Saturday, 9 November 2013

The dirty business of cleansing

Sitting with Dr Jose Serulle Ramia, Ambassador of the Dominican Republic to T&T yesterday, I heard words that had already been uttered by his partner ambassador to Washington DC, Anibal de Castro, in the New York Times of October 31—that the DR Government must follow the law i.e. Ruling 0168-13 of the country’s Constitutional Tribunal; that DR is not racist towards Haitians; that it has a legitimate interest in regulating immigration; and that the ruling was a mandate to provide people affected with temporary residence permits until a regularisation plan is in place.

The ambassador in DC added that those affected are not stateless because the Haitian constitution bestows citizenship on any person born of Haitian parents anywhere in the world. In others words, de Castro is saying these people are constitutionally Haitian citizens although they have lived and worked in the DR for generations, speak Spanish and little or no French or Haitian kweyol, and many have never set foot on Haitian soil.

De Castro’s letter to the NY Times editor was published alongside one signed by award-winning authors Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Mark Kurlansky Julia Alvarez. The writers argued that one of the important lessons of the Holocaust was that the first step to genocide is to strip a people of their right to citizenship.

They describe the ruling, which is retroactive to 1929, as institutionalised racism and a huge step backward: “The ruling will make it challenging for them to study; to work in the formal sector of the economy; to get insurance; to pay into their pension fund; to get married legally; to open bank accounts; and even to leave the country that now rejects them if they cannot obtain or renew their passport. It is an instantly created underclass set up for abuse.”

The foursome raise the spectre of the October 1937 Dominican Massacre when dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the deaths of an estimated 20,000 Haitians over five days.

Seventy-six years later, that cleansing burns in the memory of Haitians. The BBC picks up the story, recounting that it earned the name the Parsley Massacre because Dominican soldiers carried a sprig of parsley and would ask people suspected of being Haitian to pronounce the Spanish word for it: “perejil.”

Those whose first language was Haitian kwejol found it difficult to say it correctly, a mistake that cost them their lives.

Bodies were dumped in the Massacre River, so named after an earlier colonial struggle between the Spanish and French.

From late September to mid-October that year, men, women and children were rounded up, then beaten or hacked to death for just being Haitian.

Even dark-skinned Dominicans were caught up in the purge that became known as “el corte”, the cutting.

Even the US at the time, which regarded Trujillo as a staunch ally, condemned the killings in diplomatic cables describing it as “a systematic campaign of extermination”.

There is evidence that in many villages Dominicans risked their own lives to help their Haitian neighbours escape. In other cases, local people pointed out Haitian immigrants to the authorities.

The ghost of DR past resurrected in that country this week when a crowd, comprised of “patriotic” NGOs in defence of sovereignty, gathered to support the court ruling. Among the chants and banners were “Death to the Traitors”, “Build a Wall”, and “Let us Cleanse the Country”.

It would have been a terror-inducing to Haitian-descended Dominicans to see the crowd and hear the violent, racist rhetoric. The hypocritical leaders of these “patriotic” NGOs did not speak of landowners and business people who encouraged Haitians to DR as cheap labour to be exploited for maximum profit. But Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Ilosa spoke it in Courrier International.

Neither did the NGOs nor the two ambassadors speak about the fact that the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal violates a 2005 ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights which told the Dominican Republic that it could not use the nationality of parents as pretext for taking citizenship from their children. The Inter-American court’s rulings are binding.

Haitian-descended Dominicans are not the only ones affected. Making its ruling retroactive to 1929, the Constitutional Tribunal instructions also include the descendants of Jews, Chinese and Europeans. By far, however, the largest and perhaps most vulnerable grouping is Haitian descended.

An immigrant census released earlier this year estimated there were 245,000 Dominican-born, first-generation children of immigrants living in the country. The number affected by the ruling is likely to be exponentially higher because it applies to other generations as well.

If, as Mario Vargas Ilosa said, the true face of the DR was visible in the country’s immediate expression of humanity following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it’s time for more of that to be demonstrated by Dominicans who, incidentally, are themselves beneficiaries of first-world countries’ generosity when they migrate illegally.


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