What’s the Deal With Statelessness in the D.R.?

Hello all!

Columbus: Euro trash

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows American history didn’t begin in 1492.

In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the contentious relationship between Hispañola’s 2 resident countries Haiti and the Dominican Republic (D.R.) a relationship that has led the wealthier D.R. to enact discriminatory immigration and citizenship laws against migrant Haitians.  This is a story that I have experienced personally traveling in the D.R. and one that has a long history.  One that hopefully won’t leave you yawning.

The Current Event:

In 2010, a policy was enacted in the Dominican constitution that denies citizenship to people whose parents were illegal immigrants; legislation that had been sought out since 2007.  This policy overturned a 75 year constitutional guarantee of citizenship to any person born in the Dominican Republic, same as is the case in the U.S.  This law affects mostly people of Haitian origin whose parents migrated illegally to the D.R.  Up to 200,000 people of Haitian origin who were technically Dominicans may have their status as Dominican citizens revoked.  The change blocks those attempting to gain licenses, birth certificates, and renewal of passports.

Her card is now a useless piece of plastic

Overall these documents are necessary to enroll in public schools, to get married, or even to purchase a cell phone. So even if a 2nd generation Dominican has a social security card saying their nationality is “Dominican”, the government has said they are a foreigner, even if they are prominent, educated, and have lived in the D.R. for many years.  A complaint was recently filed by 500 affected individuals to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which has officially condemned the new policy.  The amendment was upheld as constitutional when the D.R.’s Supreme Court rejected a Dominican born man’s request for a birth certificate.  Dominican officials uphold the new law and deny that people are left stateless, saying those affected can apply for Haitian citizenship and is not discriminatory, merely that the new policy was enacted to “clean up irregularities”.

"Papers?! We don't need no stinkin' papers" ...... um yea, yea you do now

So what’s the deal with this legislation?  It doesn’t seem to make sense for the D.R. to suddenly change their policy to something of an “American Republican’s wet dream” on immigration policy.  Luckily, we can look at the long history of the Haitian-Dominican relationship for answers.  Phew, thank goodness.

The History:

Like other islands in the Caribbean before the encounter with Europeans in the 15th Century, natives from the diverse Arawak peoples (collectively called “the Taino” by the Spanish) lived on the island later labelled Hispañola.  Taino populations were nearly completely wiped out only 50 years after the encounter w/ the Spanish, reduced from an estimated 1492 pop. of 200,000 to 33,000 by 1510, and 500 by 1548.  The main cause of their decimation was disease exposure (measles, small pox, diptheria, malaria, and others) but was compounded by callous exploitation in slave labor and death by force for resistance.  Though genocide was not the intent of the Spanish conquistadores, the tragedy of the Taino is best described as a genocide in effect; the Spanish would have preferred the natives alive to work as slaves in their plantations and money making agricultural ventures (and to be converted to Catholicism).  The European encounter was a turning point in the island’s human history as the elimination of the Arawak from the island destined the island to be populated and dominated by outside peoples and culture.


Though the plan was to create a viable profitable colony for their monarchy back in Spain, the Spanish conquistadores instead turned their direct attention to the massive, richer, and highly developed Mesoamerican civilizations, most notably the Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans.  Hispañola was not forgotten entirely however, and between 1497 and 1697, the Spanish attempted to build agricultural colonial communities by importing lower class Spanish adventurers, and to a lesser extent, African slaves.  Meanwhile, the French began to build small plantations on the Western side of the island, spurring hostilities with the Spanish colonists.  The agri-business of the island turned out to be unsuccessful for the Spanish, for the island proved to be more successful as a trading and merchant base for Spanish sailors returning from Mesoamerica.  Thus, Hispañola didn’t become the profit earning island that the Spanish monarchy had forseen, but for several reasons:

  • a lack of investment in agriculture by the Spanish (read: an inability to import African slaves/lack of gold on island)
  • attacks on sugar mills and towns by pirates (most notably Sir Francis Drake)
  •  nearly constant battles with the pioneering French West India Co. which had taken a somewhat permanent residence on the Western side of the island.

The French residency became official when Spain ceded the Western 1/3 of the island to the French in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 (who could forget?!).  The French had a different idea of how to utilize their new, and only (I don’t count Martinique) Caribbean possession: build a massively profitable agricultural colony based exclusively on African slave labor.

How many times have you seen this in your history class?

Saint-Dominigue, the new French colony, immediately became the most valuable asset the French possessed in the “New World” eclipsing the fur trading posts of future Canada with massive sugar cane and tobacco production.  Saint-Domingue’s sugar production fueled the triangle trade for the growing merchant classes in New England and Old England and most importantly for this story, imported hundreds of thousands of African slaves for the laborious and deadly task of sugar and tobacco planting and processing.

The Triangle Trade:

the most over-taught subject in

colonial American history

In 1795, the 500,000 or so African slaves who lived in Saint-Domingue along with a small population of mulattoes and an even smaller population of white planters and overseers all lived in a highly rigid class system resembling a distorted pyramid with the massive numbers of slaves making up a huge majority.  In contrast, the Spanish side of the island had merely 125,000 residents in total (even with a much larger area) with a smaller number of African slaves (around 15,000).  A somewhat less rigid class system existed (slaves could buy their freedom) and a “milder” servitude with many slaves involved in trade or household labor.  So at this point in 1795, the make up of modern day populations in Hispañola can already be seen:

  • Saint Domingue (French): a mostly black population suffering from a rigid class system based on their servitude on the Western 1/3 of the island
  • Santo Domingo (Spanish): a more mobile, heterogeneous (mixed race), lighter skinned, Euro-centric population in the Eastern 2/3.

1793 marks the Haitian revolution’s real beginning, or at least a beginning of widespread slave resistance that had to be repressed by Napoleon’s army.  By 1804, Toussaint L’ouverture had organized the revolting slaves and runaways to a point of no return that the few French colonists remaining could no longer hold their colonial power.  Haiti, the world’s first slave republic was born as a copy of the United States’ constitutional model of freedom and democracy.  Yet a “free” Haiti, a new uncolonized country, had yet to shed the chains of its rigid class structure.  Instead of creating a new diverse economy, a primarily large-scale agrarian economy continued as under the French, only this time without the trade advantages of the colonial power (the U.S. didn’t recognize Haiti as an independent republic until 1862).  Also, the class structure remained static: the formerly privileged few landowners were mostly mulattos who continued to exploit the labor of the many, retaining a class structure built around race.  In contrast, Spanish Santo Domingo, races mixed because the agrarian cattle herding that provided intial colonial capital required collarboration between landowners – both black and white.

L'ouverture led the overthrow of the French colonists, but wasn't around to lead the overthrow of the rigid class system

Infighting between Haiti and Spanish Hispañola/Santo Domingo (they were still a colony) continued in Haiti’s infancy and the Spaniards showed their weakness in Hispañola (and their American empire overall) by losing their share of the island to the Haitians and Jean-Pierre Boyer in 1822.  A fairly brief uniting of the island was expunged in 1844 as the culturally and economically different Dominican Republic fought against its neighbor for independence, creating a tension that swelled around the border for control.

What needs to be defined from the independence of both countries in 1804 (Haiti) and 1844 (D.R.) until the present is how the relationship became increasingly antagonistic as the countries developed.  Economics is vital to understanding this relationship: Haiti’s economy was crippled from an agreement to repay France for lost revenue from their former colony, a price of 150 million francs: a debt that Haitians are still struggling to pay off.  Under successive dictators and totalitarian regimes, the agrarian economy failed to produce like the colonial era.  Though there was success in the tourism industry in towns like Cap Haitian, several corrupt regimes, especially under “Baby Doc” Duvalier in the 1970s and 1980s cancelled any potential the tourism industry brought to enhance Haiti’s standing.

Cash crops are sweet; its gotta be sugar cane

The Dominicans on the other hand began to grow their economy slowly and even with payments to be made to Spain and others, they began to grow their agricultural economy to an expanding sugar market starting in the late 19th century. Under strong handed leadership, the Dominicans affirmed their country as a premier tourist destination for rich Americans and Canadians offering investments in resorts in the Puerto Plata and Samaná areas.  By the end of the 20th century, a more diverse and controlled economy in the D.R. led the country to a higher economic standing than many Caribbean and Latin American nations.  Though still relatively poor, and with a great deal of the population in the category of the poorest of the poor, the D.R. was much better off than their neighbor who had achieved the unfortunate title of poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The economic differences along with the aforementioned racial differences between Haiti and the D.R. fueled the subsequent disputes, violence, and distrust between the two as immigration from Haiti became the biggest issue.  Distrust developed between the two peoples even further to a point where the D.R. used explicit violence to curb immigration, a theme that we discussed at the outset.  That has evolved into a startlingly similar picture as the immigration issue in the United States, though without the extent of official violence.

T.R.'s big stick policy helped American sugar businessmen, but not democracy in Hispañola

Speaking of the United States, their little known military occupation of both Haiti (1915-1934) and the D.R. (1916-1924) created problematic environments in the name of “political stability” by encouraging the rise of dictators and military control.  Strong handed leadership contributed to the deterioration of the Hispañola relationship as distrust mounted on both sides.  Haiti’s struggling economy and the rise of Dominican sugar production (owned by Americans) in the 20th century caused an influx of Haitian migrant workers across the border.  Complaints of too many migrants and not enough work for Dominicans set by the worldwide depression placed a blame on their Western neighbors.

Leading the anti-Haitian crusade was Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the newly “elected” dictator of the D.R. in 1930.  Similar to Hitler charging the troubles of Germany on the Jewish populace, Trujillo blamed the Haitians, and differences in skin color in general as harmful to the development of the D.R. and carried out a systematic massacre of Haitians living near the Dominican border in 1937, known as el corte or “the cut” in Spanish.  Estimates of the massacre count nearly 15,000 Haitians or Haitian descendents killed.  This climax of anti-Haitian sentiment carried through from the Trujillo regime and taught younger generations of Dominicans that darker skin, Kreyol language, and Haitian background was inherently bad for the D.R.

Trujillo according to FDR: "He may be an S.O.B., but he's our S.O.B."

The constant regime changes and the later repressive dictatorship of the Duvalier family in Haiti kept the masses poor and seeking opportunity.  Though the D.R. suffered similar troubles, the situation was better than Haiti.  Through Trujillo and later Joaquin Balaguer, Haiti and the D.R. agreed on contracts to bring thousands of Haitian cane cutters, braceros, to the Dominican cane fields during harvest time.  Sugar cane cutting became “Haitian’s work” as did other manual labor jobs that Haitian immigrants gradually took for low wages. For many international institutions, the sugar cane braceros have been essentially slaves who are used and sold off to different companies at different harvests and are seen as “stateless” because they are not essentially Haitians or Dominicans.  Braceros have had no real access to education, healthcare, liveable wages, or opportunity to create a better life for themselves (more to come on this).

Conclusion (finally!):

In the Dominican reaction of restriction, deportation, and resentment, we can see a resemblance to the similar sentiment felt towards illegal immigrants to the U.S.  Inherently, Dominicans became to believe that Haitians were 2nd class citizens that worked unskilled jobs, spoke an uneducated language, and a scapegoat for any economic or other problems in the D.R.  We can see how these sentiments led to anti-immigrant/anti-Haitian laws from Trujillo’s time into the present.

Several factors and events led to the distrust that permeated the island and has restricted the immigration of Haitians into the D.R. that now has created the problem of statelessness:

  • Culturally and racially distinct peoples sharing an island
  • Constant conflicts from colonial days over control of the island, or sharing the land
  • Haiti’s debt problem and subsequently depressed economy encouraging migration into the D.R. (and the U.S.)
  • A creation of the modern border in 1929 which drew a line around Haitians who for generations had been living in Haiti suddenly were now foreigners in the D.R.
  • American intervention that encouraged the rise of dictatorships like Trujillo and Duvalier.
  • Several skirmishes along the border that have killed many Haitians by the Dominican government including the brutal massacre in 1937 and even a violent outbreak in 2001.
  • Anti-immigration laws designed to keep Haitians out who aren’t Braceros employed seasonally and who can be deported at any time.

So back to the immigration law (remember, we were talking about that?): it absolutely is discriminatory against Haitians and it absolutely leaves 200,000 stateless.  Here’s why:  The language of the 2010 legislation says that people who have been born in the D.R. with parents who are illegal immigrants are not Dominicans even if they have a national ID.  The trouble with this is that authorities have and will use racial profiling to the max (as has already been seen) because Haitians comprise a great majority of migrants to the D.R. Second, it leaves them stateless because they have lived their entire lives in the D.R. and they have little or no connection to Haiti.  Their lives are in the D.R. as citizens and the government should not revoke that right that they’ve achieved simply because they want to curb illegal immigration.  This argument is constantly played out here in the U.S.

What will keep the D.R. from putting up its own fence to keep Haitians out?

Since this month marks the 2nd anniversary since the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we should talk about the relationship since the disaster.  Dominicans have been admirably generous in their aid and receiving of refugees for workers programs.  Building on this positive note in the relationship should be a return to the pre-2010 amendment and to work with the international community to develop a fair immigration policy that punishes employers who hire illegals instead of the migrants themselves.  Creating a broader program to introduce immigrants would alleviate the human rights problems facing the Dominican government and start to erode the cultural discrimination that exists between lighter skinned Dominicans and dark skinned Haitians.

Will these young kids lose their identity and a chance at a prosperous life? (exclude the white guy on the left; aka the author)

I want to return to the subject of the bateyes (sugar cane communities) and their braceros because I have personally visited them, interviewed them, and seen the extent of poverty and lack of opportunity that exists for these intransient people.  Since the early 1990s, production of sugar has fallen dramatically in the D.R. leaving many of the bateyes with large worker communities with nothing to work or depend on.  Many have created viable small informal economies helped to a small extent by microfinancing.  Nearly all residents of these concrete barracks are without consistent electricity, effective sanitation, access to schools, access to medical facilities, and without standard transportation to connect outside communities.  They can classified without a doubt as part of the poorest of the poor.

Will the folks from bateyes be told to hit the ol' dusty trail?

These are the folks who are going to be dramatically affected by this new law.  Almost all people in the bateyes are Haitian or of Haitian descent, yet describe themselves as Dominican.  their fate is often forgotten in the Dominican government, but this new law may send authorities their way to oust the residents.  What a shame it would be if the government ousted these people instead of helping them live healthy lives where they can provide for a better D.R.  These people are as much Dominican as anyone born in the country; it is time to treat them as such and reverse the cultural and racial bias that persists.

Authors Note:

I did not include a complete comprehensive history of every Haitian-Dominican event, nor did I include a great deal on the devastating effect of U.S. policy on the development of both countries (more on this can be found in Paul Farmer’s excellent book “The uses of Haiti”).  More on the colonial history yields information on the curious relationship between the island and Europe, especially on the debt that weighed on the D.R. and Haiti and how this had diminished their development.  My focus was to use my own knowledge as well as various studies to show how the history of the island and its peoples contributed to the immigration amendment of 2010.

See, I told you I was there!

Well, that concludes another blog entry.  Stay tuned next week when we discuss a relevant topic and dissect its meaning through history!  I know you’re excited…

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


The Economist, Stateless Dec. 31, 2011

http://www.cidh.org, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


Kempton E. Webb, Geography of Latin America

Alan Taylor, American Colonies

Selden Rodman, Quisqueya: A history of the Dominican Republic

Michele Wucker, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

Paul Farmer, The uses of Haiti

Ira Berlin, History of Slavery in North America


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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One Response to What’s the Deal With Statelessness in the D.R.?

  1. Thanks for teaching me about Haiti before my trip. I’m going to have to get my hands on “The uses of Hait…” cause I am far behind on my understanding.

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