state.

The renowned Dominican writer and economist Miguel Ceara-Hatton has denounced the ruling as “civil genocide.” He argued that a woman’s right to family unity and the right to leave or stay in a territory accompanied by her children had been trampled by this ruling. Like their mothers, stateless children are deprived of civil or political rights, such as the right to work or to vote, and thus their ability to contribute to society.

Photo credit: Adam Jones

Photo credit: Adam Jones

The Dominican government has argued that the law simply aims to curb undocumented immigration, which is blatantly false as the retroactive aspect of the ruling clearly demonstrates. What other reason could there be, then?

Since Haitians began migrating to the DR a century ago to work in the Dominican sugarcane fields, domestic service, construction, the tourism industry and the agricultural sector have become heavily dependent on cheap Haitian labor. Could it be, then, that the government wants to create a steady supply of stateless, and in many cases, rightless, workers?

Which brings us back to the deep, anti-Haitian xenophobia felt by many Dominicans. After the devastating 2010 earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, and severely damaged the country’s fragile infrastructure, Haitians migrated en masse to the Dominican Republic. Soon after, Haiti suffered through a cholera epidemic that, too, motivated many Haitians to migrate east. This created a perception of there being “too many Haitians” in the Dominican Republic, and a 2014 Gallup survey indicated that 83 percent of Dominicans were in agreement with a ban on Haitian immigration.

A picture thus emerges of Dominicans’ nuanced attitudes towards Haitians: while sixty-two percent did not consider the Supreme Court decision #168-13 to be anti-Haitian, sixty-eight percent of Dominicans believe that those who have been in the country since 1929 should be given “amnesty.” A further fifty-eight percent believe that children born in the country to Haitian parents should be considered Dominican citizens, an indication that most resentment is directed towards new immigrants.

To many this shows that it is, in fact, the Dominican elite that fans anti-Haitian discourse for its own benefit. “The Dominican elite can be counted with your fingers,” says Gonzalo Vargas, the head of the UNHCR in the DR office. Vargas explains that “the great problem here [D.R.] is this unholy alliance between the conservative press, the conservative church, the political sphere and the economic sphere,” the ones who supported this legislation and run most political and economic institutions.

2016 is an election year and anti-Haitian propaganda during times of elections is used to gain political support. This time was not different. One of the candidates, Pelegrin Castillo, an ultra-nationalist congressman, campaigned on the idea of building a wall along the Dominican border with Haiti. On national television, Luis Abinader, the main opponent of the president, who lost the elections by nearly 35 points, accused the president and his party of “filling the country with Haitians.” Danilo Medina, whose position on Haitian immigration has earned him harsh criticism from human rights groups, was reelected with approximately 62 percent of the national vote.

Last year Medina’s government altered the constitution to allow him to run for a second consecutive term. This has been received with serious condemnation given the fact that the constitution was changed five years ago to prevent just that. Medina’s party, the Dominican Liberation Party, has been in control of the government since 2004.

Where do we go from here? I believe that the institutionalized marginalization of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry is the gravest and most pressing social and legal issue. Denationalizing two and a half percent of the Dominican population is a clear violation of international law and human rights. The Court’s decision violates the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But, sadly, the Dominican Republic has pretty much gotten away with it. The United Nations and the United States have remained silent on the issue. In September 2015, the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, James Brewster Jr., visited a detention center at the Dominican border with Haiti. “We are happy with the process,” the ambassador reportedly said to reporters.

The process Brewster is referring to is the government’s new “naturalization process.” Introduced by the president in 2014, it allows (or compels) Dominicans of Haitian ancestry to (re-)register with the government and apply for residency status, which would then put them on a (new) path to citizenship. By February 2015, five months before the June 17 deadline to register with the government, only a small fraction of the country’s Haitian-Dominicans, 64,000, had applied.

Thousands remain in a legal limbo within the country, while increasing racial tensions and violence, including alleged lynchings, have forced many others to leave the country for makeshift refugee camps along the border with Haiti. According to government figures, the Dominican authorities have deported over 14,000 undocumented Haitian individuals from August 2015 to January 2016. It is also estimated that over 70,000 people, including thousands of minors, have left the country “voluntarily.”

As a Dominican, I cannot help but ask: what would Juan Pablo Duarte say?

*TOP PHOTO: Courtesy of Adam Jones

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