Student protesting at Florida International University. Photo credit: Francesca Menes

By Vania Andre

MIAMI – Members of Rights for All in DR, a national coalition of human rights advocates, joined Florida International University (FIU) students last month, to denounce former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez’s visit to the university. Fernandez was scheduled to attend a planned lecture at the university on Oct. 22

We want to know “about his stance on the current humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic,” the coalition said. In 2013, a Dominican court ruled to retroactively change the criteria needed to obtain nationality for those born to immigrant parents after 1929. The ruling has left 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in citizenship limbo.

“As a Black FIU student, I am very concerned with what is currently happening in the Dominican Republic,” said Esi Fynn- Obeng, founder and president of the African Student Organization at FIU. “Since June we have seen thousands of DR citizens of Haitian descent displaced, murdered and attacked after ruling TC 168-13 was passed.

“I want to know how President Fernandez feels about this human rights crisis and what his plan of action will be.”

Students from the African Student Organization, Black Student Union, Haitian Student Organization, Dream Defenders and Haitian students from University of Miami all joined in the protest. While the students were passionate about taking a stand against the denationalization of Dominico-Haitians, the University took a cautious approach to the demonstration. According to Francesca Menes, a policy and advocacy coordinator at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, there was a heavy police presence, including undercover officers.

“They knew we were coming,” Menes said. “There were undercover police in the audience planted right next to our students; no posters, no flyers, no visuals.

“They searched all of our belongings before entering.” The student-led protest was nonviolent, with demonstrators chanting, “no justice, no peace.”

Former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez (right) Photo credit: Francesca Menes
Former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez (right) Photo credit: Francesca Menes

“This is a legal discussion about who is entitled to the citizenship of a country,” the former Dominican president said at the FIU-hosted lecture. “The framework that is typically applied is the one that is in effect in the United States.” In the U.S. citizenship is granted to any person born on U.S. soil, regardless of their parents’ legal status. Fernandez pointed out that although in “general terms” Latin America follows the same framework, the majority of countries around the world do not.

“If a person is born in Germany, to undocumented residents, that child is not German,” he said, “and the same of France and Spain.” The majority of countries “do not consider being born in that territory,” a qualification to be a national of that nation. While expressing understanding as to the historical sensitivities and happenings that took place leading to a mass migration of Haitians in the early 20th century, the former head of state stood behind the Dominican Republic’s right to define who is Dominican, and vehemently denied a humanitarian crisis at the borders.

“There’s no humanitarian crisis,” he said. “There has been no massive deportation. That’s what you see in foreign press, but not in reality.

“Let us not be manipulated or distorted from the facts; there is no xenophobia or humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic.”

Despite his claims, several politicians, humanitarian rights activists, and prominent people in the Haitian and Dominican community have argued otherwise.

The demonstration followed Rights For All In the Dominican Republic advocacy day on Capitol Hill, where advocates from across the country, met with U.S. legislators and staff to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic. Coalition leaders met with legislators from Florida, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California and Michigan.

Distinguished Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and Pulitzer Prize winning Dominican-American Junot Diaz attended the advocacy day, along with Dennis Benzan, the vice mayor of Cambridge, MA, and Marleine Bastien, the executive director of FAMN, the Kreyol acronym for Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami (Haitian Women Of Miami).

“There’s a state of terror” Diaz said about a recent trip to Santo Domingo. “The last time something like this happened was Nazi Germany, and yet people are like, shrugging about it.” Following his trip to Washington D.C. to advocate for Dominico-Haitians, Diaz was stripped of an of the Order of Merit awarded to him by the Dominican Republic in 2009.

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