By Lekan Oguntoyinbo
Racism is flaring its ugly head again on the island of Hispaniola, a Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
For decades, thousands of Haitians have crossed over into the more affluent Dominican Republic to seek better economic opportunities. Over the years, some of these Haitians stayed, made new lives for themselves and had families.
An estimated 460,000 Haitians or Dominican-Haitians live in the Dominican Republic. Now hundreds of thousands of people of them are in danger of being deported. While some of these Haitianos, as they are known there, are undocumented residents, a large percentage were born in the Dominican Republic and have little or no ties to Haiti. In effect, the majority of them are in danger of becoming stateless. In the meantime, thousands of Haitians have fled to Haiti. Haiti’s prime minister has warned that the actions of the government of the Dominican Republic risk triggering a humanitarian crisis.
The issue has been percolating for more than a decade. Like the United States, children of immigrants born in the Dominican Republic are automatically granted citizenship. But in 2004, the government changed its migration law to exclude children of Haitian migrants from citizenship. And in 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court revoked the citizenship of anyone in the Dominican Republican born to those the court deemed “foreigners in transit.” The court’s decision made the term “transit” retroactive to 1929.
The Dominican Republic’s plan to kick out the Haitians is another sad and nasty chapter in the history of race relations between natives of these two countries.
It’s hard to imagine but at one time Haiti was the envy of the non-White world. In 1802, a band of gallant slaves defeated the French army, then the world’s most powerful military, and Haiti became the world’s first Black republic. For a brief period, the Dominican Republic, which would not gain its independence from Spain until 60 years later, was under the dominion of Haiti.
But over the past 70 years, for a variety of reasons that include natural disasters, mismanagement and punitive financial measures from western powers, who never quite forgave Haiti for besting Napoleon’s army, Haiti has become the most impoverished nation in the Americas.
Haitians are mostly treated like lepers by their Dominican neighbors.
One of the most shameful racist episodes in the island’s turbulent history occurred in October 1937 when Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians on the border.
The irony is that by American standards, the overwhelming majority of Dominicans are Black – or at least they would be classified that way here in the United States or in Canada. In fact, here in the United States, a growing number of Black Studies programs are incorporating Dominican Studies into their curricular.
But in the Latin world, the yardstick for race is considerably more complex, with more attention paid to characteristics such as skin hue and hair texture (Trujillo is reported to have had African ancestry). Bottom line: in the Dominican Republic, your light skin makes life so much easier. In many respects, it’s just like the United States. But unlike the United States, overt racial discrimination is an accepted practice.
Indeed, a report by two United Nations experts found systemic racism and discrimination in the Dominican Republic, particularly against people of Haitian ancestry. According to the report, Haitians immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry are extremely vulnerable and face unjustified deportations. Dominicans of Haitians ancestry are often denied passports or even birth certificates.
In recent years, there have been numerous reports of Haitians or Haitian-Dominicans being lynched for alleged offenses that range from robbing stores to burning a Dominican flag. Several Haitian-Dominicans have had their homes torched – and in most of these cases, the cops have been reluctant to investigate. According to news reports, in large cities, including Santiago and Santa Domingo, some bars refuse to admit Blacks – or at least people who look Black.
The Dominican Republic’s plans have drawn the fury of the international community. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, whose city is home to 400,000 people of Dominican ancestry and 100,000 Haitian-Americans, has weighed in, as have many major international human rights groups. Foreign investment in the Dominican Republic is also down as a result. In response to this pressure, the government appears to have backed down – at least for now.
The goal for the coming years must be to sustain that pressure so that the Dominican Republic accords ethnic Haitians the dignity and human rights they deserve.
Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an award-winning journalist. Contact him at email@example.com.