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Haiti-Dominican Rep. : An Appeal to Decency on behalf of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent

By Michael Deibert

Address to Journalists & Editors Workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean delivered at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel, May 12, 2007
Miami, Florida [1]

Submitted to AlterPresse on May 15, 2007

Sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which its indigenous Arawak inhabitants had historically called Haiti, which meant “mountainous land,“ and Quisqueya, meaning “vast country,” the present day nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic have shared a long and complex history together. It has been a history suffused with mutual resentments, suspicions and hostilities, though it could be argued that, despite marked cultural and linguistic differences, what the peoples of both sides of la frontera have in common far outweighs the traits that differentiate them.

From the revolutionary stirrings lead by Toussaint Louverture in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the 1790s, to the 1804 declaration of the founding of the Republic of Haiti in the city of Gonaives by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to the Dominican Republic’s own declaration of independence from Haiti in 1844 and the five subsequent invasions by Haitian leaders in attempts to recapture it that came after, the political geography of each country has been marked by certain unfortunate similarities. Long periods of military or quasi-military rule interrupted by various, often highly authoritarian and corrupt, civilian leaders, a deeply entrenched economic elite and a highly disenfranchised poor majority, a relatively weak judiciary and repeated interventions by foreign powers.

The trajectories of the two nations began to diverge somewhat, though, over the last twenty years, when Haitians witnessed a long-cherished goal - the overthrow of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986 and the holding of free elections in 1990, and ten years later, when the Dominican Republic elected Leonel Fernández as president in 1996, marking a final break from the tradition instituted by the dictator Rafael Trujillo which had seen Trujillo, his vice-president Joaquín Balaguer or their surrogates dominate the country’s politics largely since 1930.

Since those pivotal moments, fate has not smiled on Haiti. The joy of the 1990 election, which saw the elevation to the office of the presidency of the former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was lost in the bloodshed of the coup that followed in 1991 and the military junta that ruled the country from 1991 until 1994. Returned to office by a U.S. invasion in 1994, Aristide again assumed the presidency in 2001, only to be ousted once more in 2004 by massive street protests and an armed rebellion, his administration drowning in a sea of violence, nepotism and corruption. A 2004 -2006 unelected interim government oversaw what can only be described as a low level civil-war between police, former rebel forces, street gangs loyal to Mr. Aristide and United Nations troops, finally culminating in the election and inauguration of Rene Preval, the only Haitian president ever to serve out his constitutionally-mandated term to elected office. Though Preval has made some steps towards stabilizing Haiti’s political situation and, to some degree, arresting its downward economic spiral, the essential myopic venality of Haiti’s political and economic classes and the dire poverty that contribute to that instability remain essentially unchanged.

In the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, despite its own share of corruption scandals since the mid-1990s, we have witnessed the peaceful handing of power from Leonel Fernández to Hipólito Mejía in 2000, and from Mejía back again to Fernández in 2004. The Dominican tourist industry has continued to blossom, and the passage of the DR-CAFTA treaty has opened the door for more economic development, such as was witnessed by the DR’s 10.7 percent economic growth last year.

But when we look more closely at these broad strokes, what kind of picture do we see ?

The Dominican Republic, with a population of nearly 10 million, has an average life expectancy of around 73 years. It’s total infant mortality rate is around 28 deaths for every 1,000 live births, its literacy rate hovers around 85%, its unemployment around 16% and around 25% of its citizens are said to live below the poverty line. Many of these statistics would be considered fairly dreadful by most standards, but venture across the border to Haiti and observe the situation there. Haiti’s nearly 9 million people can look forward to a life expectancy of just 57 years, and the nation’s infant mortality rate claims almost 64 babies for every 1,000 live births. The literacy rate creeps just north of 50% of the population, two-thirds of the labor force have no formal jobs and 80% of people live below the poverty line. Over the past 50 years, 90 percent of Haiti’s tree cover has been destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming, with the resulting erosion destroying two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland.

But these are, in many ways, simply dry figures, devoid of humanity. What does it mean, for instance, to say that almost 100% of a country’s total population lives in the direst poverty, or that a natural resource as basic as tree cover has now been almost completely exploited and exhausted ?

For me, the face of Haiti, its suffering, and its resilience, came in a thousand faces across this battered, bleeding land. I saw the history of Haiti written in the face of a young man from the slum of Cite Soleil, home to 250,000 souls in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, who spoke proficient English and French along with his native Kreyol and yet was forced, along with his brother, to work as a government gunman following the murder of his parents, only to be abandoned when his political patron fled the country and left his minions to fend for themselves. I saw the history of Haiti in another nearby slum, where a group of gentle souls had attempted to build a community out of the hollowed-around ruins of an expansive former torture chamber, so poor that they subsisted on cakes made out of clay and seasoned with inexpensive cubes of chicken or beef bouillon. And I saw the history of Haiti in the weathered visages of peasant farmers and market women in the village of Fonds-Verettes, below mist-shrouded mountains largely bare of trees, amidst a clutch of tarp-covered market stands and beside an immense field of boulder-sized rocks, where the rains of May 2004 killed over 900 people, their ferocity made doubly so by the lack of any trees to hold the topsoil fast when the tropical rains burst forth.

Not surprisingly, the lure of a better life in the Dominican Republic has proved irresistible to many Haitians, and currently there are an estimated 650,000 to one million undocumented Haitians living there. Though traditionally these Haitians have labored in the sugarcane fields, known as bateys, owned by individuals such as the Cuban-American sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, and the wealthy Vicini family, who are also owners of the Diario Libre newspaper, recently Haitians have also taken jobs in such urban endeavors as construction, auto repair and working in the country’s booming resorts. In the last several years, great tension has erupted between Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian-descent in the Dominican Republic, their advocates, the Fernández government and some of those in the country’s economic elite. Though many of the country’s industries, including the sugar and construction industries, are largely dependant on immigrant Haitian labor, an increasingly assertive movement for immigrant and worker rights in the Dominican Republic, spearheaded by such individuals as Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA) leader Sonia Pierre (herself born in a batey) and the Anglo-Spanish priest Father Christopher Hartley, have met with fierce resistance. The hostility between the Haitians and those who, on one hand, need their labor but on the other hand resent what they view as their ingratitude, as well as between the Haitians and poor Dominicans who view the Haitians as usurping their jobs and working for lower wages, has often erupted into violence.

In May 2005, in the border towns of Ouanaminthe and Dajabon, I witnessed the aftermath of the summary eviction of at least 3,5000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent following the murder of Dominican businesswoman Maritza Nuñez in Hatillo Palma, 166 miles northwest of the capital, Santo Domingo, for which four Haitian immigrants were blamed. I heard numerous stories of families separated, husbands from wives, parents from children, of destruction of homes by civilian mobs at times lead by local political leaders, of mistreatment at the hands of the Dominican military (including of immigration documents torn up by soldiers at the border) and of occasional murder, as well. These expulsions resulted in a formal protest being sent to the Fernández government by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, demanding that they not be repeated. But, unfortunately, the events of May 2005 appear to have been an opening salvo in an ongoing drumbeat against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent that has only grown shriller and uglier over the last two years.

Expulsions of this nature have continued, albeit on a smaller scale, as has violence against Haitians in the DR. In August 2005, three young Haitian men on the outskirts of Santo Domingo were set ablaze by a mob, and later died from their wounds. That same month, four Haitians were murdered by guards in a banana field in the Barahona region. In 2006, two more Haitians were burned to death by a mob in the village of Las Matas de Farfan. Two activist priests who had long advocated for the rights of Haitians laboring in the bateys, the aforementioned Father Christopher Hartley and the Belgian Father Pedro Ruquoy, were driven from the country in late 2006 and late 2005, respectively, amidst credible death threats and a campaign of vilification by the Dominican government and some elements of its media. In a May 2006 open letter to President Fernández , Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan bemoaned the fact that "since May 2005, Haitian and Dominicans of Haitian descent have been subjected to collective and arbitrary expulsions by the Dominican authorities in violation of the Dominican Republic’s obligations under international standards including the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights." A similar March 2007 press release by Amnesty stated that the “Dominican-born children, and even grandchildren,“ of Haitians, remained “as a permanent underclass, denied birth papers, and thus, access to schooling and decent jobs.”

This release came after September 2005, when a legal team that included Sonia Pierre, successfully argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Dominican Republic was in violation of Articles 3, 5, 19, 20 and 24 of the American Convention on Human Right Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica in denying citizenship to two young girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico, born in the Dominican Republic. That decision also reinforced the fact that, in its denial of citizenship to persons born within its borders, the Dominican Republic was in violation of Article 11 of its own constitution,, which guarantees Dominican citizenship to the all those born within its territory save for those “in transit” and the children of foreign diplomats. The Fernández government has said that, though it has begun paying damages to the two girls, it intends to disregard the commission’s expansive ruling.

What has been the broader response of the Fernández government to these incidents ? A call to the rule of law ? An appeal to Dominicans to make their vibrant, culturally rich, economically viable nation a place where those of whatever descent and whatever skin color can live together ? Unfortunately, no.

Since its return to power in 2004, the Fernández government, which many had great hopes for, has appeared to be completely beholden to the whims of the country’s economic elite, and seems more than happy to use the plight of the Haitians within the Dominican Republic as a convenient scapegoat for its own failings. Recent threats to revoke the citizenship of Sonia Pierre, Dominican born and raised, an endeavor that would seem farcical were not the Dominican authorities apparently so set in carrying on with it to its logical, absurd and bitter conclusion, typify this approach. Dominican Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso, one of the bitterest critics of the newly-assertive Haitian presence in the Dominican Republic, has a long-standing relationship as an executive and major shareholder of the Central Romana sugar concern, along with the aforementioned Fanjuls ; the Vicini family, who run the Batey dos Hermanos sugar-growing territory and whose Diario Libre newspaper has often been the font of vitriolic attacks against the advocates for the rights of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, also maintain close ties with the Fernández government.

Confronted about its human rights record in this regard, the Fernández government often posits, without any concrete proof, that a conspiracy of foreign governments and NGOs is underway, in an attempt to make the Dominican Republic take responsibility for Haiti, which they claim the international community has largely failed to do. While the incidents of violence against Haitians here described and the Dominican government’s response in no way rise to the level of the dictator Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of between 15,000 to 20,000 Haitians throughout the country, they are nevertheless troubling coming from a country lead at present by a group of highly educated technocrats who, quite frankly, should know better.

By no means am I trying to let Haiti’s leaders off the hook for the calamitous condition their countrymen find themselves in. Over the last decade, as the Dominican Republic has prospered, Haiti’s political class has succeeded in murdering almost any hope the vast majority of decent, honest, hard-working Haitians have for their beleaguered country, along with thousands of Haitian citizens, continuing in a tradition that Frédéric Marcelin, a former Minister of Finance and noted author, characterized in 1904 as “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism.” Haiti’s leaders in general and Mr. Aristide in particular have much to answer for in their chronic betrayal of the legitimate hopes of Haiti’s poor majority. Likewise I agree that the Dominican Republic cannot accept unfettered and unrestrained immigration from its neighbor to the west.

However, I would argue that the present approach of the Fernández government to the Haitian question in the Dominican Republic is both disingenuous and inhumane. Disingenuous because it refuses to adequately address the vast networks of human trafficking and abusive labor practices that bring Haitians to the Dominican Republic in the first place, many with credible links to some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, while essentially choosing to crucify the powerless victims of such smuggling. Inhumane because it seeks to disenfranchise tens of thousands of Dominican citizens for no other reason that the country of their ancestry and the color of their skin. I know the righteous and justifiable outrage that would greet any similar treatment meted out to the estimated 1 million Dominicans living in my hometown of New York City, and I can only ponder the motivations of such policies.

In November 2006, speaking at Counterpart International’s headquarters in Washington, DC, President Fernández said that, regarding Haiti’s security and economic development, Haiti could not "do it alone," and that he hoped that Haiti could " turn around economically.” On some level, then, the Dominican government must. in fact realize what is at stake is not the political expediency of the moment, but the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Dominican Republic and Haiti need to address their linked destinies in an honest and non-demagogic way. For Haiti, that means that its political class will have to behave in a responsible and competent way that it has never seemed to master in the country’s 200 year history, so more Haitians are not forced to seek economic sustenance in neighboring countries where they are met by exploitation, brutality and racism. For the Dominican government, it means not wearing one face abroad, where it talks of development and the international interest, and another at home, where it appears content to fan the flames of xenophobia and bigotry.

In his 1943 novel of Haitian peasant life, Gouverneurs de la Rosée (translated into English as Masters of the Dew), the great Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain surveyed the environmental and economic devastation of his country and penned the following lines, and I would like to conclude with them as they give a poignant window into the human dimension of the forces that drive Haitians across the border in the first place, and the gravity of what they risk once they get there.

”Life had dried up…One only had to listen to this silence to hear death. One yielded to this torpor and felt himself already buried. The regular and repeated blows of the mallets in the mortars had become stilled since there wasn’t a grain of millet to husk. How far things were from the good old days of the konbit, from the virile joyous chants of the men folk, from the sparkling, swinging hoes in the sun, from those happy years when we used to dance the minuet under the arbors with the carefree voices of dark young girls bursting forth like a fountain in the night. . . . Can a man die like that, as a breath of air blows out a candle, as a pruning knife cuts a weed, as fruit falls from the tree and rots ?”

[1Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament : The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). His blog can be read at