Dominican Republic Spurns Haitian Migrants: Rejection of African Heritage Fuels Anti-Haitian Views

September 25, 2007

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a single Caribbean island, Hispaniola, but Haitians living in the Dominican Republic—who number at least half a million out of a population of eight million—have been subject to mistreatment and periodic waves of deportation; the most brutal was a 1937 expulsion during which the army and police killed thousands of people. Forced repatriations continue to occur [see Jordi Pius Llopart's Apartheid Dominican-Style, this issue], and the context of Dominican elections during the last decade has been one of anti-Haitianism, fueled by a growing concern over Haitian immigration and the demographic threat of a politically unstable neighbor.

The higher fertility and more rapid population growth rates of Haiti are important for many Dominicans’ assessment of the so-called “Haitian threat.” Literacy rates, urban infrastructure and health services are generally of a higher standard in the Dominican Republic than in Haiti, which is economically one of the poorest countries in the world.

Underlying these concerns, however, is a pervasive racism, which centers on a rejection of African ancestry and blackness and manipulates indigenous and European colonial legacies in support of nationalist sentiment or dominicanidad, “Dominicanness.” Despite the malleable and subjective nature of racial difference, Haitians tend to have a darker phenotype or skin color than Dominicans. Negritud, or blackness, is associated in popular Dominican opinion with the Haitian population. Dominicanidad, on the other hand, has often represented a celebration of whiteness, Hispanic heritage and Catholicism. This difference has been a cause of two centuries of racist antagonism between the countries

In the Dominican Republic, Haitians are linked with vodú, a belief system and practice which many Dominicans associate with evil. Haitian migrants are scapegoated as the harbingers of moral and medical decay, their presence blamed for such problems as malaria in rural settlements and the spread of AIDS. A middle class Dominican woman described Haitians this way: “They work like dogs, but they have feelings, a religion and a language which we just can’t share, and their governments are run by dictators. There’s a lot of witchcraft. Haiti is a backward country— they live by witchcraft.”

A bias towards a light aesthetic remains fundamental to any consideration of contemporary Dominican social relations. In advertisements that ask for employees of “good appearance” there is an implied bias towards whiteness or la blancura. In Dominican banks, for example, color prejudice is most clearly seen at the cash desks. It has been comparatively rare for a major bank to be staffed in the public space by dark-skinned cashiers. In a study of university students who were asked if they would marry a darker-skinned partner, 55% replied that they would not, frequently expressing their concern for the “corruption” of physical appearance through “race mixing.”[1]

Despite the stress placed on “whiteness” and racial purity, one writer has described the Dominican Republic as the only true mulatto country in the world.[2] Some commentaries divide the Dominican population up into various proportions—65% mulatto, 15% white and 15% black are commonly quoted figures, the remaining 5% of the population being made up of other ethnic groups, such as Chinese or Lebanese. These figures, however, are fairly meaningless. Racial terms are highly specific to person and place, and Dominicans describe race with a plethora of color-coded terms, ranging from coffee, chocolate, cinnamon and wheat, to the adoption of the term indio, “Indian.” Although by the middle of the sixteenth century only a minute fraction of the original indigenous population of the island remained, many Dominicans prefer to use the term indio or india, rather than mulatto to describe themselves or others who can’t easily be classified as white. The message is: If one is clearly not white, better to be “Indian” than African.

For Dominicans, the Other is invariably perceived as black, heathen and alien to light, Spanish dominicanidad. When I asked in interviews, “What does it mean to be Dominican?,” many Dominicans answered, “not Haitian.” Haitian culture is perceived to be the antithesis of Dominican society. Dominicans living in rural areas made much of supposed Haitian vampire-like qualities. Haitians, it was said, suck Dominican blood and eat human flesh. The verb “to suck,” chupar, can also be used as a vulgar expression for having sex, which in this context, implies that Haitians are sexually attacking Dominican “bloodlines.”

These attitudes are also apparent in Dominicans’ strong feelings about the highly contested border with Haiti. For over a century and a half before 1936, there had been no mutually recognized border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The border population consisted of many rayanos, people of mixed Haitian and Dominican ethnicity. In the mid 1930s, the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo aimed to establish Dominican claims to border territory by blocking futher Haitian occupation of the region and by fostering a stronger sense of Dominican identity.

Trujillo feared the growing influence of Haitian culture in Dominican territory. The boundary agreement of 1936 established the foundation for a program of dominicanización, but the most brutal example of this policy to reclaim the nation came a year later in the form of the massacre of around 18,000 Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans resident in the border zone. Continuing expulsions of Haitians were carried out by the Dominican military during the following decades, and an intense religious and educational campaign was pursued in the border areas. To “lighten” the population, Trujillo attempted to encourage the resettlement of refugees from Eastern Europe, Italy and Japan in the Dominican borderlands.

Trujillo, it is worth pointing out, actively castigated Haitian and African ancestry. His grandparents were either black or mulatto, so he resorted to lightening his skin with cosmetic powders. Trujillo was acutely aware of his ethnic and socio-economic origins, having been born outside the traditional elite. Commissioned biographies stated that he was descended from a Spanish officer and a French marquise, and his parents were officially declared “pure” French and Spanish.

Trujillo’s program of dominicanización lost momentum with his demise and the relative improvement of relations with Haiti at an official level. Indeed, there were official attempts to bring Haitians into the Dominican Republic; a quota system in which the Dominican government paid the Haitian authorities for each Haitian laborer existed up until 1986. The system continues to operate today, albeit informally or via agreement and payment between the countries’ military forces.

Haitian sugar workers still live mostly in rural communes, called bateyes, under conditions that have been equated with slavery by international human rights organizations. Haitians are generally excluded from union organization, despite making up an estimated 80% of sugar workers in the Dominican Republic.[3] The practicalities of providing representation for a temporary or undocumented labor force, and the evident lack of government empathy, maintains the disempowered and unstable position of Haitian workers. Despite all this, however, many migrants stay on in the Dominican Republic after their contract ends and seek new work.

A recent survey of Haitian labor suggested that while under 20% worked in the sugar industry, 8.3% were employed in the construction industry, 8.3% in commerce and 7.2% in domestic service.[4] One researcher claims that the agrarian reforms in 1972 also encouraged a preference for undocumented Haitian labor, since opportunities emerged for some Dominican rural workers to farm their own small plots on the disaggregated large landholdings. This resulted in heightened antagonism towards Haitian workers as immigrants increased the demand for subsistence plots, and allegedly deprived Dominicans of cash income from casual labor.[5]

For many Dominicans, Haitian workers’ continuing residence, the indeterminate nationality of the Haitians’ offspring (without Dominican or Haitian citizenship) and the sheer scale of undocumented Haitian immigration are issues which provoke strong emotions. In the 1990s popular media attention highlighted the Haitian influence in the economy, and subsequent pressure led the Dominican government to carry out forced repatriations: Between November 1996 and January 1997, 15,000 Haitians were deported. According to a current report by the U.S. Department of State, between 12,500 and 36,400 workers, all allegedly Haitian, were deported during 2000.

Differences between Dominicans and Haitians have their origins in the different colonial regimes which governed each country and in differences in their subsequent economic development. Three broad ethnic groups initially formed the basis for colonial society in Santo Domingo, the name given to the Spanish colony on the island of Hispaniola. These groups were the indigenous population, African slaves, and the Spanish colonists. The first group has left few obvious traces today because of its rapid extinction. By the middle of the sixteenth century, however, Santo Domingo was the main slave entrepôt for the region, and there were thousands of African slaves working in Dominican sugar mills and plantations. In the next century, the importance of slavery in the Spanish colony declined with the growing competition from sugar producers elsewhere, and most early Spanish colonists moved to the Latin American mainland, where silver and gold were said to be abundant.

During the latter half of the seventeenth century, Hispaniola was invaded by French settlers who slowly began to occupy the western part of the island. This new French settlement was called Saint Domingue. During the eighteenth century, this was the most important French colony, providing half of the metropole’s transatlantic trade. A booming plantation economy produced sugar for the extensive market in Europe. The intensity of production meant that thousands of Africans were brought to the French colony as slave labor for the plantation system. A 1791 slave uprising led eventually to abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue and to the declaration of an independent Haiti in 1804—the first independent republic in the western hemisphere with a majority population of African descent.

Control of the Spanish eastern part of the island passed to French colonial, and later Haitian, authorities several times during the turbulent independence period. The Haitian occupation, which lasted from 1822 to 1844, has continued to be the key historical referent for anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic. Despite emancipation of the slaves, Dominican politics had remained restricted to a small, mainly white elite. In 1844, this elite declared independence from Haiti. According to social historian Harry Hoetink, “Few Dominicans have not judged the period of Haitian domination as a black page in the history of a people that would have liked to be white.”[6]

Dominicans have renegotiated, resignified and reinvented their national history to create a sense of the past appropriate to their social and political present. Spain, the former colonial power, has frequently been celebrated in elite circles as la Madre Patria, and Europe was conceived as the source of Dominican culture and civility. The myth of the superiority of hispanidad has been the ideological mechanism used by the light-skinned elites to maintain dominance. The 500th anniversary in 1992 of the arrival of Columbus to the island was a government and Church-inspired celebration of hispanidad and evangelization.

African heritage, by contrast, is deemed unsuitable not only at the individual level, but also in institutional terms. Three statues outside the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo tell the story. The statues, erected in the early 1980s, represent the figures of Enriquillo, the indigenous leader of a colonial-era uprising, the African slave Lemba, and the Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas. The inclusion of Lemba created some opposition. Lemba was the leader of an important slave rebellion against the Spanish colonists.

Significantly, during the 1990s, racism and nationalism became the basis for a racist agenda in internal Dominican politics. Two weeks before the second round of the Dominican presidential elections in June 1996, an opinion poll claimed that 9% of the electorate would not vote for the candidate of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez—who was born black in the Dominican Republic—because they believed that he was Haitian. Eleven percent also said that race or color would influence their vote. Despite popular support, Peña Gómez could not escape the prejudiced politics that surrounded him. Blackness in Dominican politics ultimately loses elections.

The concept of dominicanización remains a popular nationalist platform. Luis Julián Pérez, the leader of a small, extreme right-wing party, the Unión Nacionalista, published a book at the start of the 1990s defending the Haitian massacre in 1937 and advocating a contemporary campaign to defend the Dominican nation. Pérez undermines the legitimacy of Haiti as a state that evolved from a French colony founded on piracy and barbarity, suggesting that the island is intrinsically Spanish. The uncivilized and savage origins of the Haitian nation are repeated in the sexual and racist overtones of the threat of Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic: the “passive penetration, repetitive and incessant,” and the implied rape of a virginal, pure and blameless Dominican nation.[7] While the opinions of Pérez are extreme, it should be noted that he is the leader of a relatively well-known nationalist party that receives noticeable political coverage in the media.

Bluntly, for many Dominicans, raza dominicana defines an alleged difference between the civilized and the savage—a sentiment that is regularly expressed in everyday language, in the newspapers and in contemporary literature. The manner in which race and ethnicity have been constructed in relation to Haiti has colored, or perhaps more accurately bleached, the image of the Dominican nation—and fuels continuing discrimination against the Haitians who have gone to the Dominican Republic seeking to improve their economic fortunes.

David Howard is a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh. This article is based on excerpts from his book Coloring the Nation: Race and Ethnicity in the Dominican Republic (Lynne Rienner Publishers in the United States; Signal Books in the UK, 2001).

1. V.A. Menéndez Alarcón, El universitario dominicano (Santo Domingo: Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo, 1987), p. 52.
2. P. A. Pérez Cabral, La comunidad mulata (Santo Domingo: Editora Montaivo, 1967), p. 11.
3. P.R. Lartortue, “Neoslavery in the cane fields,” Caribbean Review, Vol. 14, Nos. 18-20, 1985.
4. C. Doré Cabral, “Los descendientes de haitianos no son picadores de caña,” Rumbo, No. 62, 1995.
5. Roger Plant, Sugar and Modern Slavery: A Tale of Two Countries (London: Zed Books, 1987).
6. Harry Hoetink, “The Dominican Republic in the nineteenth century: some notes on stratification, immigration and race,” in Magnus Mörner, ed., Race and Class in Latin America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 117.
7. L.J. Pérez, Santo Domingo frente al destino (Santo Domingo: Editora Taller, 1990), p. 11.

Tags: race, Dominican Republic, Haiti, immigrants, discrimination

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