Xenophobia and racism back in the Dominican Republic

It is ironic that a state whose citizens are discriminated against abroad, legalises racially discriminating measures.

Dominican Republic's Constitutional Court handed down a decision that could potentially strip citizenship from up to 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent [EPA]

Xenophobia and racism are conditions that people normally associate with white folk. From the Jim Crow laws in the US to the Apartheid regime in South Africa, we have had one too many examples of how the white man discriminates against and segregates those who are different. Of course, this is just a result of our subjective view of the world. The reality is that both xenophobia and racism are hardly the monopoly of the white man.

For some recent examples, we only need to peruse the news from the past two weeks. In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma has been making odd suggestions to South Africans. “Don’t be like Africans and think like Africans,” he said in a meeting at Witwatersrand University, implicitly referring, in a pejorative manner, to the rest of the continent.

On the other side of the Atlantic, immigrants from all over Central America continue to risk their lives every day trying to get to the promised land of the United States in the train famously known as “The Beast”. On their way north, they have to contend with a wide variety of hazards, including falling into the hands of local authorities and criminals who usually treat them with contempt and violence.

Now the ghost of xenophobia and racism has awakened with renewed vengeance and furious anger, in the island of La Hispaniola, shared by Haitians and Dominicans.

Discrimination against the Haitians and their descendants in the Dominican Republic is nothing new and starts from early childhood. A recent study … concluded that Dominican children of between 4 and 13 years of age were more likely to associate evil, ugliness, and poverty with black rather than white people.

Fallacy of Dominicans ‘in transit’

According to the Dominican Republic (DR) constitution, anyone born in the county is jus solis a Dominican citizen. This right, however, does not apply to those being born while in transit. As it happens, the interpretation of what in transit means, has been at the centre of the recent draconian measures taken by a Dominican court to strip four generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent, of their citizenship.

This is no small matter. We are talking about at least 250,000 Dominican citizens who were born and lived their entire lives in the DR. Many of them are children, and grandchildren of people born and raised in the DR. Many of them only speak Spanish, and with a Dominican accent. Yet, they, somehow, are considered to be foreigners because they have been born in transit.

Now let’s try to unravel this gargantuan act of human absurdity. According to last month’s ruling by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court, all those born in the country after 1929, and whose parents were not Dominicans, should no longer be considered Dominican citizens.

This decision not only obviously overrules their own Constitution, but also goes against a previous ruling by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in the Yean and Bosico v. the Dominican Republic case, which, in October 2005, concluded that their ruling was reached in a discriminatory fashion”.  

On that occasion, the court also concluded that depriving Dominicans of Haitian descent from their right to citizenship, constituted an act of racial discrimination that put the DR in breach of Articles 1, 21, and 27 of the American Convention of Human Rights.

This ruling was nonsense to the Dominican Constitutional Court. They rejected the findings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, setting the precedent for the new measures passed in September. Obviously, for this court, those of Haitian descent do not have the right to be considered Dominicans.

Deep-rooted problem

Discrimination against the Haitians and their descendants in the DR is nothing new and starts from early childhood. A recent study carried out by the TV show “Con el consumidor”, concluded that Dominican children [Sp] of between 4 and 13 years of age were more likely to associate evil, ugliness, and poverty with black rather than white people. 

According to most experts on the issue of race in the DR, there is an anti-black attitude [Sp] that has permeated Dominican society over the years [Sp]. This anti-black attitude equates with the anti-Haitian aversion. Obviously, there is a background for this resentment explained through the common history of both nations and peoples.

Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines first invaded then Spanish Santo Domingo at the height of the Haitian Revolution. Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer then occupied the territory between 1822 and 1844. In 1844, the Dominicans first achieved their independence from Haiti. Ever since, mutual relations have been tense to say the least.

Haitians and Dominicans suffered similar maladies during the 20th century: US interventions and occupations, gory dictatorships, mass migrations, etc. Yet, somehow, this common suffering did little to bring the two people together, and it certainly didn’t endear Haitians to the Dominicans.

Dominican authorities need to start addressing the actual xenophobic, racist, and nationalist ideas that have led to this gigantic blunder.

It is actually quite telling that it is on this Caribbean island that the issue of racism and xenophobia has been rekindled. Old resentments have taken new shape, this time in the form of new laws handed out by intrinsically racist institutions.

Even though the majority of the Dominican people are racially mixed, it is the blacks, the descendant of Haitians, who are being targeted by this irresponsible law. No wonder the government of Haiti has responded by recalling their ambassador to Santo Domingo [Sp], and by issuing a series of statements condemning and lamenting the new decrees.

It has also led to the development of a massive PR campaign [Sp] by the Dominican government in an attempt to justify and disguise the seriousness of their new xenophobic and racist measures.

Time to correct course?

For more than a century, Haitians have constituted the most substantially underpaid labour force [Sp] in the DR. They have toiled on sugar plantations, done the most basic works in the tourist sector, and until today, many do so without any basic rights. Many have lived their entire lives in their Spanish-speaking neighbouring nation, and their children and grandchildren have been born there and have grown up there.  

How can this new foolish, racist, and xenophobic law then be justified? Dominican nationalists, starting with the Constitutional Court that rendered this ill-advised decision, should take a long look at themselves.

Dominicans are one of the major producers of immigrants from Latin America to the US, Europe and even other Latin American countries. In these places, they are often subjected to attitudes [Sp] that are surprisingly similar to those they are exhibiting today against the Haitians, and their descendants, in their homeland. And even if they have attained legal status as immigrants, they are often employed to do the worst jobs available, frequently being underpaid and without many rights.

Perhaps the passing of this new law is nothing but a way of settling old scores. Perhaps the Dominican Constitutional Court, in their ignorance and backwardness, has attempted to rewrite the nation’s citizenship rules so that the dark-skinned descendants of those who came over the border in years past, understand once and for all that they are second-class, undesired neighbours, regardless of where they – and their parents and grandparents – were born.

Maybe the Constitutional Court and the President of the Dominican Senate, Reinaldo Pared Perez, one of its most committed defenders, will open their eyes and realise how the rest of the world is looking at them. Because if there’s one thing that is clear, it’s that as many excuses as they may present to justify their immoral decision, they are fooling no one.

Hopefully they will realise their error and repeal the law and apologise to all those rightful Dominican citizens who have just been cast away with one signature. However, more than that is needed. Dominican authorities need to start addressing the actual xenophobic, racist, and nationalist ideas that have led to this gigantic blunder. Those 250,000 Dominican citizens of Haitian descent are going nowhere and the Dominicans who are fixated with these anti-Haitian and anti-black ideas better find a way of accepting that reality. Otherwise they will come across as not only xenophobic and racist, but also as unwitting lunatics. 

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

Follow him on Twitter: @mbarcia24