Despite being neighbors and sharing the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic and Haiti have had a long and troubled history. The tensions between the two nations include a history of violence, not limited to events such as the Haitian annexation of the Dominican Republic from 1822 until 1844, and the 1937 “Parsley Massacre” in which an estimated 20,000 individuals of Haitian descent were murdered by Dominican presidential decree. This fraught history informs the current decision made by the Dominican Republic’s constitutional court to strip the citizenship from an estimated 300,000 individuals of Haitian descent. The ruling is especially troubling because it seeks to overturn the citizenship of generations of individuals; the cut-off for the overturning includes those born as early as 1929.
Until the constitutional revisions of 2010, the Dominican Republic had previously granted citizenship automatically to any individual born within its borders. However, when Haitian-Dominican relations are put into a historical context, the current exclusionary constitutional reforms expose a deeply rooted history. Ernesto Sagás has written in detail about the historical development of “antihaitianismo” in Dominican culture. He argues: “antihaitianismo has had a long and intricate evolution. From its origins as Hispanic racism, to its transformation into anti-Haitian nationalism, to its culmination as Trujillo's state ideology, antihaitianismo has had one objective: the protection of powerful elite interests through the subjugation of the lower (and darker) sectors of the Dominican population. Antihaitianismo serves elite interests well and has even been accepted by the great majority of the Dominican people as part of their political culture, thereby institutionalizing and giving it the moral legitimacy that it lacks.”
People of Haitian descent working in the Dominican Republic have historically been scapegoats for the problems within Dominican society; dependent on the era, they have been blamed for a variety of economic problems and increases in criminal activity. While Haitians have long migrated to the Dominican Republic in an attempt to flee political repression or in search of economic opportunities, Haitian workers have also been intentionally recruited to work as undocumented labor in agricultural, construction, or more recently, tourist industries. Up until 1986, there was an active government program that regulated the recruitment of Haitian labor –- primarily to serve the demand of the Dominican sugar industry.
Despite the long and ongoing importance of Haitian labor to the Dominican economy, the most infamous attack against Haitian workers occurred in 1937, where an estimated 20,000 Haitians were killed by order of Dominican dictator Raphael Trujillo. Though the real motivation for Trujillo’s attacks were never revealed, many have argued that the move was a response to close the Dominican-Haitian border during turbulent economic times, while others have argued that Trujillo (himself of mixed race) sought to “whiten” the Dominican nation and rid it of its African/Haitian population.
In light of Haitian-Dominican power relations within Dominican society, the new constitutional reforms can only be seen as another incarnation of antihaitianismo. Unlike the recent constitutional reforms in Venezuela, Bolivia, or Ecuador -- reforms based on a popular mandate -- the backers of the Dominican Republic’s constitutional revisions come from a conservative coalition consisting of the Catholic Church, the business elite, and the political right. As Sagás writes in Race and Politics in the Dominican Republic, antihaitianismo is largely based on a historical distortion that has “traditionally been employed as an ideological weapon to subdue the black and mulatto Dominican lower classes and maintain their political quiescence.” Fueled by the troubling economic times of 2009, the current adoption of antihaitianismo should be seen as a political tool of the Dominican Republic right wing.
While the current reforms will undoubtedly create a massive human rights problem due to the erasure of social and political rights for hundreds of thousands of people, there are unfortunately forces that will benefit from this controversial legislation. As revealed by the Dominican Republic’s 2013 immigrant survey, 458,233 Haitians were recorded in the country, the vast majority of them without legal documentation. These constitutional reforms will create a significant group of stateless individuals. Given the current economic situation in Haiti, it is likely they will exist within the Dominican Republic as a labor force that can be exploited by business –- particularly on sugar plantations and in export processing zones.
These reforms will only compound the already precarious problems currently faced by migrant labor in Haiti. Research conducted by the labor organization Verité detected "evidence of the presence of the following … physical violence against workers, deportation, dismissal from current employment, exclusion from future employment, and deprivation of food and shelter." The report detailed other instances of labor abuse, including "working hours in excess of legal limits, a lack of days off, subminimum wages, the continued use of the voucher system, illegal deductions, a lack of benefits, poor health services, discrimination, poor living conditions, and child labor.” In addition to these numerous violations, the report also documented conditions of forced labor -- i.e. slavery -- on many Dominican sugar plantations.
In a 2010 report, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights highlighted the a set of historical conditions that have enabled the Dominican Republic’s court ruling: “Since 2004, the Dominican government has steadily institutionalized efforts that undercut the Constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship and simultaneously reformed its civil registry to the detriment of persons of Haitian descent. The U.S. position on these issues has been ambiguous at best, as both USAID and State officials have publicly supported civil registry policies in the context of so called anti-fraud reforms, and may in fact be providing technical assistance to advance the process.”
While Haiti has denounced the reforms, recalling its ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the act of discriminately denying citizenship and rights to particular individuals must be condemned throughout the wider Caribbean. Indeed the government of the Dominican Republic should not enforce reactionary and retroactive immigration controls upon people of Haitian descent, but rather take efforts to construct a bilateral immigration plan which takes the deep roots of antihaitianismo and the historic role of Haitian labor into account. There are important Dominican human rights and civil society organizations opposed to this legislation, and they must be supported in their efforts to challenge the actions of the Dominican government.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.