by Dr. Lawrence A. Joseph
The Italian navigator and explorer Christopher Columbus is recognized as having “discovered” the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo (now called Hispaniola) in 1492 on behalf of Spain. Columbus landed there on his first of four voyages to the New World. Just as with Grenada and other Caribbean islands, that island was originally occupied by Arawakan speaking Taino Indians from South America. Subsequent to its “discovery”, there were many centuries of fighting between the French and the Spanish for control of the island. Today the Spanish speaking nation of the Dominican Republic with over ten million people occupies two-thirds of the island on the eastern side. The other one-third on the western side is occupied by French speaking Haiti with over nine million people.
Following its settlement by Europeans, Hispaniola developed a plantation system with thousands of slaves imported from Africa. Near the end of the eighteenth century, Toussaint Louverture a former slave, led a slave revolt and drove out the French. However, in 1802, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France staged an expedition and captured Louverture and imprisoned him in France where he died in 1803. Nonetheless, after many struggles led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti became independent in 1804 becoming the first Caribbean country to have achieved independence status.
Despite gaining early independence, Haiti, now a full member of Caricom, remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A substantial majority of Haitians who are mainly of African descent, are poor and lack formal jobs. In fact a considerable number of Haitians are illiterate. As a consequence of this situation many thousands of Haitians cross the border and seek a livelihood in the more prosperous Dominican Republic with a substantial number of citizens of Caucasian origin.
It is estimated that today, more than eight hundred thousand Haitians are in the Dominican Republic occupying menial jobs. Despite their significant contributions to the Dominican society, it seems that Haitians are consistently being discriminated against because of their racial origin. It seems to be an official policy of discrimination. This policy was especially promoted since 1937 when President Raphael Trujillo ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians in what is referred to as the “Parsley Massacre”. At that time over twenty thousand Haitians who lived on the Dominican side of the border were machetted or shot to death in a matter of six days. The Haitians were identified by the Dominican soldiers when they could not properly say the word for “parsley” in Spanish.
Even up to this day a Caribbean system of apartheid seems to prevail. It is a stark reminder of the policy of segregation and discrimination against black people which the authorities perpetrated in South Africa under President P. W. Botha and others. Thousands of adult Haitians who were born and bred in the Dominican Republic are being treated as aliens. One of these is Juliana Deguis Pierre, aged 23 years whose birth certificate was seized by the Dominican authorities in 2008. She was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian immigrants and never lived anywhere else. She was considered to be a foreigner “born intransit” and was not entitled to citizenship.
Pierre challenged the seizure of her birth certificate and eventually in September of this year the case was decided upon by the Constitutional Court in the Dominican Republic. Pierre’s citizenship was annulled and an order was made for the authorities to review all birth certificates which were issued since the year 1929, some four generations ago. The ruling of the Court shocked human rights advocates all over the world.
It seems clear that it was mainly Haitians who are being targeted. It is estimated that over five hundred thousand Haitians are caught by the ruling. With no legal identification, admissions to schools by Haitian students and other social amenities would be denied to those affected. Caricom, the United Nations and other institutions and nations have expressed outrage over this development. The fact is that many thousands of Haitians have been rendered stateless by the Dominican Republic, the same country to which consideration is being given for full membership of Caricom!!
In the meantime an appeal has been made against the Court’s decision to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to which the Republic is a participant. This court is based in Mexico. Following the appeal, the government of the Dominican Republic issued a temporary residency permit to Juliana. It is hoped therefore that with time, this Caribbean apartheid policy of the Dominican Republic will be stopped in its tracks.