Neighborly Quarrels: The Dominican Republic and the Perennial Haitian Immigrant Issue

  • Mass expulsions of Haitians from the neighboring Dominican Republic have increased in recent months.
  • These expulsions are a part of a larger trend of Dominican maltreatment of Haitian residents of the DR, including the migrant worker sector that constitutes a substantial portion of the DR’s economy.
  • Santo Domingo has not provided a strong leadership role in the matter; neither has Port-au-Prince sufficiently defended the rights of Haitians in the DR.
  • In compliance with international law and in the interests of both countries, the DR must give Haitians the rights that they deserve.
  • Haiti, in turn, needs an influx of foreign aid to create an environment of security and stability to stem the tide of refugees moving across the border.
  • On May 16, 2005, a Dominican military truck stopped in front of the Francisco del Rosario Sanchez High School in the northwest Dominican Republic (DR). Soldiers jumped out and began to pull students out of the school courtyard and onto the back of the truck. As they stood bewildered on the truck’s bed while it later drove from the school, the students began to realize that the soldiers’ mission was to send them across the border to Haiti.

    The northwest DR had seen an upsurge in violent anti-Haitian attacks in response to the brutal murder of a Dominican shopkeeper, which was falsely blamed on a group of Haitian immigrants. These retaliations left three Haitians dead and hundreds injured. The Dominican government responded by rounding up Haitians in the region and deporting them back to their native country. Yet among the 2,500 who were summarily expatriated were many Dominican citizens and legal Haitian immigrants – some of whom had their official documents destroyed upon being presented to the military roundup crews. Children were taken directly from schools like Francisco del Rosario Sanchez, separated from their families and dropped into Haiti, a country which many of them had never known. Haitians living in the area went into hiding, fearful of roving vigilantes and of the military trucks that would ship them back to their impoverished homeland. Unfortunately, this distressing chapter is but one in a larger history of tense race and cultural relations between the DR and its Haitian population.

    A Brief History of Dominico-Haitian Relations
    The Dominican Republic is unique in Latin America in being one of only two countries that does not celebrate its independence from a European power (Panama is the other). A year after gaining its “ephemeral” independence from Spain in 1821, the DR was conquered by neighboring Haiti, with which it now shares the island of Hispaniola. Santo Domingo (as the DR was then called) suffered under Haitian rule for 22 years — a period that was marked by severe political repression and widespread resentment amongst Dominicans. The occupation lasted until 1844, when Dominican revolutionaries drove out their Haitian occupiers and established the Dominican Republic as an independent state.

    Dominicans continue to harbor significant acrimony and distrust toward Haiti as a result of this unique aspect of their country’s founding. This history, and the various inflammatory versions of it that were distributed through the state-run media and school systems-especially under the Dominican dictator General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo-has created the perception that Haiti and Haitian immigrants are a threat to the territorial integrity of the DR.

    While this antipathy tends to simmer below the surface of relations between Dominicans and Haitian immigrants, there have been several significant events in which the animosity has erupted into inexcusable violence. The most infamous of these was the slaughter of as many as 37,000 Haitians in 1937 under the rule of General Trujillo. This incident, sparked by dubious reports of massive Haitian immigrant infiltration across the border, was largely responsible for the gruesome reputation of the Trujillo dictatorship. It inspired international opprobrium for the regime, and has left an indelible mark on Dominico-Haitian relations to this day.

    Since this atrocity, the Dominican government has continued to episodically pursue discriminatory policies toward Haitians while carefully attempting to mask such procedures under a veneer of border security. Under the decades of rule by President Joaquín Balaguer, the DR instituted periodic purges of Haitian cane cutters, evicting workers back to the repressive environment that flourished under the brutal rule of Haitian dictator François Duvalier. Even into the 1990s, as a modest degree of democracy began to take root in the DR, Dominican presidents, like current President Leonel Fernández, continued to expatriate Haitians en masse whenever their presence could be blamed for domestic unrest. Michele Wucker, author of Why the Cocks Fight, the definitive study of modern Dominico-Haitian relations, told COHA that “[Dominican] politicians often take advantage of uncertainty” to exploit Haitians as scapegoats. According to Wucker, this phenomenon contributes to “social learning in Dominican society,” which encourages anti-Haitian discrimination by the Dominican people. To this day, many Dominicans fear that Haiti plans once again to conquer the entire island, either by military force or miscegenation.

    Yet the historical underpinnings underlying anti-Haitian sentiment in the DR do not tell the whole story. Much of the prejudice against Haitians living in the DR can be attributed to the previously cited widespread Dominican beliefs about skin color and its correlation to social class. Dominicans often downplay their African ethnicity, belying a deep ambivalence in regard to their true heritage. This cultural attitude is partially responsible for the widespread anti-Haitian sentiment in the country. Many Dominicans associate dark skin with a lower social status, and even darker skinned Dominicans face daily discrimination as a result of such prejudice. As history has shown, such animosity toward dark skinned people in the DR has often manifested itself in summary deportations and even ethnic violence. It is this kind of endemic prejudice that prevented one of the DR’s greatest patriots of the modern period, the late José Francisco Peña Gomez, from ever being president of the country because of his dark skin and Haitian ancestry.

    When Bad is the Best: No Other Options
    The Dominican government undertook the most recent round of expatriations ostensibly to protect Haitians from anti-Haitian violence that had erupted in the DR. However, these round-ups corresponded closely with the end of the need for seasonal workers, who are overwhelmingly Haitian – indicating that the deportations were yet another act of political and economic opportunism. These workers supplement the DR’s agricultural and building sectors, in which labor conditions are dangerous, workers are paid shamefully low wages and are rarely respected. In spite of the unpleasant conditions, Haitians flock across the border in the hope of finding jobs. In the face of a homeland unable to provide basic rights for its citizenry due to perpetual political and economic turmoil, Haitians often have nowhere to go but to the DR, where they can at least find work and basic subsistence, no matter how marginal.

    Although the DR is no socio-economic haven itself (61% of the budget goes to debt repayment, there is 17% unemployment, and 25% of the population lives below the poverty line), it is still considerably more affluent than Haiti, whose per capita income constitutes only one-quarter of its better off neighbor’s. Though no official figures are available, estimates indicate that between 400,000 and 1 million Haitians currently live in the DR. This number is only expected to increase, as prevailing dismal conditions under Haiti’s hapless interim government continue to push poor Haitians who are desperate for work across the border.

    DR: Not a Friendly Neighbor
    The expulsions and violations of Haitians’ human rights by the Dominican authorities break rights agreements, which the DR has ratified on numerous occasions. Reports by Human Rights Watch in the DR detail incidents of detained Haitians being stripped of visas, identification, and belongings before being summarily deported, without the opportunity to contact friends or relatives. Furthermore, the DR fails to abide by the standards of nationality prescribed by its constitution. Among those deported to Haiti are Dominican-born residents of Haitian descent, who should be considered legal Dominican citizens according to Article 11 of that country’s constitution.

    In 1995, the National Coalition on Haitian Rights (NCHR) undertook a mission to the DR with the goal of generating information on the status of Haitian residents. This investigation concluded that the DR government is negligent towards the immigrants, and that it needs to initiate a program to normalize their status. Today, ten years later, no such program has been created. In a recent interview with COHA, NCHR executive director Jocelyn McCalla confirmed that conditions have remained stagnant, and the problems that have plagued Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent persist.

    However, this irregular enforcement of national laws goes beyond citizenship concerns. Ms. Wucker told COHA that much of the anti-Haitian violence in the DR today occurs because many Dominicans believe that the police will overlook attacks on Haitians no matter how vicious or unjustified. Clearly, such perceived impunity increases the potential for violence, and it owes itself fundamentally to the failure of the Dominican justice system to assure prosecution for all crimes committed (against Haitians or others) in the country.

    The Complexity of the Issue
    The issue of Haitians in the DR should not be viewed solely through the lens of Dominican prejudice toward Haitians. In an interview with COHA, Dominican ambassador Flavio Dario Espinal Jacobo commented, “From the perspective of the Dominican Republic, the issue of Haiti has to be seen in its own complexity.” Indeed, one of the intricate features of the Haitian situation is its longevity; the country has been in crisis for twenty years, and the DR has seen a constant influx of Haitians since the beginning of the turmoil. Tending to the national security issues of another country is one thing; endeavoring to uphold domestic stability in the face of rapid demographic evolution is another. If the DR were to experience unrest or upheaval – a scenario quite possible in light of its proximity and interdependence with Haiti – it could cease to be of any help to Haitians and to its own citizenry as well.

    While blanket statements should not be made about the generally negative nature of the Dominican reaction to Haitian migrants and refugees, generalizations about Haitians as a societal burden are equally fallible. Haitians contribute significantly to the Dominican economy, primarily in backbone industries like construction and agriculture. These sectors represent 24 and 17 percent of the gross economy respectively, and are full of jobs that Dominicans have been unwilling to perform for decades. Haitians have stepped in to fill these needed roles, and as a direct result the Dominican economy has benefited. The crucial role that the Haitians workers fill is highlighted by the fact that the DR’s net migration has been negative – for 2005, the CIA World Factbook estimates a net loss of 3.02 people for every 1000 inhabitants in the DR—and for this reason there are major lacunae in the Dominican labor force.

    It is undeniable that a significant percentage of Dominican society is comprised of Haitians; it is also undeniable that these Haitians are vital to the funcioning of the Dominican economy. The DR seems to use its immigration policy to its self-serving political and economic advantages, and it often behaves hypocritically by treating Haitians on its territory with scorn and abuse while exploiting their presence. To recruit immigrants to do dirty work only to throw them back to the wolves when they are no longer an economic necessity goes beyond the violation of international law–it represents a shameless indecency for which there is no viable excuse.

    So far, Santo Domingo has not provided much leadership in the deportation situation. President Leonel Fernández has stated that he “regrets” the mass repatriations, acknowledging that they violate human rights standards, but Dominican authorities continue to deport Haitians without consequence. In a June 23 conference on border issues, Fernández voiced intentions to create better repatriation policies, even mentioning possible cooperation with the Organization of American States. However, on the same day these statements were made, Dominican immigration authorities expelled 200 Haitians from the city of Santiago. These ironically concurrent events confirm that prospects for real change remain dubious, for Fernández´s song has been sung for years by Dominican policy-makers without producing tangible improvements.

    Port-au-Prince, for its part, has also failed to provide much-needed leadership. In a time when Haitians in the DR need their government to vocally defend their rights, their leaders have largely ignored the issue. In a recent interview with COHA, a representative from a refugee aid center working on the Haitian-DR border stated, “The current consulate simply doesn’t care. The consulate staff under [ex-president] Aristide provided a strong defense for Haitian rights, but the current administration ignores the [Haitian] citizens that live in the DR.” Just as is the case in other areas, interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has failed to maintain domestic order as violence and economic despair continue to escalate in Haiti, and human rights of Haitians both in Haiti and in the DR have suffered needlessly under his rule.

    A Call for Solidarity
    In the weeks following the May 16 mass deportations, there have been numerous clashes between Haitians and Dominicans in reaction to the expulsions. These conflicts have ended up threatening the peace and security of both of the island’s countries, resulting in repeated acts of violence that often have ended up in deaths as a result of the heightening tensions between Haiti and the DR. Both for its own interests and for Haiti’s, the DR would be wise to treat Haitian refugees on its territory with greater respect. The DR must improve its behavior by establishing due process for its deportation proceedings and by creating equitable conditions for migrant workers. The DR should also strengthen its law enforcement procedures, both to ensure consistent application of punishment for anti-Haitian crimes and to guarantee adherence to constitutional provisions on nationality rights.

    Haiti, for its part, must work harder to ensure a secure and stable domestic environment in order to stem the flow of migrants across the border. This requires that the international community redouble its aid campaign to support Haiti in this initiative. Current international efforts are clearly insufficient, as Haiti remains mired in sectarian violence despite the presence of a UN stabilization force. Wucker explains that “the relationship between the two countries is worst at times when it seems there is no end to Haiti’s problems and no hope for a slowing of migration to the DR.” If Haiti can achieve political stability and demonstrate renewed economic growth, migration to the DR would drop off and Dominican businessmen would benefit by investing in Haiti’s economy. As Wucker says, “Haiti’s crisis is more an absence-of-opportunity situation that intensifies Dominican frustration.” Clearly, the countries are codependent, and one nation’s problems tend to spill across the border if not addressed quickly. If stability cannot be achieved in Haiti, the country has little hope for the necessary economic development that will provide an alternative to the spirit of lawlessness which continues to guarantee its primary export: political unrest.

    The mistreatment of Haitian refugees in the DR has been a perennial impediment to improved bilateral relations on Hispaniola. While this tension has deep roots in history, Dominican society and Haitian instability, it can be addressed through reforms in the Dominican justice system and by more comprehensive international aid packages to rebuild Haiti. The governments of both nations must prioritize measures such as these in order for even modest progress to be made.

    Efforts by both countries to reduce bilateral tensions would allow the DR and Haiti to pursue a more productive relationship. This would facilitate joint actions on issues that affect the entire island of Hispaniola, such as environmental protection, drug trafficking and disaster relief. With heightened solidarity, the countries could win for themselves a greater international presence, and could become more influential in hemispheric and regional agencies such as CARICOM and the Organization of American States.