Above: Basilica Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest church in the Americas.
There has never been an easy relationship between the two sides of Hispaniola, an island with a complicated history of colonization and conflict. As the original site of Christopher Columbus’ violent colonization, it has been ruled and tormented by its white possessors for longer than any other place in the Western hemisphere — first by Spain, then France, Britain, and the U.S.
Spain maintained control of the whole island until the early 17th century, when it ceded the western portion to France. France shipped African slaves en masse to Hispaniola, where thriving sugarcane plantations created one of the most prosperous colonies in the world. Haiti gained independence in 1804, after a 12-year revolution led by slaves. The remarkable slave revolt created the first independent nation in Latin American and the Caribbean. The Spanish side of the island followed suit in 1821, although led by the Spanish-descended criollo class; Haiti subsequently occupied the island for 22 years, at which time the Dominicans launched their own war for independence. Haitian-Dominican relations have never fully recovered from the pain of occupation, colonization and racial tensions between black Haiti and a much more mixed-race DR.
Faro Colón, the formidable and deeply ironic monument to Christoper Columbus in Santo Domingo: many of the exhibits in its halls display indigenous art and culture.
At independence, Haiti was much wealthier and much more densely populated than the DR by many degrees. However, since then, the two sides of Hispaniola have seen a reversal of fortunes. Haiti is the most impoverished country in the Americas, while the DR enjoys relative wealth and stability. Haitian immigration to the DR has been increasing since the beginning of the 1900s, with an especially large influx after the devastating earthquake of 2010. Haitians often fill the menial wage-labor jobs that Dominicans refuse, especially on Dominican bateyes – sugar cane farms. Racism and discrimination against Haitians and Haitian immigration runs rampant.
In 2013, this discrimination congealed in the form of Constitutional Court ruling 23010, which pegged any Haitian-Dominican who had migrated to the DR since 1929 as a “non-citizen in transit.” This effectively rendered as many as four generations of Haitian-Dominicans stateless: Haitian-Dominicans who had never seen Haiti or spoken a word of Creole found themselves suddenly denied by their own country. Simultaneously, possibly with the hope of confusing the issue, the government cracked down on undocumented immigration. 2015 and 2016 saw mass deportations of Haitians, with almost as many “voluntary returns” as forcible removals.
In 2015, the government passed Naturalization Law 169-14 in response to international outcry. Although not without flaws, the law at least provides a pathway to citizenship for many Haitian-Dominicans. Since these people were citizens until the 2013 ruling, this is not a huge win. Haitian-Dominicans who could prove they were born in the country (usually meaning they had a birth certificate and had been registered at birth) could maintain citizenship. Those who were not (often born in rural areas like bateyes, where such paperwork is rarely issued) could register with “legal non-immigrant status,” with the possibility of citizenship in two years.
Centro Bono, a Jesuit human rights organization and one of my community partners in Santo Domingo.
However, problems have run rampant with these systems. I spent my first week in Santo Domingo talking to several local organizations who work with Haitain-Dominicans and Haitian immigrants. They told me that officials often deny documents to anyone they perceive to be of Haitian descent, regardless of Naturalization Law 169-14. Even when successfully undertaken, the registration process is rarely easy. For some people without documents attempting to prove their validity as Dominicans, they may be asked to provide bank statements going back ten years and as many as seven notarized letters from Dominicans attesting to their presence in the country since birth. These administrative hurdles are very difficult to overcome, especially for poor people without bank accounts or stable childhood homes.
I also spent time interviewing people in Pequeño Haiti in Santo Domingo and in Guanuma, a neighborhood to the north of the city with a large population of Haitian-Dominicans. In Pequeño Haiti many street vendors were understandably reticent to discuss their situation, especially considering recent mass deportations. A few Dominicans did speak to me about their disdain for Haitians – sentiments have not changed much since the ruling. In Guanuma, several people discussed their difficulties obtaining cedulas (the treasured Dominican identity document). One new friend invited me to come with her to pick up her birth certificate. As a 3rd-generation Haitian-Dominican, she had always assumed she had citizenship, but now authorities had denied a cedula to her young son. In an attempt to expedite the process she was traveling to Samana to pick up her birth certificate, which (to my surprise) turned out to be on the other side of the island several hours away.
The town of Samaná is on a beautiful northern peninsula of Hispaniola. On the way back we stopped at Salta Limón, a truly fantastic waterfall and swimming hole where we briefly escaped the Dominican heat. Along the way I was deeply grateful for this chance to delve deeper into the life of a semi-stateless Haitian-Dominican. If anything, I am learning how fine the line between citizenship and statelessness can be here. As hundreds of thousands of people learned in 2013, the line can be as thin as a court case that completely reshapes what it means to be a citizen.
At Salta Limón, a side trip from a quest for a birth certificate.