Haitian communities have fallen victim of racist mob attacks in different localities of the Dominican Republic the last few years. Just this last April, in a small town named La Ortega, located in the Spaillat province a mob attacked households inhabited by Haitians, forcibly evicted household members, and destroyed and burned their personal belongings. The assault resulted in the violent expulsion of more than 300 Haitians from the area. In another incident, this past February, the police found the body of a young man named Claude Jean Henry hanging from a tree in a public Park in Santiago de los Caballeros. Claude Jean was beaten to death, and his hands and foot tied before being hanged in one of the park’s trees. Another hate crime victim was Coito Pierre who was lynched by a mob in November of 2013 in the province of Bahoruco. Spectacular violence accompanied the lynching of 76 years old Vitelio Charles and Olani Pie of 42 in Hatillo Palma, Montecristi in June 2005. Charles and Pie were hacked to death while other four were seriously injured. These violent events only represent a few of the most publicized cases. News of mob violence perpetrated against a Haitian in circumstance X or Y is not an uncommon subject in Dominican media anymore.
These episodes of violence share certain traits. One is the sense of justice that perpetrators seem to find in the acts of violence they carry out against Haitians. In fact, in almost all these cases the victimized Haitians were targeted because the persecuting individuals and/or mobs assumed the victims’ culpability in connection to a known crime committed against a Dominican, be it robbery, rape, homicide or other crime. The explicit justifications/ rationalizations given for committing these atrocious acts reflect the assumption by perpetrators that the targeted Haitians had committed a crime [against a Dominican] and that therefore, they needed to be publicly punished. Perpetrators seem to see mob justice as necessary in the light of perceived incompetency by local authorities. They see authorities as being unable and unwilling to administer justice against the assumedly guilty and protected Haitians. Another noticeable commonality is the context of poverty and marginalization that surrounds the victims and the perpetrators. In fact, all the reported cases involve individuals from poor backgrounds and poor geographical and social spaces. This characteristic is not to be overlooked or downplayed in this context. This is specially the case because it has been assumed among many observers and also documented in specific research that there are less antagonistic interactions between Haitians and Dominicans in lower class contexts. The question that follows is, whether the less antagonistic nature of these interactions and relationships are changing in specific spaces and contexts and how and why?
It is noteworthy that just like in the case of lynching in U.S. history, the violent acts follow the logic of arbitrariness, and in several occasions it has been found that the victims actually had little to do with the crimes they are suspected of committing. Dark skin Dominicans have also paid a price as some have been confused for a Haitian in the middle of the chaos and consequently treated with deadly violence. It is also worth mentioning one incident that occurred on the other side of the border at the end of 2014. On December 1st Dominican diplomats were forced to leave Haiti when rallying Haitian crowds attacked the Dominican consulate with thrown stones and glass bottles. According to reports, the crowds wanted to make a statement and sought justice for a six year old Haitian girl who was killed in an accident by a Dominican truck driver. The rallying mobs seem to have tried to administer justice in the light of the perceived imminent impunity awaiting the case of the killed Haitian child. Moreover, on Haitian soil, in organized rallies, Haitian citizens have urged foreign nationals not to travel to the Dominican Republic in an attempt to boycott the Dominican tourist industry. Organized protests by Haitian and Haitian-Dominican organizations and their allies have denounced lynching locally and transnationally, pointing the finger at the racist character of Dominican society. The Dominican media also have reported on instances of Dominican flag burning protests carried out by Haitian crowds. In contrast, different organizations have organized and carried out a number of events that emphasize cooperation and solidarity between the two nations.
The violence seems to have renewed tensions in the historically complex relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Several Dominican public figures and intellectuals have called for a sensible approach to the situation and for putting a stop to the hate speech promoted by ardent Dominican nationalists. Many fear that politicians on both sides of the border will exploit these tensions politically in the context of the municipal, legislative and presidential elections taking place in Haiti in late 2015 as well as the Dominican presidential elections scheduled for May 2016. One feared outcome among cautious Dominican observers is that the current climate of heightened intolerant and racist discourse directed at Haitian immigrants and their descendants may lead to unspeakable and widespread anti-Haitian violence of unpredictable consequences for the Dominican nation.
A careful look at the discourses being deployed by Dominican nationalists reveals an identifiable anti-Haitian discursive frame filled with hatred and intolerance. First and foremost, the nationalist discourse frames Haitian immigration as a perpetual social problem in need of immediate fixing while representing the Haitian presence in the country as an unacceptable and menacing fact. It denounces the perceived Haitian penetration of Dominican society or the so-called “haitianization,” representing Haitian citizens as entitled and ungrateful, and at the same time more taken care of than Dominicans in their own soil. The narrative also emphasizes the dangers of the project of unification of the island, which accordingly is a project historically sought out by Haitian authorities and strongly sponsored by the allegedly pro-Haitian US, Canada and the European Union. In addition, the narrative demonizes those who publicly criticize the nationalist discourse; the narrative represents critics as unpatriotic and traitors, and often suggest in humorous/sarcastic way that critics should move to Haiti and bring with them all Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. The nationalist narrative also denounces a perceived impartiality by local and Haitian critics and by international NGOs. Accordingly, these social agents accuse “patriotic” Dominicans of racism in their anti-Haitian migration and anti-Haitian naturalization stance while allegedly ignoring the hatred that Haitians feel towards Dominicans and the exploitation of Haitians by their own government and compatriots in their own country. This discourse, however, is said to be patriotic, not racist since it purportedly is being deployed 1) to defend Dominican territoriality, institutionalism, and sovereignty and 2) to defend the Dominican economy and the country’s future from Haiti, Haitians and the biased international community.
Joe Feagin’s concept of the dominant racial frame helps us think about the functioning of such a racist discourse. The concept of racial frame refers to dominant cognitive, cultural and epistemological framing that endow racialized systems of oppression with basic legitimizing meaning systems which then facilitate system’s consolidation and reproduction. According to Feagin, this commonplace racial frame consists of a combination of mechanisms and resources such as racial stereotypes, metaphors and interpretive concepts, emotions/feelings, images and proclivities to discriminatory actions. Putting everything together, the operating racial frames along with the established racial hierarchies and material domination associated with them constitute a system of racial oppression that Feagin (2006) and his colleagues call systemic racism. The anti-Haitian discourse is thus a constitutive aspect of the systemic racism around which different Dominican social fields operate. Bonilla Silva’s concept of racialized social system direct us to connect the anti-Haitian racial frame to the stabilization of the category “Haitian” and the significance of this category for the arrangement of political, social and economic stratification and the attached material interests that accompany them. Bonilla Silva’s insights also direct us to interpret the nationalist discourse as a form of socially acquired “racial grammar” or racial signpost that orient how Dominicans think and feel about Haiti and Haitians and about themselves. That racial framing of Haitians as inferior is extensive, as we see in Table 1.
Table 1. Anatomy of the Anti-Haitian Racial Frame (And Anti-Haitian Racial Grammar)
Note: Paralleling the dimensions suggested by Feagin, these include racial stereotypes of Haitians (cognitive aspect); Metaphors and interpretative concepts regarding Haitians and Haitian migration and settlement in the Dominican Republic (deeper cognitive aspect); Images of Haitians (the visual aspect); Emotions (feelings); and Inclinations to discriminate.
Haitians are stereotyoped as:
Powerful through the mastery of diabolic voodoo
Narratives, metaphors, interpretations of Haitians
Penetrating the Dominican nation
Steeling Dominican jobs
Taking up Dominican spaces
Using up the limited amount of economic resources that the Dominican Republic has
Striving for the unification of the island
Gaining undeserved rights and privileges
Feeling hatred towards Dominicans
Protected by local authorities
Enjoying the support and empathy of the international community
Images of Haitians
Haitian women giving birth at public hospitals, signifying population growth and exploitation of resources
Haitian women and their children selling products on the streets, signifying population explosion and backwardness
Haitians practicing voodoo
Haitians crossing the border
Haitian students sitting in university classrooms
The dark Haitian body (ies) , especially the bodies of pregnant and/or birthing Haitian woman
The sounds of Haitian Creole language
The colors and styles of Haitian clothing
The smell and texture of Haitian food
Emotions of framing of Haitians
Need to distance oneself from Haitians
Inclinations to Discriminate Against Haitians
Criminal Justice system
A favorable climate for the nationalist discourse emerged when in September 2013 the Dominican Constitutional Court promulgated La Sentencia (168-13), which retroactively stripped away the citizenship of foreigners, most of whom are Haitian-Dominicans born in the Dominican Republic from Haitian immigrant parents. Under international and internal pressures, on May 23, 2014, the Court adopted the corrective naturalization law 169-14 (Ley de Régimen Especial y Naturalización 169-14) which among other things sets in motion El Plan de Regularización (Regularization Plan) that will allow undocumented immigrants to regularize (and clarify) their status. Applicants have until June 17th, 2015 to apply for legal residency. Those who are not able to do so will be sent back to Haiti. About 170,000 had applied for regularization as of February of 2015, just a few months before the deadline. Dozens of organizations representing Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans are urging for a deadline extension as many of the undocumented lack the personal documents required to be able to initiate the process. Some of these groups have criticized the Haitian Embassy for being too slow in assisting their Haitian citizens in this process. This weak response by the Haitian embassy complicates the process inasmuch as many potential applicants cannot provide the necessary evidence of their personal identity to even begin the application process. Within this context, defenders of La Sentencia have denounced a perceived foreign influence on Dominican affairs and have identified this influence as the real cause behind the promulgation of corrective naturalization law 169-14. For La Sentencia defenders, the law 169-14 is a foreign imposition and provides evidence of a lacerated Dominican sovereignty and of Haitian intrusion.
Why have the anti-Haitian mob attacks apparently become more common /visible the last few years? Why La Sentencia (168-13)? Are these events related and how? And how can anti-Haitian and anti-black ideology and practice be so systematically consequential in an Afro-Caribbean nation such as the Dominican Republic? The answers to these questions are complex and require a lot of contextualization as well as much more attention than the one that can be given in this short piece. Many of the issues raised so far are actually very familiar to those with knowledge of the Dominican and Haitian contexts. It is important to note, however, that the latter question puzzles many and often gets resolved with claims of exceptionalism, including the notion that Dominican racism is a sort of incomparable hyper-racism; an extreme form of racism accompanied by an ideology of national identity that’s based on delusional anti-blackness and even unhinged (quasi comical) Hispanophilia. As if the real issue was that Dominicans wore the whitest possible masks or represented the most sui generis example of wretched post-colonial peoples (Frantz Fanon references, intended). The works of scholars in the Dominican Republic, the United States and elsewhere have helped expand our understanding of this complex subject and have opened new avenues of inquiry and empirical research through nuanced theoretical and methodological approaches. This research has established the significance of history in understanding the past and present status of the relationship between the two counties and the origins of the systemic racism that Haitians and their descendants face in the Dominican Republic. This research has also established the significant role played by racist Dominican elites in specific historical, political and economic contexts, the legacy of Trujillo-era Hispanophile historiography, the ideological and cultural significance of the Haitian-Dominican border, the social and symbolic boundaries drawn around Haitians in all social fields, the past and present role of exploited Haitian labor in the Dominican economy, the role of race in the processes of nation building, and the legacies of key historical events, such as the Haitian occupation (1822-1844), the War of Restoration (1963-1865), the 1937 Massacre, and the first American Occupation (1916-1924). Most recent works force us to see the consolidation of antiblack and anti-Haitianism as a process with simultaneous connections to space, population movement, gender, social policy, and politics.
Furthermore, the promising and controversial features of globalization have manifested themselves in contemporary Dominican life and have likely added new complexities to these issues. Some of these features have included both periods of economic growth and decline, higher median income, higher purchasing power, and growing global identity and consciousness as well as growing urban poverty and inequality, transnational crime, dependence on tourism and weaken institutions. A report by UN-Habitat showed that only Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Bolivia exhibit higher rates of unequal income distribution in the region. Problems with the rule of law and accountability continued to create difficulties for the economy and national development. The Fund for Peace named the Dominican Republic in the list of countries under “Alert” in their 2012 Failed States Index report. The country has not fared well in these reports the last few years. The country looks even worse in the 2012 report on corruption by Transparency International. The country falls into the category of nations plagued by “rampant corruption” as judged by international organizations, business agents, and academics.68 The Dominican Republic got a score of 32 and was listed 118 among hundreds of countries. These reports have been discussed with concern on radio and television by public intellectuals and news commentators. Criminality has gone up and public safety has deteriorated the last years. The homicide rate was 13 in 100,000 in 1994–1995 (Cabral Ramírez and Brea De Cabral 2012; see Note 1) and reached 25 in 2005. It has remained in the low- to mid-twenties since 2008 (Artiles 2009; See Note 2). In 2005, Dominicans chose violent crime as the second most important national problem after unemployment. Forty-six percent of homicide victims are between eleven and thirty years of age. The youth are overrepresented among perpetrators as well. Dominicans’ fear of being the victim of a violent crime is among the highest in the Americans (Artiles 2009). Concerns over police brutality and violation of human rights have also increased within this context. In 2011 and 2012 pronouncements, Amnesty International denounced the use of torture, arbitrary imprisonment, disappearances, killing, and lack of investigation and due process on part of the police in their treatment of suspects. A study by the National Commission of Human Rights indicates that 4,060 Dominican citizens have died in shootouts with the police from 1997 through August 2012. About 1,300 of them died between 2008 and 2010. There is also public concern regarding the increased national presence of international drug trafficking networks which occurs in the context a weak judiciary and growing police and government corruption. According to LAPOP 2012, about 45 percent of Dominicans justify a government takeover by the military in order to confront crime delinquency. The number is 46 percent when corruption is the problem to be confronted. In sum, social vulnerabilities, crime, corruption, public insecurity have grown in the Dominican Republic. In this context, politicians and regular people blame Haitians for a wide range of problems facing the county, similar to the way that Mexicans get blamed for lower wages and other problems in the United States. The Dominican elites are anti-Haitian, including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the nationalist anti-Haitian discourse is increasingly visible in the media. Poor Haitians can be targeted for abuse (including lynching) with little or no sure repercussion for the perpetrators (which happens to poor Dominicans who are the victims of crime as well).
This piece argues that although the complex history of the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic should be known more attention needs to be given to the ongoing structures and dynamics that keep the negative historical legacies alive, and that intersect with contemporary discriminatory processes and events such as lynching. There are aspects of the theory of systemic racism that provide a fitting framework for understanding anti-Haitianism in the current Dominican context. This framework directs us to address not only the historical but also the institutional, interactional and ideological dimensions that are integral to the long-term domination of poor Haitians in the Dominican Republic. As suggested earlier, anti-Haitianism should be analyzed as a form of systemic racism, that is to say that it is about much more than anti-Haitian prejudice. Yes, it encompasses a existing set of prejudices, stereotypes, implicit biases, discourses, dispositions, and racialized emotions, but it also involves isolate, small group, direct and indirect, intentional or unintentional discriminatory practices, and political practices implemented by the Dominican state and government that help perpetuate the low status of Haitians and their descendants in all fields of Dominican society.
The creation of social and symbolic boundaries between Haitians and Dominicans has been an important mechanism for maintaining this systemic racism, especially because of the connected history of the two nations and peoples. Thus, it is important to understand not only the social construction of economic and cultural boundaries around Haitians in time and space, but also to understand the legacies of those boundaries, how they are maintained how they change, and how new and/or transformed configurations of boundaries may be emerging. One thing to pay attention is how the nationalist discourse draws boundaries around Haitian labor as to diminish its contributions and legitimacy. The presence of Haitian labor, now spread throughout the economy, is not part of the official story of the highly celebrated modernization and transnationalization of the country. The nationalist discourse represents Haitian labor as a problem even when the Haitian workforce is critical in construction and the growth of banana, rice, sugar cane and coffee. Data from 2010 show 13% of the Dominican workforce (or 352,974 workers) was Haitian or Dominican of Haitian descent.
The Denial of citizenship and making Haitian labor cheap and exploitable first in the sugar cane sector and now throughout the economy are important discriminatory mechanisms and need to continue to be addressed by social movements. The same could be said about the barriers that are being raised to limit the residence status of Haitian workers, the systematic negation of birth certificates and personal identification, restriction of entry to the school system, and denial of labor rights and civil liberties. This is important because unlike other racialized societies there are little to no attempts of incorporating or even assimilating poor Haitians into Dominican society. Instead, the racist system relies on the normative and overt logic of perpetual Haitian non-personhood.
Pressures should be also directed to denounce and challenge the Haitian state and Haitian elite as they also play a role in facilitating the exploitation of poor Haitians and their descendants in the eastern side. In fact, it almost seems as if the systematic exploitation and marginalization of poor Haitians and their descendants in the Dominican Republic could not exist without the oppression they first face in their own country. Poor and marginalized Haitians face a duality of oppressions that we hope they someday should overcome. The current nationalist climate exacerbates the vulnerabilities that permeate Haitian life in the Dominican Republic, and this piece echoes the concerns being expressed by many conscious voices in the Dominican Republic at this time. Let’s hope that the power of tolerance and solidarity and the sense of leadership responsibility can prevail in the midst of the serious challenges facing the two historically, geographically linked nations and peoples.
1. Cabral Ramírez, Edylberto and Mayra Brea De Cabral. 20003. “Violencia en la
República Dominicana: Tendencias Recientes.” Perspect P sicol (3–4): 146–154.
2. Artiles, Leopoldo. 2009. Seguridad Ciudadana en la República Dominicana: Desafíos y Propuestas
de Política. Santo Domingo. Secretaría de Estado, Planificación y Desarrollo.
Ana S.Q. Liberato
Department of Sociology
University of Kentucky