By Myriam J. A. Chancy
The implications of the ruling of September 23 by the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic, stripping citizenship from the offspring of non-resident Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, where nationality is conferred “jus soli,” by place of birth, are only beginning to be understood by the international community with the OAS, Amnesty International, and the governments of Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, openly condemning the violation of human rights it represents. Hanging in the balance are the lives of nearly a quarter of a million Dominicans of Haitian descent–of all ages–who have been rendered stateless by the ruling, in what has been deemed a human rights crisis in the making.
Upon closer examination, what becomes clear is that the ruling does not respond to an immigration crisis precipitated by the devastating earthquake in Haiti of 2010; neither is it an effort to quell the flow of migrant labor from Haiti into the Dominican bateyes or cane fields. Today, only half of the Dominican Haitian population (numbering around three quarters of a million) work and live in the bateyes, though they remain perhaps the most vulnerable population to be affected by the ruling since 70% of batey dwellers were born in the Dominican Republic, and the vast majority exist there in working and living conditions of squalor that many human rights organizations liken to slavery.
The ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal came in response to a suit brought against the State by 29 year-old Juliana Dequis (Pierre) in 2008 when the Central Electoral Board refused to issue her state-issued ID. A cédulais needed in the DR for everything from registration in schools, medical care, insurance, marriage licenses, to travel, and is acquired by presenting a state-certified copy of one’s birth certificate. Copies of birth certificates expire after 90 days while cedulas have varying dates of expiration. According to an October 2010 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights1, the Electoral Board begun to turn away requests by Dominican Haitians for cedulas as early as in the 1980s, with escalating demands of proof of parental identity for Dominican Haitians culminating by 2000 in claims that Haitian parents were “in transit,” and therefore not eligible to register their Dominican-born children. In 2004, the constitutional definition of “in transit” was redefined to include all individuals without legal residency. In 2007, one year before Dequis applied for and was refused the renewal of her cedula, the Electoral Board passed a law annulling the citizenship of individuals born in the DR whose parents did not have legal residence. It also implemented the curious “Registration Book of Children of Non-Resident Foreign Mothers in the Dominican Republic.” The Dominican government has also routinely deported Haitians (and those who “look” like Haitians, i.e., dark Dominicans) in round-ups in the border zones, arguing that they need to be repatriated to Haiti as foreign nationals.
Both of the latter measures are based on active misreadings of Article 7 of a constitutional decree of 1984, which appears to be upheld (by silence) in the 1987 Haitian constitution, in effect in 2007, which states that a “child born in a foreign territory of a foreign father and Haitian mother will retain foreign nationality.” However, the Haitian state only recognizes foreign-born children of Haitian nationals (of either sex) if the parents are registered citizens and declare their child, papers in hand, at a Haitian consulate in the foreign country in question, at birth. In 2010, 14 days to the day after the Haiti earthquake, and while Dequis’ case continued in legal limbo, a new constitution was passed in the DR denying citizenship to children born in the DR of illegal immigrants. When the Constitutional Tribunal passed down its ruling September 23, it also stated that the ruling it applied to Dequis was to be equally applied, retroactively, to all Dominicans of Haitian descent in a similar legal situation, going back to 1929, in violation of international law. This ruling effectively suspends the citizenship of nearly a quarter of a million Dominicans.
Although individuals of other ethnicities and nationalities may be affected by the ruling, it is estimated that, of those affected, 83% are of Haitian descent. The year 1929 sends a clear message, as it coincides with the rise to power of Rafael Trujillo, the general turned dictator who ruled the DR from 1930-1961; it also coincides with the first border treaty between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. That border treaty was only ratified in 1936 and, in 1937, Trujillo (himself a quarter Haitian) ordered the massacre of Haitians (and black Dominicans) in border zones still in dispute in 1935, after a land survey of 19302 favored Haiti’s access to more land under the accord than had been provisionally agreed upon. The objective of the massacre was ultimately to clear the land occupied by black Haitians and Dominicans (land that Trujillo largely re-acquired and exploited for himself), and in doing so, “rid” the DR of visibly black, dark-skinned individuals.
The current ruling affects four generations of Haitians including those as old as 84 years of age who have known no other country than the Dominican Republic. It also makes the persecution of Dominicans of Haitian descent socially and legally permissible. Finally, rather than regularize their legal standing in the DR, as the Electoral Board claims is its objective, it renders them not only stateless but de facto stateless, a legal definition for which there are no protections in international law.3 At the same time, Dominican Haitians refused their cedulas, cannot leave the Dominican Republic (as a Dominican Haitian seeking to marry an American in Florida recently found out), ensuring that they remain in a state of perpetual servitude and third-class status.
What is the purpose of this debasement? As the late, Dominican Haitian human rights leader, Sonia Pierre once acutely declared: “My community, the community of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, is the poorest and most vulnerable, subject to the cruelest denial of their rights.”4 For one, it perpetuates the myth of needing to maintain the DR’s “whiteness” against foreign migration when the majority of its population is mixed. Second, it allows the DR to continue to uphold unjust and exploitative working conditions while denying citizenship to laborers. Third, for those Dominican Haitians several generations removed from an undocumented Haitian parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent, it effectively renders them incapable of making any claims or contributions to the DR’s economic development. Fourth, it denies these individuals and all their progeny of their rights to education, health care, and insurance. These measures therefore not only create civic death but institutionalize its attributes: poverty, illiteracy, lack of identity, in short, non-being.
On Tuesday, October 15th, a group of women of various Latin American nationalities stood up at the Hilton Hotel in Santo Domingo at the 12th Regional Conference of Women in Latin American and the Caribbean to greet President Danilo Medina with the slogan: “We are all Haiti.” Given the gross violation of human rights this ruling represents and the history it invokes, we should be willing, like these women, Haitian or not, to stand with Dominicans of Haitian descent in their on-going struggle for their human rights5, and as citizens of the country of their birth, but even more than this, to stand as Haitians in acknowledgment of what the Haitian struggle has stood for since 1791, long before there were Haitians and Dominicans, and when there were slaves: the right to liberty, personhood, and freedom6 in the Americas.
Myriam J. A. Chancy, Ph.D. is Professor of English, specializing in Caribbean Studies. She is the author most recently of From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions of Haiti, Cuba & The Dominican Republic (2012), and of The Loneliness of Angels (2010), winner of the 2011 Guyana Prize for Literature, Caribbean Award 2010