Dominican apartheid: Made in the USA

June 23, 2015

Dorian Bon argues that the Dominican Republic's plan to deport thousands of Haitian-descendant workers is rooted in a century of exploitation by U.S.-backed regimes.

AN OMINOUS deadline passed in the Dominican Republican on June 17, leaving hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent stripped of their citizenship and civil rights.

The policy, resulting from a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling and commonly known as la sentencia," stipulates that Haitian-descendant Dominicans lacking documentation of their citizenship or immigration status are to be treated like first-generation Haitian migrants, subjected to arrest and deportation across the eastern border to Haiti.

Without precise census data, it is difficult to know exactly how many people of Haitian descent live and work in the Dominican Republic (DR). Minority Rights Group International places the figure anywhere between 700,000 and 1 million, of which 250,000 were born and raised in the Dominican Republic.

The vast majority are undocumented workers who came to find employment on sugar plantations, in household labor or in construction jobs, often encouraged by Dominican companies and the Dominican military.

A Haitian-descendant worker on a construction job in Dominican Republic
A Haitian-descendant worker on a construction job in Dominican Republic (Ricardo Rojas | Solidarity Center)

In response to popular outcry and international pressures, the administration of President Danilo Medina in 2014 passed a law amending the court policy, which allows Dominicans born to undocumented Haitian migrants to begin a new "path to citizenship" by handing in their birth certificates and registering for temporary visas. Many prominent Dominican leaders praised this reform, including New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, himself a first-generation immigrant to the U.S.

But most Dominico-Haitians are denied state certificates at birth by racist and xenophobic bureaucrats. This maltreatment is so rampant that--even amid the present panic to remain legally in the country--only 300 people have received visas out of an estimated 250,000 who attempted to apply.

The new regulations not only threaten mass deportations in the near future, but they also lay the basis for a codified apartheid state. In all likelihood, many thousands of Haitian descendant workers will remain in the country. Employers depend on them for cheap, unprotected labor in order to threaten other Dominican workers with dismissal when they fight for higher pay and more rights.

"La sentencia" will permanently disenfranchise the Dominico-Haitian workers so crucial to the national economy, and tighten state control over the country's workforce as a whole. Those who escape deportation will be barred from rights to secondary and higher education, decent jobs, health care, legal representation and state housing, creating an underclass of profoundly marginalized working people throughout the country.

As testimonies recorded before the implementation of the measure reveal, these restrictions have been routinely observed in practice for many years. Now they are enshrined in law.

"LA SENTENCIA" does not constitute a radical break with the past. More accurately, it represents an alarming high point in a century-old effort by the Dominican state to pit the country's workers against each other, by more intensely exploiting and persecuting those of Haitian descent.

This inhumane oppression has included near-constant deportations, oscillating in intensity. During the 1990s, President Joaquín Balaguer oversaw the expulsion of over 35,000 first-, second- and third-generation Haitian immigrants. Between 2004 and 2008, President Leonel Fernández deported an estimated 65,000 workers.

Rarely do the authorities deliberate for long over the status of their victims. Once the decision has been made to conduct mass deportations, the predominant selection criterion is skin color, leading to what are, in effect, racist purges that often claim citizens with little connection to Haiti whatsoever.

In a remarkable display of hypocrisy, the U.S. government publically expressed its disapproval of the 2013 court ruling, even though the Obama administration itself is responsible for more than 2 million deportations since taking over the White House.

The truth is, of course, that the U.S. has no principled opposition to the repression of migrant workers. Its intention is to make sure that the balance of forces in a region where it has significant economic interests remains manageable and profitable.

A look at the recent history of Hispaniola--the Caribbean island which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti--shows us that the longstanding oppression of Haitian immigrants plays a key part in a development strategy imposed by the U.S. and its client states, which seeks to convert both countries into corporate havens for low-wage, disciplined labor.

During the turbulent period of the First World War, the U.S. sought to establish itself as the major economic and political power in the Caribbean by drawing each nation in the region into the domain of the American market.

On Hispaniola, the U.S. launched an extensive occupation, which carried on into the inter-war years--from 1915 to 1934 in Haiti, and from 1916 to 1924 in the Dominican Republic. The American occupation set the economic terms that would govern the island for most of the century, based on the exploitation of labor-intensive agricultural production and backed up by socially conservative, military regimes.

In the Dominican Republic, the U.S. imported Haitian labor to run the country's fertile sugar plantations, over half of which remained privately owned by American capitalists until 1940.

Under the occupation, migrant workers built many of the first bateyes--impoverished towns controlled by the sugar companies that housed the Haitian workforce. Once the U.S. felt assured that the product and revenues of the sugar economy would continue to reach its shores, the military withdrew, and the occupation was disbanded.

In order to maintain the highly profitable sugar economy, the Dominican regime had to whip up enough jingoistic hatred for the Haitian population to prevent immigrant workers from winning higher wages and political rights--while, on the other hand, tempering this nationalist fervor enough to keep the Haitian-descendant laborers in the country and in ready supply.

If maintained, this hierarchy would guarantee a sufficient level of competition in the labor market for Hispanic-Dominican workers to accept low wages, and replace worker militancy and organization with internecine violence among the poor.

THE FIRST and most destructive experiment in this divide-and-conquer strategy was carried out by the murderous U.S.-backed dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.

Trujillo and his lackeys gave rise to the idea--one that continues to pervade the country to this day--which attributes the country's social ills to the intrusion of immoral and impure Haitians taking Dominican jobs and resources. Like many other Dominican leaders, Trujillo might have believed in this myth himself. Others know it to be false, but continue to propagate anti-Haitian racism to manipulate the working class and keep the spoils of the economy to themselves.

In 1937, Trujillo initiated a cleansing of the Haitian population in the porous border region between the two countries, setting in motion a hysterical propaganda campaign that encouraged vigilantes to take up arms alongside the military.

The result was the Parsley Massacre, captured vividly in Edwidge Danticat's novel The Farming of Bones. The mass murders claimed the lives of an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 victims and sent untold numbers of others fleeing across the border for survival.

The massacre was deadly enough that Trujillo almost lost the Haitian labor supply entirely. He was impelled to sign bilateral agreements with the similarly murderous and U.S.-backed Duvalier regime in Haiti to loosen border controls and permit seasonal entry for the cheap workforce so vital to the Dominican system.

After Trujilo was assassinated in 1961, the Dominican Republic underwent a six-year period of uncertainty, as several political forces vied for dominance in the epoch to follow. When the widely respected liberal Juan Bosch appeared to gain the upper hand, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson opted to invade the country once again.

The bloody 1965-66 occupation left the Trujillo-era diplomat and official Joaquín Balaguer to assume the presidency and reassert the same social structure that had prevailed over the prior three decades. Balaguer led the country from 1966 to 1978, and again from 1986 to 1996. A prolific novelist and social commentator, Balaguer authored perverse histories of the Trujillo era, arguing that the Parsley Massacre was the result of a Haitian "invasion" of the country.

During the first term of Balaguer's successor, Leonel Fernández, sugar prices dropped precipitously, leading investors to transfer much of their capital into construction, manufacturing and tourism, where Haitian labor has again been used to create competition between workers and downward pressure on wage levels.

To survive the crisis in the sugar market, President Fernández was forced to ask for extensive loans from the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which required rapid repayment via drastic reductions in state expenditures. Under the stipulations of the debt agreements, much of the country's health care, education and utilities infrastructure was privatized, alongside the coveted state enterprises in the sugar industry.

Quickly, many of the social benefits that had separated the majority of Dominicans from those of Haitian descent began to disappear, leading to a swelling of popular resistance that put the Dominican regime on its heels. During his second and third terms between 2004 and 2012, Balaguer attempted to consolidate his power by more intensely stoking nationalist and conservative sentiments, laying the grounds for the apartheid laws to come.

MEANWHILE, ON the other side of Hispaniola, a similar if not more dramatic sequence of events unfolded, which left conditions in Haiti practically unlivable for working people.

In 1986, President Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted by a powerful protest movement, after nearly 30 years of brutal rule by him and his father before him. This political unrest coincided with the global slump in sugar prices, forcing Haitian capital to reconstruct large swaths of the economy.

In the midst of these transitions, the left-wing Catholic populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to prominence, winning mass support among Haitian workers to lead the country towards social equality and national sovereignty.

But, much like in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Haiti's U.S. overseers would have no truck with anti-imperialist populism.

The CIA funded a military coup to topple Aristide after his election in 1991. Through a combination of persuasion and blackmail, the Clinton administration later allowed Aristide to return to the presidency on the condition that he accept most of the U.S. economic program, which aimed to turn Haiti into a low-wage manufacturing and tourist economy over the following decade.

In 2004, the tenuous contract between Aristide, his Haitian political opponents to the right and the Bush Jr. administration came undone. The U.S. facilitated a second coup to remove Aristide for good, this time aiding paramilitary forces entering the country from the Dominican border.

In his wake, the U.S. enlisted the support of the United Nations to establish a coordinated military occupation, dubbed the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (or MINUSTAH, as the French acronym goes), which continues to this day.

Between 2004 and 2010, U.N. military forces and far-right terrorist groups repressed pro-Aristide activists, who staged continuous protests and peaceful resistance against the occupation. Unsurprisingly, the U.N. designated many of the neighborhoods known to be sympathetic towards Aristide for clearance and relocation, constructing in their place the hyper-exploitative 'Free Trade Zones' of the future.

Just when it seemed that conditions could not deteriorate any further for ordinary Haitians, the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 dealt the country another blow. The regime of President René Préval and the UN occupiers came to a standstill.

The U.S. intervened to prevent Aristide supporters and other popular initiatives from establishing themselves amid the chaos. Urgently needed food supplies were delayed for days to make room for planes filled with military personnel and equipment.

UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon assigned former President Bill Clinton to lead a relief effort that has proven to be thoroughly inept. Privately held humanitarian agencies have more to gain from public recognition of their generosity than actually building infrastructures for human life. To take only one example, the $500 million housing construction program initiated by the Red Cross has thus far yielded only six passable dwellings.

JUST AS Leonel Fernández redoubled the public vilification of Haitian migrants to better control discontent in the Dominican Republic, the disaster in Haiti forced thousands of workers to cross the Western border to seek means of survival.

Together, these factors combined to exacerbate the festering racial tensions among the Dominican populace, which have lent sufficient legitimacy to the state's propaganda to allow for new waves of persecution. The 2013 apartheid law emerged out of these conditions.

Both sides of Hispaniola are governed by American client states committed to maintaining a cheap labor supply and limiting popular democratic rights. The severe oppression of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent functions to depress wage levels for all Dominicans, and to prevent Haitian and non-Haitian workers alike from mobilizing and organizing for their own interests.

If the island's working class hopes to raise its living standards and gain political power, it will have to unite against all forms of racism and discrimination, and wrest control from the U.S.-backed elite in both countries to make economic decisions and investments for themselves.

There is a long history of solidarity between Haitians and Dominicans, from the significant Haitian participation in resisting both U.S. occupations of the Dominican Republic and the repressive regime of Joaquin Balaguer, to the grassroots Dominican involvement in the 2010 earthquake relief efforts.

There were also times during the protests against Leonel Fernández's austerity measures when Haitian migrants and Dominicans formed an impressive united force. This legacy of solidarity is by no means sufficient, but it provides an urgently needed starting point for the reconstruction of the left on Hispaniola as a whole.

The left must do all it can to build this type of common struggle today, even if the current state of affairs makes such efforts seem extremely difficult. Unity against racism and against the corporate agenda is the only possible path towards a humane resolution to the crisis.

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