Jean Joseph’s 8-year-old daughter has nightmares of soldiers pulling her from her bed at night and taking her to jail. His wife has urged him to consider moving the family to Haiti to avoid forced deportation. When he walks the streets of Santo Domingo, he says, he receives glares from people suspicious of his dark brown skin and his family’s heritage.
In his heart, Joseph feels Dominican. He was born in the Dominican Republic. His daughters, Ana and Marie, speak Spanish. He listens to merengue music and favors a dinner of mashed plantains, a popular Dominican dish. But his parents came from Haiti, which means that in the Dominican Republic, where a roiling debate over identity and the forced deportation of people deemed Haitian has sparked mass international protests in recent months, Joseph is effectively a foreigner.
For months, Dominican military leaders have raided Haitian neighborhoods across the island nation and forced thousands of dark-skinned residents onto buses aimed for its shared border with Haiti. The mass deportations have highlighted the Dominican Republic’s many racial and economic inequalities after decades of violent interactions between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo over trade, jobs and race that have only intensified since a massive earthquake in 2010 sent hundreds of thousands of destitute Haitians into the Dominican Republic in search of basic sustenance and a new life.
“They can call me Haitian and tell me to leave, but does that mean I am Haitian, or just that they won’t recognize that I am Dominican like them?” said Joseph, 38, a construction worker who is shy about speaking loudly in public, lest someone accuse him of speaking Spanish with a Haitian Creole accent. “We will stay here because this is our home, and they can drag us out by our hair if they want.”
“We will stay here because this is our home, and they can drag us out by our hair if they want.”
The tensions reflect deep-seated and historical animosity between two neighboring countries sharing a small island. From its inception, the Dominican Republic has defined itself as not Haiti -- a country populated by dark-skinned people of African descent in contrast to lighter-skinned Dominicans with roots in Spain. Both countries are relatively poor and full of laborers scraping by on $2 a day, but the Dominican Republic has a booming tourism industry that supplies construction and service jobs, while Haiti is one of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries.
The latest chapter in the strained relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic began in 2013, when Santo Domingo stripped hundreds of thousands of Haitian descendants of their Dominican citizenship, including those born to undocumented parents as far back as 1929. Then, earlier this year, the government announced Haitians would need to register with immigration authorities or voluntarily leave the country. To assure compliance, the government arranged for free transportation to the border and Army Gen. Ruben Paulino vowed to patrol neighborhoods with large numbers of migrants.
"If they aren’t registered, they will be repatriated," Paulino told reporters at the time.
The immigration policy means that many people who have never visited Haiti and don’t speak its predominant language, Creole, face deportation to a country they don’t identify with. Some have acquiesced to the orders of voluntary deportation. Along the 230-mile border the two nations share on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a handful of makeshift camps have mushroomed in recent months as thousands of Haitians voluntarily returned to Haiti amid fears that the alternative is being forced out at any moment.
The vast majority of Haitians, however, are quietly holding on, refusing to give up the lives they spent years building in the Dominican Republic, where Haitians are often treated as second-class citizens and earn as much as 60 percent less than people who claim Spanish heritage.
Meanwhile, protests have unfolded across the United States and in other countries in recent months against Santo Domingo’s increasingly harsh immigration policies, with some calling for a tourism boycott of the island. One opposition group calls itself “The International Campaign to End Apartheid in the Dominican Republic.”
Haitian President Michel Martelly has denounced the deportation tactics, while also assuring Haitians in the Dominican Republic that Haiti was “ready to receive with dignity our sons, our brothers.”
The Parsley Test
On a recent afternoon in Santo Domingo, a sweltering sun hung heavy above a field of pale foreigners baking in lounge chairs along the Atlantic Ocean coast. Michele Jean walked up to every swimsuit-clad man and woman on the beach, trying to hustle up a few extra dollars to feed her family with her limited English, her Haitian Creole accent just barely noticeable. “Massage? Massage?” she asked as she marched across the sand in worn sneakers, her black hair secured into braids in a futile attempt to keep her cool.
Jean moved to the Dominican Republic from Haiti as a young girl, but she said she had little hope of ever finding better work than begging tourists for spare cash in exchange for a light back rub. Offering 10-minute massages to the handful of American and European tourists who visit the beaches on the edges of Santo Domingo is just one of Jean’s many sources of money. She also runs a laundry service out of her house and occasionally cleans homes in more-affluent neighborhoods. Her hard work goes toward putting food on the table and sending her children to school. But she fears no matter how educated they become, their Haitian heritage and dark skin will likely always set them apart from other Dominicans.
“I work hard, I speak Spanish, I have lived here for 30 years, but I am not Dominican, my children are not Dominican and they will never be to them,” said Jean, 34, as she sat underneath a palm tree sipping a drink of fresh papaya juice after a shift working the beach. “They are happy to see us sweat.”
Haitians have for years made up a significant number of the low-skilled workers who shore up the Dominican Republic’s powerful construction, tourism and agriculture industries. For centuries, they have crossed the porous border dividing the former European colonies and set up residence in shantytowns in sugarcane villages and, more recently, in sprawling urban centers, as they took up jobs as farmhands, hotel maids and construction workers.
There were 215,500 ethnic Haitians of working age in the Dominican Republic in 2010, up from 46,200 in 2000, according to the International Monetary Fund estimates. But human rights activists and global institutions, including the World Bank, counter that Santo Domingo has grossly underestimated its number of Haitian migrants, with some estimates setting the number of Haitians at more than 800,000 people, or roughly 8 percent of the Dominican Republic’s total population. Hundreds of thousands of those are likely Dominican-born Haitian descendants, while about 40 percent were found to have been living in the country for less than one year.
Violence and racial tensions have for decades defined the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti conquered Santo Domingo, which was then under Spanish rule, in 1822, enforcing strict military rule and restricting the use of the Spanish language. The Dominican Republic won its freedom from Haiti after a violent revolt in 1844.
The bloodshed of the 22-year occupation saw a second act in the 20th century, when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo oversaw the killing of some 20,000 Haitians in the late 1930s in what became known as the Parsley Massacre. It was called that because Trujillo reportedly had troops kill people who didn’t pronounce “perejil,” the Spanish word for parsley, with a Spanish inflection.
“The very definition of what it means to be a Dominican is: ‘I’m not Haitian’,” said Eduardo A. Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami, who has served as a foreign policy adviser to Dominican and Haitian lawmakers alike in recent years.
A Shared Border
The more recent immigration clashes began simmering after a massive earthquake in 2010 devastated Haiti. The Dominican Republic helped oversee relief and reconstruction efforts, but it also rejected the subsequent flood of migrants the disaster sent across the border.
Luis “Junior” Santos, a 24-year-old waiter in Santo Domingo, said Haitians were to blame for driving down wages. Santos said he didn’t see how he could move out of his parents' home and get married unless he got a better career where he wouldn’t need to compete with Haitian migrants.
“They have taken over the construction sites, and they want the hotels, too,” he said. “We need jobs for us. We can’t give them our jobs if we don’t have jobs enough for Dominicans.”
The legal ruling that ended birthright citizenship in 2013 came after Juliana Deguis, a 29-year-old woman born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian migrants and working as a maid, sought a national identity card. Her petition was denied because her Dominican birth certificate indicated that her parents were Haitian migrants and therefore not legal residents. In response, Haiti lashed out by vetoing the import of agricultural products including hens, eggs and cold cuts from its neighbor.
For Dominicans of Haitian descent, the ruling declaring they were no longer citizens despite having lived in the Dominican Republic for, in some cases, generations came as a shock. Mixed heritage has been an enduring byproduct of millions of people sharing a compact island in the Caribbean. Ulises Heureaux, president of the Dominican Republic in the 1880s, was partly of Haitian descent. Jose Pena Gomez, a former mayor of Santo Domingo who nearly was elected the country’s first black president in 1996, was born to parents of Haitian descent and orphaned as an infant when his parents were killed by Trujillo’s death squads. Haitians and Dominicans come in all skin tones, but for many on both sides of the island, African roots seem to be the common denominator.
"I couldn’t tell you what store to buy candy in, how to ride the bus, I don’t know that country. My future is here."
Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina, who has overseen the immigration purge, has denied that his country is racist, declaring that 80 percent of Dominicans are black or of mixed race. But his words have failed to reassure many Haitians.
“There is nothing in Haiti for me,” said Claude Lubin, 27, a black gas station attendant who was brought to Santo Domingo by his parents when he was 12 years old, as he waited for a public bus on a recent day on a street rife with stray dogs and aging cars. “I couldn’t tell you what store to buy candy in, how to ride the bus. I don’t know that country. My future is here.”
Critics of the immigration policy note that blocking new waves of Haitian migrants would be difficult because of the largely unpatrolled border dividing the nation. There is also little to stop a border guard from accepting a bribe from a migrant with deep pockets.
“It’s impossible to talk about blocking all of these border points. You can go somewhere and there isn’t anyone for miles. You can just walk across. It’s a big border,” said Gamarra. “Some conservatives are proposing a wall, but it’s still an easy boat ride away.”
Despite the prevalence of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, those of Haitian descent have long been among the nation’s poorest residents, subject to low wages, deportation threats and inadequate healthcare. Some agricultural workers earn as little as $2.50 a day, if they are paid at all, according to a United Nations report.
The alleged racial divide is never far from the surface in the Dominican Republic. On a recent afternoon, Joseph sat with a plate of rice, beans and pork chops during his lunch break from helping construct a bank in downtown Santo Domingo. Near him stood a handful of black construction workers who Joseph said also have ties to Haiti. Across the street on the opposite curb sat a row of tan men eating the same lunch platter purchased from a corner market.
“We work together, we eat together, but they never sit with us,” Joseph said, gesturing with his plastic fork. “The Dominicans always have to be separate from us. They refuse to be the same.”
‘We Have Our Own Problems’
The Dominican Republic is one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean, an attractive contrast for Haitians looking to flee their impoverished homeland, where nearly 80 percent of all citizens earn less than $2 a day. But Dominicans have struggled with their own economic hurdles for decades, and a growing lack of confidence in the government to provide basic services has helped fuel anti-Haitian policies in recent years.
The Dominican Republic held its first peaceful, democratic election in 1978, but complaints of government corruption and mismanagement have persisted since then. In July 2011, protests against high income taxes and electricity tariffs, rising gasoline and food prices, ineffective transportation and trade and lawmakers demanding bribes saw police kill three protesters. Nearly 2 million Dominicans are unemployed and as many as 41 percent of Dominicans live in poverty in a nation slightly more than twice the size of New Hampshire. Only 35 percent of its residents report having steady electricity. The rest of the country faces lengthy, rolling blackouts.
“This is not the Nazis. This is not Trujillo. This is not what the Americans are making it out to be, some racial war.”
“You don’t say there is no power. If there is power, that’s when it’s unusual,” said Eric Santiago, who runs a karaoke machine rental business in Santo Domingo and has eight children. “The politicians always say, ‘Vote for me. I will fix the problems, electricity, jobs and prosperity for everyone.’ We ignore them because nothing changes.”
Paying the bills can be rough in the Dominican Republic. An economy once dependent on sugarcane production has given way to a nation whose survival depends on the spending whims of tourists who flock to resort communities and avoid the vast majority of the country. Dominicans earn roughly $2 an hour. Hotels, bars and restaurants make up 28 percent of the Dominican Republic’s employment sector. Agriculture makes up 15 percent. In 2013, 5.1 million tourists visited the Dominican Republic, with many tending to be Haitian hotel maids, chefs and bartenders.
The country’s conservative values, rooted in Catholic teachings, have also drawn rebuke from human rights groups. A constitution passed in 2010 defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prohibited abortion under all circumstances, even when the mother’s life was at risk.
Many Dominicans said they don’t fully support the deportations of Haitians, but they also warned that the government can’t support waves of indigent people from another nation without first tackling its own challenges.
“If it weren’t for them, nothing would be built here,” said Enrique Flores, noting the abundance of Haitian construction workers in the Dominican Republic as he sat on a recent afternoon under the many palm trees lining Enriquillo Park in downtown Santo Domingo, a commercial area known for its street violence, rampant litter and clothing stores selling cheap apparel.
But Flores’ sympathy has a limit.
“This is not the Nazis. This is not Trujillo. This is not what the Americans are making it out to be, some racial war,” said Flores, a taxi driver who has two grown children and receives remittances from his siblings living in the United States. “Who does more for the Haitians than Dominicans? But you cannot expect the Dominicans alone are going to fix Haiti’s problems. We have our own problems.”