Anti-Haitian sentiments in the Dominican Republic are spiralling out of control. The Guardian reported in February that construction of a 196km-long Trumpian wall to stem the flow of migrants, gangs, and contraband is well underway. In addition, Haitians fleeing destitution and a crumbling healthcare service at home face appalling mistreatment and mass deportation once they cross the border. The Groupe d’Appui au Rapatriés et Refugiés (“Support Group for Returnees and Refugees”) organization told Equal Times that Dominican immigration officers are preventing pregnant Haitian women from giving birth in public hospitals.
Haiti’s peaceful annexation of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo between 1822 and 1844 incited anti-Haitian attitudes which still pervade the Dominican Republic. For decades, Dominican novelists, playwrights, and academics depicted Haiti’s unification of Hispaniola as a dark age filled with violence, chaos, and immense suffering. In reality, Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer abolished slavery, restrained the Catholic Church’s influence, and redistributed land to the peasantry. The wealthy, conservative, clerical, and borderline feudal nationalists who spearheaded the Dominican independence movement never forgave Boyer, and Haitians in general, for endangering their vast economic privileges, Gustavo Antonio De Pena says.
Scholars like Micah Wright, April Mayes, and Roberto Cassá argue that the U.S. military, which occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, also inflamed pre-existing racial tensions. U.S. officials and marines equated white skin with order, civilization, or progress and associated black people with poverty, barbarity, and paganism. Dominican elites, who already cast themselves as embattled guardians of European culture, Christianity, and modernity throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eagerly embraced these racist beliefs. Emboldened light-skinned and mixed-race Dominicans distanced themselves further from a Haitian underclass condemned to toil on sugarcane plantations.
American occupiers elevated white foreigners to positions of power and cultivated a predominantly white middle class. Meanwhile, U.S. immigration policies encouraged thousands of black Haitians to flock to the Dominican Republic every year – with most ending up in poorly paid and hazardous jobs. This massive influx of Haitian workers triggered a backlash from Dominican labourers in the 1920s, who soon perceived Haitian competitors as “pests.”
Historian Edward Paulino implies that U.S. authorities imported some of the worst prejudices of the Jim Crow South into Dominican society. White American troops, mainly recruited from segregated states, committed heinous and racially-motivated atrocities during brutal counter-insurgency operations along the Haitian-Dominican border. Moreover, Americans imposed discriminatory anti-prostitution and sanitary laws that disproportionately targeted Black women. To this day, ethnic studies expert Ernesto Sagás says, Haitian women are dehumanized and “objectified as sexually promiscuous, prolific, unfaithful, unclean, and as practitioners of witchcraft” in the Dominican Republic. By convincing many Dominicans that they possessed, in the words of a diplomat, “a preponderance of white blood,” the U.S. helped lay the foundations of anti-Haitianismo.
U.S.-trained soldier-turned-dictator Rafael Trujillo, who transformed the Dominican Republic into a one-party autocracy in the early thirties, moulded these anti-Haitian sentiments into an oppressive ideology. Multiple propagandists and “intellectuals” like Manuel Peña Batlle and Joaquín Balaguer proudly promoted a vicious anti-Haitian nationalism in school textbooks and mass media during and long after Trujillo’s thirty-year reign of terror, according to scholar Daly Guilamo.
Notably, Trujillo weaponized anti-Haitianism in 1937 to crush the autonomous, bilingual, and transnational rural communities straddling the Haitian-Dominican border. Historian Amelia Hintzen revealed that, since municipal and provincial officials proved very reluctant to expel Haitian friends and neighbours, Trujillo ordered the army to slaughter 10,000-20,000 Haitian men, women, and children. Anyone suspected of pronouncing the Spanish word for parsley in a Créole or French accent risked immediate execution. Troops and conscripted civilians butchered entire families with machetes in secluded areas deep in the Dominican countryside.
Those who survived never forgot the terror they faced that day. “There were a lot of small children who were thrown up in the air and stabbed with a bayonet, and then placed on top of their mothers,” survivor Irelia Pierre recalled, remembering how she’d played dead underneath the bodies of her murdered parents, brothers, and sisters.
This genocidal purge, known as the Parsley Massacre, eradicated networks that bound Haitians and Dominicans together for centuries. Successive governments in Santo Domingo have neither apologized nor offered compensation to the victims.
As a result, some Dominicans today have no shame expressing their desire to exterminate Haitians. Daly Guilamo met people who ominously proclaimed, “We are just waiting for the government to give us the ‘go’[ahead]… We do not have a problem killing every Haitian man, woman, and child.”
These reprehensible views are not limited to extremist or fringe political movements: hate crimes continue to plague Haitian communities. Dominican Today reported last year that the HaitianosRD Collective, a coalition of activists and organizations defending the rights of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, warned the Attorney General that police routinely fail to investigate death threats, lynchings, and other xenophobic crimes.
Trujillo not only succeeded in making anti-Haitianism an acceptable prejudice, he also ensured that Haitian immigrants would remain inextricably shackled to backbreaking and humiliating labor. Following the Parsley Massacre, Hintzen says, restrictive policies forbade Haitians from working outside sugar cane plantations. Local officials even forced Haitians to sell their land and shut down their businesses. Haitians’ geographic exclusion, trapped in isolated and repressive plantations far away from mainstream society, confirmed that Dominican authorities only tolerated them if they stayed out of sight.
This hidden apartheid persists today. Open Democracy reported in 2017 that Haitian workers confined to overcrowded bateyes (shacks, cabins, and barracks built to house labourers and their families) endure severe exploitation. “We are like slaves in freedom,” one source said. “[W]e work and we do not earn any money, we work for nothing… we cannot even buy shoes.” There are now approximately 425 bateyes scattered throughout the country. Most lack basic services like running water, toilets, and electricity.
The sugar cane industry’s privatization in the late nineties led to the deterioration of plantation working conditions. Strikes and trade unions are strictly forbidden. Haitians who step out of line are automatically dismissed and replaced. Managers even prevent workers from raising livestock or growing extra food on company property. Sociologist Effie Smith states that exhausting twelve-hour days and physical abuse are also common.
The closure of numerous plantations since the early noughties is pushing thousands of bateye residents to search for jobs in towns and cities. Yet precarity and insecurity reign supreme. Because the Dominican Labour Code allows employers to eschew written contracts, the lucky few in relatively long-term employment only receive verbal information about wages and payment schedules. This means Haitians often possess no verifiable proof of employment. To make matters worse, given the absence of banks or A.T.M.s in the bateyes, migrants must travel long distances to get paid – assuming they get paid, on time or at all.
The Dominican state, frightened that bateyes were no longer stopping unwanted immigrants from venturing into the cities, passed laws designed to deport Haitians and their Dominican-born descendants over the past twenty years. The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 caused thousands of Haitians to seek shelter and medical aid in the Dominican Republic, giving Dominican legislators the perfect opportunity to restrain Haitian immigration. These legislators retroactively canceled the birthright citizenship of at least 200,000 Dominicans born to Haitian parents, rendering many of them stateless overnight. As Sonia Pierre, former executive director of the Dominican-Haitian Women’s Movement said, “[I]t’s much easier to accept any Dominican of any origin than a Dominican of Haitian origin.”
What can Haitian immigrants do to overcome these tragic circumstances? Above all else, Haitian bateye residents must find the courage and resources to form trade unions if they ever hope to improve their abysmal working conditions or receive social benefits and pensions. Haitian sugar cane cutters, construction workers, and domestics should look to organizer Chris Smalls for inspiration. After spending two years confronting legions of anti-union consultants worth millions of dollars, Smalls’ tenacious dedication to grassroots organizing ended in triumph when he convinced his colleagues to join Amazon’s first union on April 1st.
This momentous victory will be very hard to replicate in the Dominican Republic. Refugee expert Andréa Nunes warns that Father Christopher Hartley was expelled for daring to expose human right violations in privately-owned sugar plantations. But there is no other way for Haitians to restore their dignity.
The Haitian Revolution dealt a crushing blow to the European slave trade and proved to countless slaves in Brazil and the United States that emancipation was possible. Unionized and organized Haitians, backed with ample financial and legal aid from abroad, can sound the death knell of modern slavery in the Dominican Republic, dispel lingering racial hierarchies, and set an example for the world once again.
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