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Sonia Pierre's struggle for justice

June 1, 2007 | Page 4

TWO IMPORTANT victories in the struggle against racism, sexism and exploitation in the Dominican Republic (DR) this year have set a historic precedent that could shake the foundations of the country's apartheid system in the near future.

At the center of this battle is Sonia Pierre, a Dominican of Haitian descent who, along with her parents, bracero workers, dwelled for years in the segregated communities known as Bateyes, and where, as a youngster, she took part in a strike that lasted four days.

Pierre is the country's most outspoken critic of the daily racism and discrimination faced by Haitian immigrants and their descendants. She is the founder of Dominican Women of Haitian Decent (MUDHA), a feminist organization that fights against the sexism and anti-Haitian racism (antihaitianismo) prevalent in the everyday life of this society.

When a minuscule right-wing, nationalist party, the Fuerza Nacional Progresista (FNP), set a firestorm by trying to revoke her citizenship thorough the local courts, she received an outpouring of solidarity from the left, feminist and anti-racist organizations in the DR, Latin America, Europe and the U.S.

The FNP, which is led by a former thug of the Trujillo dictatorship, called for her citizenship to be nullified on the grounds that her parents were undocumented when she was born in the DR.

This racist, and at times sexist, attack against Pierre was also an attack on the more than a million Haitians and Dominican-Haitians who suffer exploitation and segregation in a society where in times of economic crisis, politicians use antihaitianismo rhetoric to blame powerless Haitians immigrants for the destructive economic policies of a rapacious ruling class.

Indeed, the attack was meant to silence Pierre and others like her who, day in and day out, denounce the mistreatment inflicted on Haitians and its descendants, the many raids and deportations carried out to humiliate and intimidate immigrants, as well as the deportation to neighboring Haiti of those who have never set foot there in their entire lives. (Oftentimes, Dominicans are mistaken to be Haitians by the military that conducts these raids).

What upset the right was the groundbreaking ruling by the Inter-American Court in 2005 in favor of two Dominican girls of Haitian descent who were denied birth certificates by a local judge, and which prevented them from enrolling in school. The ruling stated that the Dominican government violated their human rights. It was immediately ordered to grant citizenship to the girls and pay a hefty fine to their parents.

The government refused to abide by the ruling, arguing that it has no bearing on Dominican law. It was not until 2007 when the government decided to finally obey the court's ruling, not out of altruism but out of concern that the profitable tourist industry would suffer huge losses if the paradisiacal image of the island was further damaged.

A determining factor that reversed the government's position was a weekly picket campaign in front of the Dominican consulate in New York City by a coalition of Haitian and Dominican activists.

In addition, the right-wing backlash that attempted to revoke Pierre's citizenship failed because it was quickly challenged by the left, the mainstream media and the liberal establishment. The right was not able to produce the violent xenophobic attacks against Haitians that rocked the nation two years after a Dominican mob lynched several Haitians when a Haitian immigrant was accused of killing a Dominican woman.

These victories will have important consequences in the future. Meanwhile, a growing discontent with the neoliberal policies of President Leonel Fernández that has translated into organized protests since last March, is focusing anger on his government rather than on the poor, immigrant communities from Haiti.

Dominican workers know who is to blame for the decline in their living standards as business lower wages and more cuts to social spending are implemented. While racist attitudes still prevail, the majority of Dominicans are beginning to realize that an attack on Haitian immigrants and their descendants also represents an attack on Dominican immigrants, who face discrimination and exploitation in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and Europe. They are also beginning to realize that an attack on their fellow Haitian workers is an attack on the living wages of everyone.

These are small glimpses of what could be possible in the long fight against apartheid in the DR. What we are seeing now are the ramifications of the U.S. immigrant rights movement that articulated the aspirations of immigrants everywhere on May 1, 2006.
Emmanuel Santos, New York City

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