President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández

By Juan R. Valdez

Juan R. Valdez is a native of the Dominican Republic. He is an assistant professor of bilingual education at Queens College, CUNY and the author of Tracing Dominican identity: the writings of Pedro Henríquez Ureña.

It’s surprising to see how many people are paying attention to the current crisis in the Dominican Republic concerning, among other things, the status of Dominicans of Haitian descent who are accused of being illegal immigrants in their own country and now are threatened with deportation. We usually make the news only after a catastrophe has struck our island. But here we are now on the world stage as a result of a 2013 court ruling, which, if implemented by the Dominican government, strips hundreds of thousands of people of their citizenship and threatens them with deportation. Internationally and in the media, the situation that Dominico-Haitians and Haitian immigrants find themselves in is mostly attributed to Dominicans’ purportedly racist attitudes. Yes, but race is only one factor.   Here is another perspective.

While many issues are being lumped together, people either forget or ignore that the current crisis is also the result of how power gets exercised in Dominican society. The daily display of power and influence is instrumental to the functions of Dominican politicians and the socioeconomic elites they cater to.

Representing constituents, modernizing and organizing their society, and ensuring equal access to the resources of the state often take a back seat to amassing and showing off personal wealth, measured in terms of the number of lavish houses, cars, and bank accounts owned. Another measure of this power is the number of people that many of these show-offs get to order around or humiliate with their tongue-lashings.   Many of us who grew there are well acquainted with these dictatorial personalities and their antics. Sadly, these practices get validated in popular culture when instead of questioning the corrupt means of personal enrichment and abuses of power, people celebrate it and reproduce it in their daily lives.

But also, politicians’ fortunes hinge on their ability to fan the flames of confusion, blind hatred, and nationalism. Playing the Haitian card is always politically profitable.

One of the best examples of this particular use of power practice goes back to the days of the dictator Rafael L. Trujillo (of Haitian descent). The dictator had personally profited from the cheap labor Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic. Despite the collaboration of his Haitian counterpart in these migratory-economic arrangements, Dominican opposition leaders and conspirators had found refuge in Haiti. One day, after a night of debauchery and under the pretext of putting a stop to livestock theft by Haitians along the border, Trujillo decided it was time to brutally cleanse Dominican society of Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. This was his way of crushing dissent and displaying the unquestionable power of his regime.

President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández
President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández

The current regime has been in power for most of the last twenty years, controlling the executive branch, the legislature, the courts, and the media. It owes its initial hold on power to a 1996 pact between the two former political enemies. Joaquín Balaguer and Juan Bosch (both now deceased) put their bitter differences aside and anointed former president Leonel Fernández as their heir, under the mantle of neoliberal reforms and a movement called Frente Patriótico Nacional/The National Patriotic Front. For a while, it seemed that the popular opposition leader, the dark-skinned José Francisco Peña Gómez (of Haitian descent) might win. But Fernández’s coalition of supporters stirred nationalistic fervor in a racially-charged campaign, questioning Gómez’s national loyalty and origins. In the second round of elections, Peña Gómez was defeated. Anti-Haitianism (blaming all the country’s problems on Haitian migration) was effectively utilized in that coalition’s quest for power and control.

The same thing is happening again, but now with the added fear that a potentially new electorate (of Dominico-Haitians with full rights as citizens) may interrupt business as usual. Indeed, over the last five years, Dominican citizens and ethnic minorities have been demanding more and more rights and accountability from their government. They have also calling for an end to long-established forms of institutional corruption. Some politicians have been taken to court. Yet at each major turn, the government places the “Haitian problem” front and center in its public agenda.

The more Dominicans of all backgrounds express concerns with abuses of power, the human rights of Haitian immigrants, and the inclusion of Dominico-Haitians, the political elites become more grudging about yielding to the masses in the decision-making process. The issues of Haitian immigrants continues to be strategically employed by those in power to mediate internal political crises, draw attention away from socioeconomic problems, and force citizens to forget institutional failings and misplace their anxieties.

Persuading Dominicans of the fact that the current situation is not a test of their national sovereignty will be difficult. In a small island, nationalism is a daily practice that easily erases our connections to the international communities. But we must insist that the current crisis concerns a critical political problem of grave humanitarian consequences. In dialogue, we must continue to explore ways of voicing our dissent and helping to create a more inclusive Dominican society where citizens and human rights are not easily trampled on by the rich and powerful.

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