FLORIDA, October 17, 2013 — Hispaniola is an isle imploding under the weight of its past, including antagonistic race relations and a 1929 border.
The divided island of Hispaniola is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and over the centuries not much has changed regarding their proclivity for gritty disputes. During the 17th-19th centuries there were countless wars of conquests and reconquests between the western end – now Haiti, which had belonged to the French – and the Spanish eastern end,now Dominican Republic, in an effort to claim the entire island.
In 1844, the Dominican Republic gained its independence from Haiti.
During this time period, the colonists residing in Haiti capitalized on the growing sugar market and imported an exorbitant amount of African slaves to work in the fields. By the late 1790s, the black population residing in Haiti numbered over 500, 000, surpassing both the mulatto and white populace of almost 60, 000 combined.
Next door, the Spanish colonists in the Dominican Republic were not as interested in distributing sugar to Europe as their Haitian counterparts were. As a result, not only was there minimal slave importation but there was also a varied crop culture and a white-majority population – approximately 125,000 white landowners compared to 25,000 free blacks/mulattos, and 60,000 black slaves. Keenly aware of the Haitian demographic, those in the Dominican Republic were determined not to allow a reinvasion of their country by the predominantly black Haiti.
This racial composition of both countries has remained largely intact. Haiti became a nation of mainly blacks, while the Dominican Republic was primarily inhabited by whites and mulattos with a black minority.
The overarching racial rivalry and xenophobia also became common denominators for the establishment of a defined border in 1929 and Dominican Republic’s President Rafael Trujillo’s decision in 1935 to make additional amendments to the 1929 border treaty.
Trujillo dreaded and despised the possible growth and influence of Haitian culture in the Dominican Republic and used national newspapers as conduits of propaganda to counter that possibility. Trujillo’s obsession with preventing the reoccupation of the Dominican Republic by Haiti ultimately led to the genocide of more than 25,000 Haitians on the Haitian-Dominican border. Under Trujillo’s dictatorship, thousands of dark-skinned Dominicans and Haitians residing on the border were killed if they were asked to pronounce the word “perejil” and could not. (Trujillo believed it was difficult for Haitians who spoke Creole to pronounce the the “r” and the “j” in the same word.)
In the Dominican Republic, being Haitian meant — and still means — being an outcast, a black pariah, and definitely not Dominican.
Sadly, the recent ruling by the Dominican Republic’s constitutional court further exemplifies this fact. The September 23 ruling states that anyone born in the Dominican Republic after 1929 whose parents were not citizens of the Dominican Republic could not be classified as Dominicans. The main targets of this have been Haitian migrant workers who left their neighboring impoverished homeland Haiti to find work.
Still, this ruling isn’t the first one in recent years from the Dominican Republic which has sought to eradicate Haitians from the eastern end of the island. Up until 2010, coincidentally the same year Haiti was devastated by the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake, the Dominican Republic had automatically bestowed citizenship to anyone born in the country. However that year, a new constitution stated that citizenship would be granted to those who were born in the Dominican Republic to at least one parent of Dominican lineage or whose parents were legal residents. Also as a result of the new laws, neither legal Haitian migrant workers nor their children born on Dominican soil can be considered as legal residents; instead, they have been reclassified as “in transit.”
This court ruling also means over 450,000 Haitian immigrants, both those with and without work permits, and their 210, 000 Dominican-born family members of Haitian descent who have been residing in the Dominican Republic for less than 84 years are unable to receive identity papers. Of this sum, according to other reports, more than 40, 000 have already been told they are unable to receive state benefits including healthcare and education and risk deportation to Haiti because of their now stateless status.
The reality of possible displacement married to unfathomable poverty is a spiralling tragedy for everyone, including Dominican-born persons, (née Dominican citizens) of Haitian ancestry. For them, it would mean living in a strange land with very little or no relatives, zero job options and a language barrier.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, also gridlocks the number two spot on the 2013 “Global Slavery Index” as one of the countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery. According to the report’s index, one in 10 children gets trapped in an exploitative system of child labor in Haiti. The report which was done by the Walk Free Foundation ranked 162 countries by estimating the number of people in each nation affected by a range of practices including forced and bonded labor, the use of children in the military, human trafficking and forced marriages. It is therefore not surprising that over the years many Haitians have sought work migration as a way of escaping the crushing blow of Haiti’s poverty, and those who were not born there refuse to be placed “in transit” to the country.
Also undeniably, the new ruling has raised alarming concerns about xenophobia in a predominantly black region: discriminatory issues which have been simmering beneath the fractious island’s surface for centuries.
This has not escaped the attention of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), of which Haiti is a full member. The Dominican Republic is an associate member and has cooperated with Caricom, since 1992, through the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM). Also committed to equitable action is the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, PJ Patterson. In an interview with the Caribbean Media Corporation, (CMC), Patterson cautioned, “No one can be hoodwinked as to the reason and the purpose for this kind of discriminatory legislation. Within the region we have an obligation to speak and we cannot allow such inequities to go without our strongest condemnations.”
Patterson is correct. The Dominican Republic, which was described by two UN human rights experts in a 2007 report as having a “profound and entrenched problem of racism and discrimination”, is drowning in its historical quagmire of bigotry and it must not be disregarded by the international community. The new ruling, if nothing else is a cruel ghoul of Trujillo’s genocide beyond the grave; instead of murdering Haitians and their descendants for the mispronunciation of a word, they instead face involuntary “transit” to a nation of impossibilities. It is death by hopelessness.
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