Some say we live in a borderless world, but based on the stringent anti-immigration policies doled out by the Dominican Republic against its neighbour, Haiti, borders are to be respected at all costs. Haiti, a Francophone nation, and the Dominican Republic (DR), a Hispanophone nation, are two Caribbean countries which share one island – Hispaniola. However, these two nations also share a tumultuous history of colonialism and racism, which in recent times, has mushroomed into a major human rights crisis.
In 2013, the government of DR made the decision to retroactively strip a portion of its residents of citizenship, the Haitian portion, as a continuation of the centuries of tension between the two nations. But what lead to this division and why does it persist?
Officially under Spanish rule since 1493, Hispaniola was mostly left unpopulated for three-quarter of a century as the mainland became a focus for explorations. The French began occupying parts of the island (mainly the north) and constantly pushed forward their borders, much to the chagrin of the Spanish conquistadores, who formally ceded the western third of the island to France in 1697. This colony was named Saint Domingue.
Whereas the Spanish portion focused on livestock-based growth, the French developed a plantation network which relied on the importation of enslaved labour from Africa. Saint Domingue quickly grew in both wealth and population and came to be known as the “Pearl of the Antilles.” This wealth was accumulated on the backs of slaves toiling on sugarcane plantations during a time when demand for sugar was high in Europe. It became an important port in the Americas for goods flowing to and from France and Europe, propelling France to become a major power in Europe.
So much so, that in 1795, Spain gave the remaining portion of Hispaniola to France, which later became the Dominican Republic. However, it was in the year 1791 that enslaved Africans began to revolt and won independence for Saint Domingue in 1804, which then came to be known as Haiti.
Two separate ethnic groups
These occurrences set a shaky foundation for the two countries. Clashes would continue over the years as different identities formed for the two countries, in opposition to each other. The Francophone nation of freed slaves maintained a largely black populace, whereas the Hispanophone side held on to its Eurocentric ideologies.
Government leaders to come would perpetuate low tolerance of Haitians and blackness in favour of Eurocentric ideals and whiteness, to the extent that this racism was institutionalised and anti-Haitian sentiments were promoted. For instance, dictator Rafael Trujillo lead the process of ethnic cleansing of thousands of Haitians in the 1930s. Known as the Parsley Massacre, this process required persons to pronounce the word “perejil,” the Spanish word for parsley, and whoever didn’t have the Spanish inflection would be killed.
Trujillo also established a plan to “lighten” the Dominican race by allowing more Jewish refugees to enter the country as well as exiles from the Spanish Civil war. Dominicans were encouraged to marry white persons to lighten the nation. This in spite of the fact that the Dominican Republic was the first country in the Americas to import slaves from Africa, in 1502, over 85% of the population has Afro-ancestry, and it was occupied by Haiti from 1822-1844.
Academic research shows that race played an especially important role in the island’s history. In his article “The Imagined Island: History, Identity, and Utopia in Hispaniola,” Pedro San Miguel described the DR’s definition of itself as distinctly not Haitian. To be Dominican means to not be Haitian, and especially not to be black.
Culture vs citizenship
In the aftermath of colonialism, slavery, and Eurocentric rule of the two countries, a dichotomy was created which is prevalent in every sphere of the relationship between the two. It is a clear state of contrast. Haiti was colonised by the French; the DR by the Spanish. Haitians speak Creole; in the DR they speak Spanish. Haitians practice vodou, the DR Roman Catholicism. But these differences do not validate the decision to strip thousands of their citizenship, their homes, and their futures.
The Haiti we know today is plagued by poverty and underdevelopment. On the other hand, the DR has the largest economy in the Caribbean and the ninth largest in Latin America. Instead of pushing Haitians out of the country then, there is a chance for the DR to envelope those seeking a better life and aid in the economic misery Haiti finds itself in. Instead, the DR’s immigration policies against Haitians has left as many as 200,000 people stateless. Creating the fifth largest group of stateless people in the world, behind Myanmar, Ivory Coast, Thailand, and Latvia. Before this declaration, all persons born in the Dominican Republic were considered citizens of the DR, but now the Dominican Constitutional Court has the green light to revoke citizenship for persons born to Haitian parents as far back as 1929. Families have been ripped apart and the situation in Haiti becomes worse.
Stateless Haitian descent
This policy and others like it implemented by the DR have fuelled unrest and tensions, which further prevent collaboration and does not positively affect the development of Haiti. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) formally requested that the DR restore citizenship status to the Haitian-Dominicans who became undocumented, stating that the policies toward people of Haitian descent were discriminatory. The report from the IACHR stated that “…the ruling had a discriminatory effect, since it struck mainly Dominicans of Haitian descent; retroactively depriving them of their nationality; and relegating them to the status of stateless persons” and “…poverty disproportionately affects persons of Haitian descent, and this situation is connected with the obstacles they encounter in terms of access to statistics registration and identity papers.”
Yet still, the government denied that its policies were discriminatory or that they produce stateless people. Progress is yet to be realised.
This policy has implications for both the DR and Haiti. Whereas it burdens Haiti with an increase in population while it is already in poverty, it brings into question the future of the DR as it seeks regional integration. In response to the policy, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) suspended the DR’s bid to join the regional grouping. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has also publically stated his intention to push for the suspension of the DR from The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and CARIFORUM. Gonsalves said it is “Simply unacceptable that persons of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic, who, by any international standard, should be citizens of the Dominican Republic are denied citizenship and they are denied citizenships on ethnic grounds or grounds of national origins.”
Hispaniola is divided into two countries, with two different identities, but it consists of human beings who need a place to call home. How long will history and race affect the human rights of the people of Hispaniola?