Human-rights abuses along the Dominican Republic border zone with Haiti have provoked a war of words in the capital 305km away between journalists and public officials who failed to visit the area to verify the events.
But Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) photographs and testimonies filtered to the public through the press and television in Santo Domingo could not be stifled by the same racist and anti-Haitian paranoia present in many aspects of Dominican politics and public opinion since its separation from Haiti in 1844.
The efforts of JRS and other groups in advocacy, communications and accompaniment on both sides of the border on this Caribbean island, seem to be the only sign of light amid the mass expulsion and repatriation of Haitians, Dominicans of Haitian descent and other Afro-Dominicans in various rural communities. Between 13 and 15 May, Dominican military and immigration officials expelled an estimated 2500 people, the majority being women and children.
Other organisations in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, such as GARR (Repatriate and Refugee Support Group) and MOSCTHA (Haitian Workers’ Socio-Cultural Movement), have also been battling hard to support the legal, social and economic rights of refugees and migrants.
The expulsions follow the machete murder of a Dominican woman on 9 May during a robbery allegedly committed by two Haitians in Hatillo Palma near the northern border. The incident provoked the rage of townsfolk, and subsequently an armed group of Dominicans used death threats to force many members of the local Haitian minority to leave their homes, which were then ransacked. The military took advantage of the situation to initiate the indiscriminate mass expulsion of Haitians under the guise of protecting them from threats by Dominicans.
Public opinion seemed to support these repatriations, fuelled by a fear that poverty-stricken Haitians are flooding the already burdened Dominican economy. But things changed when photos taken by JRS staff started appearing in the press, portraying Dominican citizens of Haitian descent being forcibly sent to the Haitian town of Wanament, where they have no family ties, or other means of support. JRS workers report that among those repatriated are people with Dominican birth certificates, adults with Dominican identity documents, Haitians with valid passports and visas, and migrants with valid work permits.
Expulsion operations are more conveniently carried out on weekends when there are fewer newspapers and less media coverage to create scandal. So it’s understandable that a timely Saturday front-page story and photo revealing Dominican citizens among the repatriated Haitian masses would put a damper on military plans that weekend. The public is usually none the wiser to repatriations until Monday’s newspaper is out. By then it’s merely seen as a solution to the ‘Haitian problem’.
The current expulsion operations reveal much about Dominican national identity and racial attitudes. Dominico-Haitianos, people of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic, are systematically refused proof of Dominican citizenship, despite the constitutional right to citizenship to all born on Dominican soil. They are thus denied rights to medical treatment, education, legal wages and all other benefits.
Dominican leaders and politicians such as dictator Rafael Trujillo have long tried to emphasise the country’s racial and cultural distance from Haiti. As a result Dominicans regard themselves as ‘Hispanic’, while Haitians are ‘black’, a distinction based on racial prejudice that ignores the African heritage of the Dominican Republic. The distinction here goes as far as regarding a person of Afro-Hispanic descent as indio (indigenous) even though the island’s indigenous population was exterminated in less than a century after the arrival of Columbus. So mulatos (Afro-Hispanics) who make up the majority of the Dominican population, disappeared, to be replaced by the more socially acceptable Dominican indio.
As witnessed by the recent mass expulsion of Haitians, their descendents and Afro-Dominicans along the border zone, the common African past of both the Dominican Republic and Haiti continues to be a wound. And it continues to be a wound resulting from manipulation and corruption by authorities and elite groups with strong interests to defend. In the past the manipulation was the selective interpretation of historical facts to create a false Dominican nationalism, but today the manipulation is the abuse by authorities who profit from human trafficking and extortion on the border.
Kent Rosenthal sj is currently studying theology in El Salvador.