Racism is flaring its ugly head again on the island of Hispaniola, a Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
For decades, thousands of Haitians have crossed over into the more affluent Dominican Republic to seek better economic opportunities. Over the years, some of these Haitians stayed, had families and made new lives for themselves.
Now hundreds of thousands of people of Haitian descent are in danger of being expelled. While some of these so-called Haitianos are undocumented residents, many of them were born in the Dominican Republic and have little or no ties to Haiti.
Race-based government reforms over the last decade have endangered the lives of an estimated 460,000 Haitian migrants who live in the Dominican Republic, most who are now are in danger of becoming stateless. Thousands of Haitians have fled back to Haiti. Haiti’s prime minister has warned that the actions of the Dominican Republic’s government risk triggering a humanitarian crisis.
The issue has been percolating for more than a decade. Like the U.S., children of immigrants born in the Dominican Republic are automatically granted citizenship. But in 2004, the government changed its migration law to exclude children of Haitian migrants from citizenship. And in 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court revoked the citizenship of anyone in the Dominican Republican born to those the court deemed “foreigners in transit.” The court’s decision made the term “transit” retroactive to 1929.
The Dominican Republic’s plan to expel the Haitians is another sad and nasty chapter in the history of race relations between natives of these two countries.
It’s hard to imagine today, but Haiti was once the envy of the Caribbean and much of the non-white world. In 1802, a band of gallant slaves defeated the French army – then the world’s most powerful – and Haiti became the world’s first black republic. For a brief period, the Dominican Republic, which would not gain its independence from Spain until 60 years later, was under the dominion of Haiti.
But over the last 70 years, for various reasons including natural disasters, mismanagement and punitive financial measures from western powers – who never quite forgave Haiti for besting Napoleon’s army – Haiti has become the most impoverished nation in the Americas.
Today, Haitians are mostly treated like lepers by their Dominican neighbors.
The irony is that, by American standards, the overwhelming majority of Dominicans are black – or at least they would be classified that way here in the United States or in Canada. In fact, here in the United States, a growing number of black studies programs are incorporating Dominican studies into their curricular.
But in the Latin world, the yardstick for race is considerably more complex, with more attention paid to characteristics like skin hue and hair texture. Bottom line: in the Dominican Republic, light skin makes life so much easier. In many respects, it’s just like the United States. But unlike the U.S., overt racial discrimination is an accepted practice.
Indeed, a report by two United Nations experts found evidence of systemic racism and discrimination in the Dominican Republic, particularly against people of Haitian ancestry.
In recent years, there have been numerous reports of Haitians or Haitian-Dominicans being lynched for alleged offenses that range from robbing stores to burning a Dominican flag. Several Haitian-Dominicans have had their homes torched – and in most of these cases, police have been reluctant to investigate. According to news reports, in large cities like Santiago and Santa Domingo, there are some bars that refuse to admit blacks – or at least people who look black.
The Dominican Republic’s plan to expel Haitianos, meanwhile, has drawn the fury of the international community. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, whose city is home to 400,000 people of Dominican ancestry and 100,000 Haitian-Americans, has weighed in, as have many major international human rights groups. Foreign investment in the Dominican Republic also is down as a result of the conflict.
In response to this pressure, the government appears to have backed down – at least for now.
The goal for the coming years must be to sustain public pressure so that the Dominican Republic is forced to treat ethnic Haitians with the dignity and human rights they deserve.
LA Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an award-winning journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.