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Dominican Republic has long history of using Haitians as political foils

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainOne would hope a country with institutional memories tries to avoid mistakes from the past by using the past as guiding posts for policies, and, or, as teaching tools so that future generations can learn from mistakes, as well as from achievements worthy of celebrations in order to uplift or maintain a national narrative.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. A country without institutional memories is doomed to repeat past mistakes due to the fact that guideposts are either non-existent, or ignored, and therefore procedural continuities or crucial historical learning moments are categorically ignored.

Such is the case with Haiti. A country devoid of institutional memories and whose national leaders, for the most part, have sold their souls for power while the country drags and is being dragged in the mud.

In 2015, given the latest race-based political rift initiated by rightwing and ultra nationalist politicians in order to garner support for the May 2016 general elections, Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descendants became legal targets as unwanted illegal aliens of a policy that is rooted in the 1929 constitution that United States help crafted when she occupied both Haiti and Dominican Republic in the Jim Crow age of blatantly violent racism.

In a series of recent constitutional amendments to the Dominican Republic’s constitution without national consensus, the Dominican Liberation Party led by President Danilo Medina, who is expected to be on the 2016 presidential ballot, has made key adjustments to the constitution in order for his party to gain greater national power. One, the legislative action of 168-13 which the Dominican Constitutional Court adopted and passed in September 23, 2013, allows the repatriation of Haitians while denying citizenship to Dominicans of Haitian descent on the ground that their parents were or had been in “transit” in the DR since 1929.

Secondly, after a boastful approval rating following Medina’s speech to the National Congress in February 2015 when he declared the deportation starting date of illegals on Dominican soil (June 15, 2015), he received a robust standing ovation. Prior to and soon after President Medina’s speech, a series of violent acts were committed against Haitians and the focus, in terms Dominican Republic’s problems, shifted to Haitians as the pariah, the diseased, and the unwanted other. On April 19, 2015, parliament agreed to further amend the constitution by allowing a president to be re-elected once and such changes became effective for the 2016 election.

The Jim Crow-modeled, fascist policies that birthed Rafaél Leonidas Trujillo and permitted the 1937 massacre to occur is the same racist politics that is in effect in the Dominican Republic today. Unfortunately too many Haitians have forgotten the other killings and deportations that took place after 1937. We have forgotten Joáquin Balaguer, a successor to Trujillo and a lawyer and intellectual agent of the anti-Haitian politics who served as Minister of Education.

It was Balaguer who began the “legal” deportation of Haitians in 1991. Once again, following allegations of widespread fraud during the May 1990 national elections when Juan Bosch of the Dominican Liberation Party lost to Balaguer (Social Christian Reformist Party) by 1.7 percent, the Central Electoral Authority was leaning towards an annulment of the votes when violence against Haitians erupted and the results of the elections were accepted in order to maintain stability.

Electoral reform laws were eventually passed in 1992 to increase the number of members in the electoral authority as well as increasing the production of a more secure electoral roll. Nevertheless, in the spirit of solidifying power and to destabilize the belligerent sounding Aristide who was also elected in 1990 with a large electoral mandate and with a populist agenda, President Joáquin Balaguer, at 85 years old and nearly blind, passed a presidential decree in June 1991, decree 233-91, ordering the "repatriation" of foreigners under the age 16 and over the age 60 who were working or living on state-run or privately owned sugarcane plantations.

Of course, among the over 6,000 “Haitians” who were deported, I met people from all ages. With the tense situation on the border, and neighbors who decided to settle old scores against “los Haitianos” through violence, roughly 50,000 dark-skinned people were forced to cross into Haiti as returnees as well as refugees. I even met a so-called “pure” Dominican who self-exiled in protest against his government and in solidarity with the Haitians, and those “deemed” Haitians.

As in previous violations of Haitians rights and those of Dominicans of Haitian origin, the Dominican Republic systematically failed in meeting its commitment as a member of the American Convention of Human Rights, as a member of the Organization of American States, and finally as a member of the United Nations in carrying out deportation processes that were inherently non-arbitrary.

In the summer of 1991, the random roundups and lack of legal procedures that could be independently reviewed meant that a swath of people were prejudicially swept up and deported in spite of having a right to Dominican citizenship or a verifiable claim to permanent residence. Many of these migrant workers worked on private sugar plantations, tourist estates, and construction sites where they were recruited by Buscones (recruiters) and later to be force-housed in Bateys where they could not circulate without having proper documentations.

The Dominican state was— and continues to be— aware of those practices given the fact that they have official offices that specifically deal with Haitians, like the Office of Haitian Immigration Affairs, and the State Sugar Council. I remember seeing Dominican school buses in the 1970s in Port-au-Prince that would do multiple trips to pick up cane cutters for sugar plantations in La Romana— thus the Haitian term lawomann for a Haitian cane-cutter.

As we are once again witnessing in 2015, in the haste to rid the country of the “unwanted Haitians," the Dominican Republic presented an modicum of legal opportunities for the individuals facing deportation to prove their prerogative as regularized residence or citizens. It was the same politics and procedural propaganda in 1991, and the problem of not having papers was always exacerbated by the Dominican government’s de facto policy not to grant citizenship papers to the Dominican-born children of Haitian parents, leaving many that I have met and interviewed as a group, a paperless generation without their right to Dominican citizenship; effectively rendered stateless.

Statelessness, paperless, futureless and simply uncertain about the future, black Haitians and black Dominicans who are deemed of Haitian parentage, are living in a constant state of fear and vulnerability. Uncertainty is one of the central features of violence and vulnerability. Uncertainty renders a subject in constant fear. It dehumanizes them. In the context of ethnic violence, uncertainty is a very slippery concept and its dynamic range can also be placed in the domains of psychological warfare—the fear of not knowing what the future holds, or the fear of being violently separated from your loved ones.

The uncertainty of violence does not lend itself to a universal definition or a systematic approach to analysis; it is simply an element of violence. What it does clarify for me is that Haiti has found itself in a position of uncertainty and vulnerability, and some of its citizens are experiencing multiple manifestations of violence, as they exist in multiple expressions of culture, especially in cultures or territorial spaces where they are unwanted.

The racialized and hateful construction of Haitians as the undesired other must be carefully analyzed within the context of slavery and the constant struggle for freedom and citizenship that even African-Americans are fighting for in the land of the so-called “free.” Dominicans have chosen their racial positions and preferences and those without institutional memories better be prepared for what is to come.