Denationalizing Dominicans of Haitian Ancestry? Santo Domingo’s Anti-Dominican Authorities
The Constitutional Court that denationalizes over 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, reaching back to include great-great grandmothers born in the national territory in 1929, has been indicted by people of good will at home and abroad. No one connected with Dominican society as ancestral or native land could remain psychologically unscathed by a decision that drags the country into the gutter of moral turpitude. Hardly an immigration matter or foreign affairs issue involving Haitian-Dominican relations, this is yet another chapter in the saga of a leadership at war with its people. Defining Dominicans contrary to what they are began in the latter half of the 19th century and continued into the 20th century with the regimes of murderous tyrant Rafael Leónidas Trujillo and depraved caudillo Joaquín Balaguer. The Court ruling came from the pens of mulatto judges educated by that tradition.
The great poet Rhina P. Espaillat, godmother to the contemporary American poets known as New Formalists, hardly ever utters a harsh word. But since, in the beauty of her 81 years, she still cares deeply for the native land that she left for good in 1939, Rhina burst in anger when the news of the Court ruling reached her. It made her “nauseous.” She deemed it a “disgusting nonsense” and a “stain on the conscience of the Dominican Republic.” The two women judges who cast the minority vote in the Court decision share Rhina’s indignation. Unlike their peers, they impugned the ruling as one causing “denationalization,” “statelessness,” and disrespect for “human dignity.” Their words echo the sentiments of compatriots everywhere shamed by a vicious definition of their nationality.
The Dominican Republic started as an inclusive sovereignty that embraced the principle of diversity. The country’s first juridical act on March 1, 1844 abolished slavery “forever” and ended the colonial legacy of racial privilege. The nascent republic declared itself a sanctuary for enslaved people everywhere, offering them freedom and citizenship the very moment they stepped on Dominican soil. Hostile to that precedent, the Constitutional Court redefined national belonging according to an anti-Dominican credo. In Santo Domingo, the cradle of blackness in the Americas, the birthplace of racial and cultural mixture in the hemisphere, they moved to uphold the precept of homogeneity. The Court ruling imagines Dominicans as a uniform people who possess “a particular idiosyncrasy and a common set of collective aspirations” and share “a set of historical, linguistic” and “racial traits.” Defiantly dismissing the heterogeneous visage of the population, the definition reaches back to the colonial period to revive a racial logic that the republic had superseded.
Noting the credentials of the prominent supporters of the Court ruling perhaps confirms its profound anti-Dominicanness. Three examples will do: José Ricardo Taveras Blanco, the General Director of Migration, who invokes “our sovereign right to establish . . . our nationality policy;” Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, right-wing politician, bank partner, and Brigadier General, who calls the Court ruling “absolutely fair” and mocks the concerns of human rights advocates saying “here Dominicans call the shots, not anybody else;” and Leonel Fernández Reyna, former president three times and aspiring president the next time around, who regards the Court ruling as enacting “the sovereignty of the State to determine who Dominican nationals are.”
We need only recall that when ultra- (and therefore pseudo-) nationalists announced a march to repudiate Haitians in the country in September, Taveras Blanco declared his solidarity with their action, reminding us of the most brutal era of US racial oppression when the local judge would join the Ku Klux Klan in acts of aggression against blacks in the neighborhood. We know López Rodríguez from his wrathful tirades against the less empowered sectors of society, namely single mothers, disinherited compatriots who seek shelter in church buildings, priests who conduct mass in créole in regions with many Haitian parishioners, critics of the fraudulent and repressive Balaguer, and anyone who disobeys the norm of heterosexuality, among others. When the Cardinal roars that “here Dominicans call the shots,” he means only his small faction.
Fernández Reyna stands out for actions such as the concession he made as president to the powerful Canadian mining company Barrick Gold allowing it to extract gold from the country’s mountains without economic benefit to the Dominican government while spreading contaminants and encouraging deforestation. He ignored the warnings of environmental specialists about the dangers of metallic mining and the lethal effects of cyanide use in extractions, the ensuing poisoning of rivers, and the demise of vital water resources. Unmoved, he showed that the prosperity of Barrick Gold worried him more than the potential sight of Dominican children drinking cyanide-laced water from the country’s rivers.
An incumbent government does not have the right to redefine a people’s nationality overnight so as to harm a given sector of the population. It may boast the power to do so, thanks to the monopoly on violence that comes with the control of the military, but not the right. Nor does it have the right to dismiss a whole population’s desire for a humane definition of nationality. The Trujillo dictatorship used its power in 1937 and defined us as a genocidal nation. Hitler used his power to define the nation through unspeakable horrors beginning with the denationalization of German citizens of Jewish ancestry in 1933. We do not call their malfeasance a right. We call it crime against humanity. That malfeasance prompted the rise of international legal structures meant to protect victimized groups from the violence of their governments. Still the Dominican judges chose to align themselves conceptually with the German model though they could have easily emulated that of Juan Pablo Duarte, the intellectual architect of Dominican nationhood who had decried “the aristocracy of blood.” Diverging from modern jurisprudence, the judges sided with Nazi malevolence.
No benefit could possibly come to Dominican society from the egregious Court ruling. Analysts have thus looked for likely motives in political capital. The ruling party has received an ever smaller percentage of the national vote in each of its last three electoral victories. Should the trend continue, the party may run short some 250,000 votes the next time around. Its chances of reversing the trend seem unlikely given its penchant for unpopular measures. But the option remains to reduce the opposition’s voting pool. Targeting Dominicans of Haitian ancestry makes sense given the widespread belief that they usually vote for the opposition due to the Negrophobia and anti-Haitianism deployed by the ruling party in past elections. The Court ruling may simply be a voter suppression stratagem, a tropical mulatto version of schemes made current in recent US politics by the Koch Brothers and the Bradley Foundation.
President Danilo Medina for some time refrained from supporting the Court ruling. He received delegations of the Haitian-Dominican population and even heard the plaints of human rights organizations. He did not deny outright the possibility that an injustice may have been committed, and he acknowledged that “here we face a human drama that we must resolve.” Even the hesitation to speak one way or the other sets him radically apart from the standard practice of the National Palace, where a López Rodríguez-type knee-jerk reaction has predominated, lashing out at any criticism of official injustices and often increasing the behavior in question so as to spite the critics. President Medina still has the opportunity to choose the side of history that he wants to inhabit: that of the anti-Dominican faction that insists the more stubbornly in governing us the greater its contempt for us, or that of the 1844 compatriots who accepted us in the multiple colors of our diversity, bequeathing to us a definition of nationality affiliated with humane values. It takes moral courage to delink from the glamour of evil, especially given the wealth, violence, and power that often sustain it. But I believe Dominicans will put their lives on the line for a leader who takes chances on their behalf.
By Silvio Torres-Saillant
Silvio Torres-Saillant, PhD is a Professor in Syracuse University’s English Department, where he formerly headed of their Latino-Latin American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is Associate Editor of the journal, Latino Studies and co-founded La Casita Cultural Center, an organization opened in the Near West Side of the City of Syracuse,. Dr. Torres-Saillant serves in the core team of DK (Democratizing Knowledge), an initiative supported by the Chancellor’s Leadership Projects and in the Syracuse University chapter of The Future of Minority Studies. He is the founding director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, had his first full-time faculty position in the English Department of Hostos Community College, CUNY, and has held visiting appointments at Amherst College, Harvard University, the University of Cartagena, and the San Andrés campus of Colombia’s Universidad Nacional. He is the author of, among other publications: El Tigueraje Intelectual (Intellectual Thugs), 2nd edition (2011); An Intellectual History of the Caribbean (New Directions on the Americas Series) (2006); El retorno de las yolas (1999); and The Dominican-Americans (with Ramona Hernández) (1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.