BY KAVEH AZIMI — Shortly after the 2010 earthquake struck Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, I found myself in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Listening to the radio, I was moved when the program’s host interrupted the music to call on his listeners to donate food, supplies, and money for Haiti.
Today, this generosity of spirit is missing in the Dominican Republic.
Instead, the country’s government has failed to take meaningful steps to resolve the crisis of statelessness that started two years ago when the Dominican High Court retroactively stripped citizenship from hundreds of thousands of Dominicans, mostly of Haitian descent. Since then, at least 60,000 people have “self-deported” to Haiti, ostensibly for fear of violence or summary expulsions, which can mean being separated from family members and not getting a chance to collect their belongings. Tens of thousands of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent have been told that their official identification documents are no longer valid. They need to re-register, first as foreign nationals, before eventually – hopefully – their status as Dominican nationals is returned.
And so, this month, I joined with more than 560 other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and three former Peace Corps country directors who served in the Dominican Republic to call on US Secretary of State John Kerry to act. Our petition calls on the US State Department to enforce a law known as the Leahy amendment, which would suspend military aid to the Dominican Republic in light of the Dominican security forces’ gross violations of human rights, which include detaining and deporting Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
My story: As a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in a small, dusty village tucked away amongst vast sugarcane fields. My community was made up mostly of the descendants of Haitian laborers who had come to the Dominican Republic to cut sugarcane. During these years, I lived in a storage shed-turned-bedroom behind my host family’s small cement block house. My closest neighbor, at least in proximity, was a 200-pound pig that would wake me each morning at 5 a.m. as it squealed for breakfast.
Like most Peace Corps volunteers, I had joined to change the world. I was enthusiastic but inexperienced. I can still see the disappointed looks that greeted me when, shortly after arriving to my new home, I announced that I had come to help organize “community banks,” or community savings and loan groups. I was asked: what about new houses, a new school, or medical supplies, instead?
The residents of my community, known as Batey 8, were the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of Haitian migrants, but had been born in the Dominican Republic. In fact, according to a census I conducted, over 90 percent of community residents were born in the Dominican Republic, though nearly everyone had Haitian roots. Even as children or grandchildren of immigrants, they were raised to be proud Dominicans. They ate typical Dominican food, spoke Dominican Spanish, danced Dominican bachata, and proudly celebrated their country’s three founding fathers: Duarte, Sanchez, and Mella.
They were Dominican in every sense of the word, with only one notable difference: their darker, “Haitian” features.
Precarious legal status: Unfortunately, having “Haitian” features in the Dominican Republic can be problematic when interacting with the state. One example is birth certificates – necessary to vote, open a bank account, attend school past 8th grade, or travel. Roughly 20-30 percent of the population was never issued a birth certificate, and, therefore, has no official identification. The percentage is especially bad in rural areas where healthcare systems and government infrastructure are weak.[pullquote]They might have just been sent home, or they might have been detained or deported. That decision depended on luck rather than formal procedures.[/pullquote]
For children whose parents are of Haitian descent, weak infrastructure coupled with institutionalized racism keeps documentation rates even lower. In my community, I found that 40 percent of the population lacked a birth certificate. When these residents were questioned by the authorities about their “Haitian” features, they struggled to prove their Dominican nationality. As it turned out, this was a common conversation.
There is a police checkpoint along the highway from Batey 8 to the nearest major city, Barahona. On the highway to Santo Domingo, there are at least half a dozen more. At least once a month, I traveled on a bus to the capital. At each checkpoint, a heavily armed police officer or solider—sometimes in uniform, sometimes not—would board the bus in search of undocumented immigrants: that is, travelers who looked Haitian. The officer would scan the bus, demand proper paperwork, and then remove those who couldn’t provide it. They might have just been sent home, or they might have been detained or deported. That decision depended on luck rather than formal procedures. Now, with tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent without proper identification, even the simple act of traveling could get someone deported.
Undermining cooperation: I finished my Peace Corps service in 2008. For each of the past seven years, I have visited my Peace Corps community at least once a year. During this time, I have seen acts of prejudice, but I have also seen innumerable acts of goodwill between Dominicans and Haitians. Despite tensions, the Dominican Republic was one of Haiti’s biggest supporters after the 2010 earthquake. And that support extended beyond the government to the Dominican people whose compassion and kindness seemed boundless.
The real tragedy of the Dominican High Court’s decision to de-nationalize tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent—and the Dominican government’s wholly insufficient response—is that it takes an undercurrent of racial and cultural prejudice and formalizes it as state policy. It undermines all the positive examples of coexistence and support among Dominicans, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and Haitians. And it takes a beautiful country, with warm, kind people, and tarnishes its reputation.
I joined the Peace Corps to change the world; I learned that’s not so easy. Change can come slowly, in increments, and sometimes, not at all. But the spirit of the Peace Corps is that we all have a responsibility to do what we can, when we can to make a difference – small or large. That’s why I called on the State Department to act, along with more than 560 of my colleagues. And that is why we are asking Secretary Kerry to do what he can to make a difference in this crisis.
The views expressed above are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of the Antillean Media Group.