Old racism lingers on Hispaniola

October 18, 2005|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti -- The name of the river here that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a reminder of the dark and bloody history of the two countries that share the island known as Hispaniola.

It is called the Massacre River.

Whatever the reason for that name, it must evoke an event seven decades ago when the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the army to massacre all Haitians found outside of the country's sugar plantations, where they were then, and are now, a source of indispensable cheap labor. Historians estimate that thousands were killed during that time in 1937.

General Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, but the legacy of anti-Haitian hatred that he nurtured survives to this day. Since 1937, there have been no massacres of Haitian natives, or people believed to be of Haitian descent on that scale. But in a pattern of behavior that smacks of racism, they are discriminated against, harassed, often deported in large numbers without the opportunity to appeal, and sometimes killed, human rights and foreign observers say.

Mass deportations are the main focus these days. In Haiti, where the economy has been ruined and unemployment is astronomical, it is easy for a Haitian to cross into the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane and banana plantations and lately in the service industry attached to the Dominican Republic's growing tourist industry. As many illegal immigrants are welcomed in parts of the U.S. economy as a source of cheap labor, so are Haitians welcomed in parts of the Dominican economy.

And when the economy goes sour, deportation of illegal immigrants tends to rise. The difference between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic lies in the way it's done. For most in the U.S., there's a legal process. In the Dominican Republic, it tends to be a process of round-up and expulsion without any right of appeal, according to human rights and foreign observers.

And, according to these observers, the deportees often include Dominicans of Haitian descent who have lived there for decades, and even Dominican nationals who happen to look like Haitians because they are black. In the process, these observers say, the deportees often are forced to leave behind family members, all personal belongings, property and funds.

Father Lissaint Antoine, director of the Jesuit Refugee Center in Ouanaminthe, says that in 2004, some 14,000 people were deported. "Those are the ones we know about. It could be as many as 25,000," he said.

"There is a very nationalistic movement in the Dominican Republic," he said. "When things go badly, they cast Haitians as the problem.

"Haiti and the Dominican Republic have agreements on this issue, but they are not enforced by the Dominican government, and Haiti has no government."

A ranking foreign observer, who asked not to be identified, said that formal complaints have been made to the Dominican government, which promises to "look into the allegations."

But, he adds, "They don't have control over their border, either."

The Dominican government does not deny that abuses occur.

"The government of the Dominican Republic has acknowledged that in certain cases excesses have been committed in the processes of repatriation," Flavio Dario, the Dominican ambassador in Washington, stated in a written response to questions. "This is not, however, a state policy, but the result of limited resources, insufficient personnel, lack of training, and the overwhelming reality of a massive illegal immigration that is out of control."

The ambassador asserted that his government "is doing all that it can to provide a deportation procedure that guarantees the human rights of those who are deported" and would welcome "the collaboration of international institutions with expertise in this matter."

International institutions might be able to help. Certainly, if Haiti's fortunes were reversed, the tendency toward illegal immigration would diminish. But this is also about a mindset and scapegoating that have existed for a century. Only the Dominicans can change that.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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