You don’t have to be Haitian, Dominican or even from the Caribbean to be vaguely familiar with the strained relationship between Haitians and Dominicans. The first time this prevalent notion of Haitians versus Dominicans entered my reality was when I, a Haitian-American, returned to the states to live after spending my early childhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
On one of the many occasions when I was bullied by African-American girls in my native Queens, New York building complex simply for being Haitian in 1980s, one girl shouted: “You boat people need to stay out of D.R. too, ’cause we don’t want you there!” (This was before the Fugees, when being Haitian wasn’t remotely cool and the Red Cross banned us from donating blood for fear we all carried the AIDS virus.)
I had no clue what D.R. stood for when I was 8, but apparently it was yet another place these brown girls who looked just like me thought I didn’t belong. As the years passed, I understood that the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the same island of Hispaniola. And though we share a common history of slavery and oppression, our bond is fraught with racism, colorism and classism directed at poor Black Haitian migrant workers searching for work and a life in the neighboring country.
The recent, reprehensible ruling 0168-13 of the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court—blocking citizenship for Haitian children born in D.R. to undocumented migrant Haitian workers dating as far back as 1929— is a xenophobic declaration that didn’t catch Haitians in the diaspora by surprise in the least.
For decades now, the Dominican civil registry has set up insurmountable bureaucratic roadblocks to restrict people of Haitian ancestry the right to call themselves Dominicans. (That’s regardless if they were born in the country, have no physical or emotional ties to Haiti, and don’t speak Creole or French.) Haitian migrant workers, classified as “in transit,” have been subjected to unconscionable treatment in the sugar plantations akin to slave labor.
Just last month, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs released a report showing evidence of worker exploitation on these profitable sugar plantations. Labor law violations included appalling working conditions, grossly underpaid workers and child labor. The report also touched on how Haitians are lured and tricked into moving to the Dominican Republic for work with bogus promises of good wages. These workers are housed in sub-standard, disease-infested settlements on the plantation called “bateyes”: huts in the middle of the cane fields with hardly any food, no running water or electricity. There are no schools or hospitals, either.
Citizenship is needed for access to health care, education, employment and voting rights. While the country’s economy relies on their backbreaking cheap labor, the Dominican government refuses to grant them fundamental human rights. Haitians in the Dominican Republic have been compelled to survive invisibly despite being the largest immigrant group in the country (making up a staggering 460,000 of the population according to the 2013 Dominican National Survey of Immigrants).
Prior to ruling 0168-13, the government had already begun to implement their ethnic cleansing campaign by forcibly expelling Haitians by the thousands. This past year alone 47,700 Haitians have already been sent away.
Anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic can be traced back to the bloody 1937 massacre, dubbed the Parsley Massacre, led by then dictator General Rafael Trujillo. Sadly, this horrific event has got to be one of the least acknowledged genocides in human history. While everyone knows about the slaughter of the Jews at the hands of Adolf Hitler or the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda, the Haitian holocaust in the Dominican Republic has been all but forgotten outside of Haiti.
Trujillo took the lives of 14,000 to 40,000 Haitians in just five days in an attempt to whiten his country. In order to identify who was Haitian, Trujillo’s brutal soldiers, machetes in hand, asked dark-skinned people to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, perejil. As a Haitian, wrapping your tongue around the Spanish pronunciation of the “r” in perejil isn’t easy, and that phonetic gaffe cost many their lives.
In a recent L.A. Times op-ed written by authors including Edwidge Danticat (Haitian-American) and Junot Díaz (Dominican-American), the racial conflict between the two nations was traced even further back to 1822, when the Haitian army invaded the Dominican Republic to free the slaves and encouraged free Blacks from the U.S. to put down roots in the country “to make Dominicans blacker.”
The Dominican Republic is a nation that’s long denied its African roots but plays up its White Spanish ancestry, which many there perceive to be superior (while Haiti’s close connection to its ancestral African origins has been vilified). Today, Trujillo’s violent genocide has morphed into a political one. Instead of killing off thousands of Haitians for mispronunciations, the Dominican government targets dark-skinned “Haitian-looking” individuals on the street and in their homes and immediately busses them to the Haitian border. They’re given no chance to contact their families or prepare for the move.
Though the plight of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic over the years has received some press, let’s hope this intolerable ruling lands the issue at the forefront of headlines where it belongs. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees states that this ruling “may deprive tens of thousands of people of nationality.” The U.S. can’t turn a blind eye to the tragedy unfolding so close to its shores.
Something, anything needs to be done.
Halting the import of blood sugar from the Dominican and discouraging travel to the country would be a good start. Let’s not forget that severing business ties with South Africa during apartheid was one of the methods employed by the international community to pressure the government to end its racist regime.
I’ve never travelled to the Dominican Republic. I’ve turned down many invitations to fly there for vacations, always explaining why it would be unconscionable for me to support a country that violates the human rights of my brothers and sisters. The Dominican Republic thrives on tourism. Sadly, many of the visitors pumping the economy are African-Americans, most of whom are clueless to (or apolitical about) the wretched state of affairs in the country and are simply there to soak in the intoxicating sun.
Perhaps if more African-Americans were aware of the institutionalized racism in the country, they wouldn’t visit—even if it is cheap to travel there. What’s even more disheartening are the Haitian bourgeoisie in Haiti who have no issue with vacationing in the Dominican Republic. They flaunt their ability to travel there as a sign of affluence with absolutely no regard for the poor migrant workers struggling in the country.
Many Dominicans in America and on the island have expressed anger over ruling 0168-13, but there are still far too many who co-sign. Haitians seeking more fruitful lives in the Dominican Republic are not unlike many other nationalities around the world that do the same. That is everyone’s right. In fact, for decades now, Dominicans have fled their own country (legally and illegally) for the U.S. in search of a better life.
While Dominicans fight for immigration reform in the U.S. to ensure their families’ futures, the same unfair, racially biased treatment they mobilize against here is being used by their own government against Haitians. Empathy and a shared struggle should inspire more Dominicans to speak up against this injustice in the name of human rights for all.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.