The Dominican Republic celebrates its national day on February 27, marking not its independence from Spain but the anniversary of the end of the Haitian occupation of 1822 to 1844. The country’s autocratic leader, Rafael Trujillo launched a 1937 military attack on Haitians living near the nebulous border that, even today, remains particularly porous. The attack left an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians dead. Following the assault, known today as the Masacre del Perejil, Trujillo tried to install a puppet government in Haiti.
Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo’s successor, won a narrow victory in the highly disputed 1994 election in part through attacks on the Haitian ancestry of his opponent José Francisco Peña Gómez. Leonel Fernández, the candidate of the country’s now-dominant Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD, Dominican Liberation Party), which has held power in 15 out of the past 20 years, deployed similar tactics against Peña in 1996.
So racism, both subtle and blatant, against darker-skinned Dominicans of Haitian descent has always been a feature of life in the Dominican Republic.
As Greg Grandin and others are reporting in recent days, the country is gearing up for what might become yet another difficult moment, with up to 500,000 Haitian Dominicans in danger of being deported after June 17 — even though many of them have lived most of their lives in the Dominican Republic, speak Spanish and not Haiti’s French creole and, indeed, have never even set foot on Haitian soil. The debacle has led to a rush of Haitian Dominicans attempting to register for citizenship before today’s deadline, fearing that failure to acquire the right paperwork could result in a massive disruption in their lives.
A decade of setbacks for Haitian Dominicans
The current crisis stems from a December 2011 decision by the Dominican supreme court that affirmed the government’s decision to reject a request from a Dominican-born man for his birth certificate. The ruling’s effect threw into doubt the citizenship of Dominicans born to Haitian immigrants after 1929. Under significant international pressure, Dominican president Danilo Medina (pictured above), a popular leader who now hopes to run for reelection in May 2016, tried to resolve the situation by allowing undocumented Dominicans to register.
But as Grandin and others have reported, the process of compiling paperwork and receiving government registration has proved Kafkaesque in its bureaucratic difficulty. As the 18-month grace period for registration ends this week, a comically low 300 permits have been granted under the registration program, even as officials admit nearly 250,000 Dominicans have started the process and 100,000 Dominicans have submitted the requisite paperwork.
Problematically, many Haitian Dominicans — whose parents came to the country through the efforts of Dominican sugar plantation owners and were often exploited for cheap labor — were born in rural locations, not in hospitals, and so they lack basic documentation attesting to their births. In 2004, the country revoked the doctrine of ‘birthright citizenship’ — that grants citizenship to anyone born within its borders, as is the case under US law — for persons ‘in transit’ at the time of birth. A 2010 law narrowed citizenship ever further to children with at least one Dominican parent or children of foreigners with legal residency.
There’s a strong case that anti-Haitian animus drove the increasingly stringent and now retroactive changes to Dominican citizenship laws. Nationalist politicians issue routine calls to build a wall at the border to prevent what Balaguer once darkly referred to as a ‘peaceful invasion’ from Haiti.
Following the 2011 ruling, obtaining freshly reissued birth certificates increasingly became a problem as government clerks refused to provide the documentation that Dominicans need for nearly every aspect of daily life, including education, housing, employment and international travel.
Though it may be overstating concerns to say that the Dominican Republic is establishing concentration camps, the US government could be doing more to denounce the debacle over the gradual revocation of citizenship for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Regional leaders, acting through the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have been far more vocal in criticizing Dominican policy, and they’ve actually suspended the Dominican application for CARICOM membership over the treatment of Haitian Dominicans. That’s not an easy decision, considering that the Dominican Republic is the third-most populous Caribbean country with 10 million people, making it one of the region’s economic engines.
Officials caution that mass deportations will not suddenly begin this week, but fears are not unfounded, and there are reports that the Dominican government is preparing for a widespread sweep of Haitian Dominicans — if not in mid-June, sometime soon. Medina’s registration scheme attempted to provide some pathway towards citizenship for Haitian Dominicans rendered suddenly stateless in 2011, and it subdued the international condemnation of his government. But with an election approaching, there are justifiable fears that Medina will resort to the more familiar path of ignoring Haitian Dominican concerns or, worse, turning the problem into a nationalist wedge issue.
In the shadow of the 2016 general election
Part of the problem is a brewing power struggle between Medina and Fernández (pictured above). Term limits are a political hot potato throughout Latin America, and that’s no exception in the Dominican Republic. Fernández was limited to just one term when he first won the presidency in 1996, but a constitutional reform in 2001 allowed Dominican presidents to run for a second consecutive term. Fernández won a new constitutional reform in 2010 that restored the one-term limit but permitted former presidents (like Fernández) to run for reelection in non-consecutive terms.
Accordingly, when Fernández passed the presidency to his hand-picked successor Medina in 2012, it was with the belief that Fernández would lead the PLD into the 2016 elections — his wife, former first lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, serves as Medina’s vice president.
They didn’t count on Medina’s widespread popularity. Though the Dominican Republic still struggles with many difficulties, including a spotty power grid and high crime levels, Medina has benefited from stellar economic growth (4.6% in 2013 and over 7% in 2014), which has allowed him to cut the budget, pleasing international investors, while spending on education and other welfare programs, pleasing voters. A Latinobarómetro poll last August rated Medina the most popular leader in all of Latin America. Many Dominicans believe Medina, who hasn’t been dogged with the same corruption allegations as former presidents, cares more genuinely about lifting more Dominicans into economy stability than his predecessors.
His ratings have slipped slightly in the past year, however, and he only narrowly pushed through a new law earlier in June that paves the way for, once again, consecutive reelection. It’s a move that Fernández opposed, and it now pits Fernández against Medina in a potential presidential primary fight to lead the PLD into next May’s elections. In that context, it’s difficult to believe that Medina would risk reelection by appearing weak in the face of international demands to back down on citizenship abuses.
The PLD”s traditional rival, the center-right Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD, Dominican Revolutionary Party), split last year, when former president Hipólito Mejía created a new social democratic party, the Partido Revolucionario Moderno (PRM, Modern Revolutionary Party), taking nearly half of the PRD’s delegation in the country’s Chamber of Deputies with him.
The PRM’s presidential candidate, Luis Abinader, wins more support in polls than Miguel Vargas, the PRD’s current chairman. With the opposition split, another candidate, Guillermo Moreno, the grandson of a famous Dominican poet and the leader of the progressive Alianza País (Country Alliance), has also gained traction.
If no one wins a majority, the top two vote-winners will advance to a June runoff.
But Fernández is still an incredibly powerful figure, and polls show that he, too, would lead Mejía, Abinader, Vargas or Moreno, even by a narrower margin. His popularity has flagged after financial ties to drug trafficker Quirino Paulino were revealed, and he suffers from widespread accusations of corruption.
It’s not hard to imagine that the Haitian issue could become an easy diversion in the fight for the presidency, whether Medina likes it or not. That means things could get much worse — very quickly — for Dominicans of Haitian descent stuck in citizenship limbo.