When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz was recently in Montreal, I attended a public discussion with him. Predictably, before the evening was over, the celebrated Dominican American artist was asked to share his thoughts on the treatment of people of Haitian descent in his homeland.
Diaz has made no secret of how he feels about this issue. In 1999, way before the Dominican Republic’s imminent deportation of hundreds of thousands of these second-class citizens was making international headlines, he co-wrote a scathing op-ed for the New York Times with Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat. They criticized the “racially tinged political rhetoric that has given too many Dominicans the false perception that all their problems will disappear if only the Haitians will go away.”
In a 2013 ruling, the Dominican Republic's constitutional court took measures to strip the citizenship and rights of children born to Haitian immigrants in the country as far back as 1929. These are people who, for the most part, have lived their entire lives there and know nothing of Haiti, not even the language. At last count, the ruling affects an estimated 250,000 Dominican people of Haitian descent, and government officials have made it clear that they will start deportations within the coming weeks.
International anger and activism pressured the government to create a process by which Dominicans stripped of their citizenship had two years to register as foreigners and then reapply for citizenship. However, the process is convoluted and arduous, the June 17 deadline has passed, and the overwhelming majority have not registered. Citing fear of deportations, illegal arrests, extortions and deportations, many have stayed away from a government that has never given them a reason to trust it.
Though Haitians and Dominicans share the island of Hispaniola, they have long been divided. In 1822, the eastern portion of the island, formerly known as Santo Domingo, was unified with the west by the Republic of Haiti, which had overthrown slavery and French colonial rule. This period of unification ended in 1844, when the Dominican War of Independence overthrew Haitian rule.
The Dominican Republic passed a law in 1922 limiting the number of black-skinned Haitians who could enter the country. Sugar plantation owners continued to bring in thousands of them to live in squalour and work as cheap labour. The latest ruling mainly affects descendants of these labourers.
In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the Parsley Massacre, a genocidal act in which as many as 30,000 Haitians living in the borderlands were slaughtered in less than a week.
But for insight into relations between the two countries, all you need to know is that Dominican Independence Day does not celebrate independence from Spain: it marks independence from Haiti. Taking all this history into consideration, the latest moves by the Dominican Republic are not so much a break from tradition, but a continuation of it.
To expect that Haiti, still reeling from a devastating earthquake and a cholera outbreak, would have the infrastructure and financial means to deal with the arrival of over 200,000 refugees is absurd and inhumane. The Dominican Republic is shipping people off to an almost certain future of destitution.
Junot Díaz didn’t mince words that night in Montreal. In his usual eloquent and straightforward language, peppered with New Jersey slang and the occasional swear word, he blasted the Dominican Republic for its inhumane approach towards citizens of Haitian descent.
What is currently unfolding in the Dominican Republic is a human rights crisis of the worst kind. And if the international community does not pay attention and take action to pressure the government into reversing its plan, hundreds of thousands of people will be left stateless.
In this era of online activism, we can apply pressure to our respective governments, in the form of petitions, protests and online articles, to pressure the Dominican Republic to do the right thing and reinstate these people who have never known any other home. We can choose to spend our money elsewhere. A popular winter getaway for many Canadians, the Dominican Republic’s numerous all-inclusive vacation resorts should feel the financial repercussions of a government attempting to implement ethnic cleansing.
We must find a way to tell the Dominican Republic that the world is watching.