If You Are Black, Get Out: The Crisis of Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Human Rights

The decision by the high court in the Dominican Republic to declare anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 Dominicans who may have Haitian ancestry "not citizens" with a start date of birth of 1929 is simply appalling.

For four generations Banesa Blemi's family, descendants of Haitian immigrants, put down roots as low-wage sugar cane cutters in their adopted homeland, and came to consider themselves Dominicans.

Then, last month the country's Constitutional Court issued a decision effectively denationalizing Blemi and her family, along with an estimated 250,000 fellow immigrants born after 1929.

"I have no country. What will become of me?" said Blemi, 27, standing with relatives outside the family's wooden shack near La Romana, the heart of the Dominican Republic's sugar cane industry and one of the Caribbean's top tourist resorts.

"We are Dominicans - we have never been to Haiti. We were born and raised here. We don't even speak Creole," she said, referring to Haiti's native tongue.

Many headlines of stories dealing with this travesty, simply call these people "Haitians" and few point to what is obvious—the role of racial markers and skin color.

Follow me below the fold for a closer look.


This one said it for me:

Columnist Reginald Dumas, writing for the Trinidad Express put it bluntly in the headline "If you are black, go back," which I've amended to "get out," since how can you go back to somewhere you have never been? Dumas does make that point in his article:

The Constitutional Court has widened the net: parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are now trapped, all the way back to 1929. Several hundred thousand persons in the DR have suddenly been rendered stateless: they are not citizens of the DR, they are not citizens of Haiti. But they are black. They must go back—to a country which most of them didn’t come from, and which they do not know. By all means work in the cane fields and on the coffee plantations and in the brothels of the DR. But go back, or move along; you are “in transit”.

Many readers here have ancestors—parents, grandparents and perhaps even great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States after 1929. They became citizens, and their children and grandchildren born here are now part of the tapestry of the U.S. Imagine what would happen if the U.S. Congress passed a law rescinding that citizenship currently based onjus soli, and demanded that all of you "go back to where you came from."  

This is just what is happening in our neighboring country of the Dominican Republic, where Dominicans who have some Haitian ancestry are now being forced into statelessness by the modification of jus soli, which is retroactive.

People without a country.


For Dominicans of Haitian descent, obtaining proof of citizenship—required for everything from education to employment to voting—has become a legal and bureaucratic impossibility.

A stateless person is not recognized as a citizen by any state. Citizenship enables you not only to vote, hold public office, and exit and enter a country freely, but also to obtain housing, health care, employment, and education. It is vital in order to live a decent human life. Stateless people are denied that right.

On the left we have spent years paying attention to the statelessness of Palestinians. Many of us have not spent a lot of time looking closer to home.

There has a been a history of challenges, including the manipulation of the "in transit" clause (which is not invoked for children born of U.S. parents, for example) and the issue wasbrought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In October 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights based in Costa Rica, issued a landmark judgment, Yean and Bosico, which found that the Dominican Republic had denied citizenship on the basis of race, thereby rendering children of Haitian descent effectively stateless. The court gave the government until mid October 2006 to apologize, pay damages to the two children involved, publish the ruling, and implement measures to ensure equal access to birth certificates and school enrollment. The government has done nothing to comply and stated it is bound by the Supreme Court judgment that Haitians are in transit.

The ugly part of all of this is that "Haitianness" in the DR is most often related to dark skin color. The irony in this is that the majority of Dominicans have African ancestry, though there is a visible difference at times between hues of "brown" and dark chocolate, and Dominicans are raised to embrace and aspire to lighter skin complexions.  

You are all familiar with the crisp tangy herb, used to garnish many a dish of food. We call it parsley. In Spanish it is "perejil."

This herb name became the vehicle for death, in what has become known as "the Parsley Massacre" which took place in October of 1937, and which is now being commemorated after having been buried in history.

The shibboleth, in this case, cost the lives of between 20,000 and 30,000 people who were executed under the orders of the President of the Dominican Republic Rafael Trujillo (whose mother was half-Haitian).

One of my favorite poets, who was the former Poet Laureate of the United States, and of the Commonwealth of Virginia, tells the tale.

Parsley, by Rita Dove.

Michele Wucker from the World Policy Institute wrote about that period Dominican history and Hitler's influence on Trujillo in "The River Massacre: The Real and Imagined Borders of Hispaniola":  

Hitler's ideas gave Trujillo a racist and nationalist plan to distract Dominicans from their empty stomachs. Reminding Dominicans that they could not afford to feed foreigners too, Trujillo cracked down on migration from Haiti. But powerful American sugar cane plantation owners, who brought in Haitians to cut cane because, unlike Dominicans, they worked for practically nothing, forced him to make huge exceptions. He resorted to deporting Haitians and tightening border patrols, but the Haitians kept coming. On October 2, 1937, while Trujillo was drunk at a party in his honor not far from the Massacre River, he gave orders for the "solution" to the Haitian problem.

In the Book of Judges, forty thousand Ephraimites were killed at the River Jordan because their inability to pronounce "Shibboleth" identified them as foreigners. On the Dominican border, Trujillo's men asked anyone with dark skin to identify the sprigs of parsley they held up. Haitians, whose Kreyol uses a wide, flat "R", could not pronounce the trilled "R" in the Spanish word for parsley, "perejil." Dominicans still refer to the massacre as El Corte, the cutting, alluding to the machetes the Dominican soldiers used so they could say the carnage was the work of peasants defending themselves; only the government could afford to kill with bullets. El Corte also suggested to the Haitians' work of harvesting sugar cane (ironically, soldiers did not touch the Haitians who stayed on the Americans' sugar plantations).

The ugly specter of race/racism and anti-Haitian attitudes in the DR, and its history, is being explored in both academia and by noted novelists like Haitian-American Edwidge Dandicat in her award-winning book, The Farming of Bones.

It is 1937 and Amabelle Désir, a young Haitian woman living in the Dominican Republic, has built herself a life as the servant and companion of the wife of a wealthy colonel. She and Sebastian, a cane worker, are deeply in love and plan to marry. But Amabelle's  world collapses when a wave of genocidal violence, driven by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, leads to the slaughter of Haitian workers. Amabelle and Sebastian are separated, and she desperately flees the tide of violence for a Haiti she barely remembers.

Already acknowledged as a classic, this harrowing story of love and survival—from one of the most important voices of her generation—is an unforgettable memorial to the victims of the Parsley Massacre and a testimony to the power of human memory.

Dandicat has been active in the memorials that take place on the border, dubbed "the Border of Lights." This year, a virtual vigil was held online.

Academic scholars are exploring the roots of racial antipathy and anti-Haitian sentiments in the DR as well, among them are Silvio Torres-Saillant, author of "The Tribulations of Blackness: Stages in Dominican Racial Identity." Torres-Saillant is currently teaching at Syracuse University, and was the the first director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. For a deeper understanding of "antihaitianismo", Dr. Ernesto Sagás, currently associate professor of Ethnic Studies at Colorado State University, published Race and Politics in the Dominican Republic.

Kudos to our universities who are teaching journalism. Students from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University traveled to the border between the DR and Haiti in 2011 and produced this documentary.

They are led by Rick Rodriguez, the school’s Carnegie Professor of Journalism, and Jason Manning, director of Student Media.

The project is part of a depth reporting class taught by Rodriguez. Students spent the first part of the semester preparing for the trip by researching the issue of stateless people in the Dominican Republic, a subject Rodriguez called “timely and important,” in part because of a debate in the United States over the citizenship status of children born to undocumented immigrants.

The Dominican Republic revoked birthright citizenship last year. Previously, individuals born in the country were automatically considered citizens. The new law prevents individuals born to people residing in the country illegally from obtaining identification documents, limiting access to important services, such as education, health care and housing.

A majority of my Latino/a students at my university are of Dominican heritage. We struggle each semester with the complicated issues of race and ethnicity in the DR, which though listeddemographically as "mixed 73%, white 16%, black 11%." Those who have been raised to think of themselves as "mixed" or mulatto attribute their brown skin color to being "indio" (Taino ancestry), most denying having African ancestry. They point to Haitians as "blacks," and though most are several shades darker than I am, dub their skin color "dark-Indian." We have very lively discussions about the Dominican obsession with hair-straightening, since kinky hair texture is one of the phenotypic markers of African ancestry.  

Haitians are also linked to and stigmatized in the DR by the practice of Voudou, while Dominicans mask the same African diasporic practices under a different name. Anotherlegacy from Trujillo:

What many Dominicans are loath to admit is that they practice a form of voudou although even practitioners are hesitant to call it as much. They prefer Devocion de los Misterios or Las 21 Divisions, a reference to the twenty-one families of African-derived and creole spiritual entities that, in exchange for gifts, confer blessings, such as good health and protection. In reality, the practice shares much with Haitian voudou but the rejection of the voudou label reflects the Dominican resistance to identify with anything associated with Haitians. While the country’s anti-voudou history continues to affect how Dominicans see the practice and, by extension, Haitians, there is also a prominent practice within Dominican society. Martha Ellen Davis, a Santo Domingo-based anthropologist who has written widely on religion in the Dominican Republic, says the practice of 21 Divisions is increasing. “Why? Maybe because people are looking more for answers to real world problems, to every day problems,” she says.

What is being done and how can you help?

International refugee and relief agencies, like Amnesty International and Refugees International, have been raising a hue and cry about this for over a decade, and the response to the latest DR high court decision was swift.

UN urges Dominican Republic to ensure citizens of Haitian origin do not lose nationality

October 2013 – The United Nations human rights office today urged the Government of the Dominican Republic to take all necessary measures to ensure that citizens of Haitian origin are not deprived of their right to nationality in light of a recent court ruling.
Last week the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the children of undocumented migrants who have been in the Dominican Republic and registered as Dominicans as far back as 1929, cannot have Dominican nationality as their parents are considered to be “in transit.”
“We are extremely concerned that a ruling of the Dominican Republic Constitutional Court may deprive tens of thousands of people of nationality, virtually all of them of Haitian descent, and have a very negative impact on their other rights,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told reporters in Geneva.

She said the decision could have “disastrous” implications for people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, leaving such individuals in a state of constitutional limbo and potentially leaving tens of thousands of them stateless and without access to basic services for which identity documents are required.

Groups in Haiti and the DR

There are petitions you can sign. Here's another one.

You can voice your opinion to the president of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina.

You can also follow some of the organizations fighting against the ruling on Twitter: @CentroBono, @reconoci_do, @mudhalegal, @MOSCTHA, @CEDAIL, @CNDHrd, @haitisg

We know the U.S. State Department is aware of the situation. In 2010, International Women of Courage Award Winner, Solange Sonia Pierre, who sadly passed away in 2011, was honored for her work with the Movement for Dominican Women of Haitian Descent (MUDHA) by then Sec. of State Clinton.

Founded in 1983, MUDHA defends Haitian immigrants and their descendants living in Bateyes, with particular emphasis on children and women’s rights. MUDHA’s program areas include: preschool education and parent organizing, advocacy for policy reform, legal human rights defense, community health education and services, gender-equity building and environmental conservation.

The Ambassador to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. is Raul H. Yzaguirre.

The U.S. State Department point person on the situation in the DR is the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Senior Policy Officer Nicole Shepardson.

You can contact the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Most importantly, you can spread the word to your social and political networks.

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