Dominican Republic: Justifying the unjustifiable

The Constitutional Court decision on citizenship rests on prejudice and discriminatory practices.

The author responds to a previous Al Jazeera article justifying the recent DR law [Reuters]

The Constitutional Court decision to strip thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship has unleashed a flurry of commentary both inside and outside the Caribbean nation. 

Some like Dominican-American author Diaz Junot, and an array of Latin American human rights groups, are speaking out against the ruling. Citing international and regional human rights norms, they condemn what they consider a fundamentally racist and inhumane decision. Others, including a phalanx of Dominican intellectuals and government officials, have applauded the ruling, claiming it provides an effective legal framework to address serious threats to the country’s territorial integrity.

One such supporter is Dominican “scientific researcher” Virgilio Rodriguez. In his December 14, Al Jazeera opinion piece, “Erroneous Objections to the Dominican Constitutional Ruling on Citizenship,” Rodriguez lays out what he dubs a “non-racial” case in favour of the Court’s decision. Despite his best intentions, however, the researcher’s arguments suggest that race is at the very core of the controversial ruling.

Rodriguez kicks-off his commentary by delving into the constitutionality of the Court’s decision. The case is a clear one, he avers. Since 1929, successive Dominican constitutions have specified that people born on Dominican soil to foreign parents in transit cannot be granted citizenship. Moreover, the Dominican courts have ruled that children of illegal immigrants are also ineligible for Dominican citizenship, for reasons of “consistency”.

Rodriguez continues by citing the US Center for Immigration Studies – an anti-immigration lobby group according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre to claim that 145 of the world’s 194 countries do not apportion citizenship to children born of illegal immigrants. Therefore, he concludes, the Dominican Republic was on firm legal footing, when its Constitutional Court elected to render stateless tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian origin.

Haitian-Dominicans lose citizenship

Case closed? Not quite. For, a cursory review of international and regional jurisprudence on the matter suggests that the ruling is far less “constitutional” than the researcher would have us believe.

In the 2005 case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Dominican government violated international and regional law, as well as its own constitution, when it refused to grant nationality and education to Dominican-born children of Haitian descent. The regional human rights body revealed that since at least 1939, Dominican law has defined people in transit as foreigners entering the country principally to travel elsewhere, as tourists, as members of foreign forces, or as temporary workers and their families. Based on that very definition, the Inter-American Court reasoned that Dominican-born people of Haitian descent, and those Haitians who have resided in the country for several years, cannot be considered “in transit”. It ordered the Dominican government to provide nationality cards to the plaintiffs and any other children in a similar predicament. 

Given the Dominican Republic is signatory to a variety of international and regional human rights conventions, it is puzzling that these considerations are not even alluded to in Rodriguez’s opinion piece. It would appear that the salience of regional court rulings and international human rights norms are of little interest to the researcher. By his own admission, he is far more concerned about what, in his view, is the gravest threat to his country: Haitian immigrants and their Dominican-born children.

Rodriguez waxes apocalyptic about this danger by warning that “masses of Haitians” could soon occupy “large portions of the DR”. Worse yet, they may even gain “political control over the Dominican Republic through their Dominican-born children”. Therein, he claims, lays, “the strongest argument in favour of the Dominican Constitutional Court‘s ruling[Sp]”.  

To prove these rather astonishing claims, the researcher conjures up a rather Manichean reading of Dominican history. For him, the drama of his nation is one of a perpetual struggle between Haitian conspirators and virtuous Dominicans, struggling to protect la patria from a looming invasion of power-hungry hordes, amassed across the border.

Throughout the 19th century, the Haitian threat was a military one, he explains. Today, however, the menace is more subtle, incremental and tied to the putative numerical superiority of Haitians. That is why, in his view, Dominicans are fully entitled to take every measure necessary to protect themselves from the Haitians in their midst.

It is interesting that Rodriguez’s sentiments echo rhetoric once used by Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, a brutal dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist between 1927 and 1961.

Deeply wedded to the antagonistic interpretation of Dominican-Haitian history, the Trujillo presidency was dominated by a major obsession: “weeding out” Haitian immigrants whose very presence threatened to “dominate” the Dominican gene pool with “inferior” African blood. Obsession soon became national policy, culminating in the infamous operacion perejil (operation parsley), whereby approximately 30,000 Haitians and their descendants were massacred by the Dominican military, in its apparent effort to stave off an imagined Haitian invasion.

Not surprisingly, Trujillo and Rodriguez’s account of the putative Haitian menace conveniently glosses over the rich history of Haitian-Dominican collaboration. This includes Haiti’s active support for the Dominican Republic’s second war of independence in 1865.

After backing Simon Bolivar’s campaign against colonialism in South America, Haiti offered sanctuary to Dominican rebels in the mid-19th century. Haitian President Fabre Geffrard furnished them with soldiers, munitions and funds to help the rebels in their struggle for independence from Spain. Such examples of solidarity and cooperation between the two nations put a dent in the popular narrative of perpetual Haitian aggression against the Dominican Republic.

Yet, such historiographical subtly seems to elude Rodriguez who chooses to deploy that very narrative to defend the Constitutional Court’s ruling. In so doing, he unwittingly confers an unexpected gift upon his opponents. 

For if, as Rodriguez suggests, the court’s decision was designed to “protect” the Dominican Republic from Haitians, then surely people like Diaz do not err in seeing the ruling for what it is: A calculated effort to target and disenfranchise one of the most marginalised segments of Dominican society.   

If anything, this injustice should further mobilise Dominicans and the international community to take the necessary steps to restore full citizenship to those disenfranchised by the Constitutional Court’s ruling. With tens of thousands of lives in the balance, inaction is clearly no longer an option.

Peter Flegel is the former Special Adviser to the 27th Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada. An ardent advocate for human emancipation and social justice, he has over ten years-experience working through a variety of local, national and international NGOs to advance the rights of racialised and LGBTQ minorities and other oppressed peoples. He has a Bachelor degree in Political Science and History and a Master’s in Political Theory, McGill University. 

Follow him on Twitter:@PeterFlegel