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#1034: Danticat/Diaz article on deportations in NYTimes
November 20, 1999
The Dominican Republic's War on Haitian Workers
By EDWIDGE DANTICAT and JUNOT DIAZ
Imagine you are at work, or simply walking down the street. Suddenly a group
of soldiers arrives. You are ordered at gunpoint to board a truck, already
crowded with dozens of others. You are driven for hours to an isolated spot
on a border between a country where you have lived most of your life and an
ancestral land, to which you have not returned for years. You are ordered off
the truck. If you hesitate or resist, the soldiers shoot into the air, and
you must run into the savannas, into a land that you no longer know.
That, according to news reports and several Haitian nongovernmental agencies,
is what has been happening in recent weeks on the border that separates the
Dominican Republic and Haiti on the island of Hispaniola. It is not unusual
at this time of year for the Dominican government to deport a few hundred
Haitian seasonal workers who have overstayed their welcome. But the current
expulsions involve thousands of people, including many Haitians who have been
living in the Dominican Republic for years and even some Dominican citizens
of Haitian descent.
The Dominican sugar industry has recruited Haitians for half a century. They
live in isolated work camps, or bateys, near the fields, usually in makeshift
shacks with no electricity, no running water and no medical care.
Now that the state-run Dominican sugar industry is undergoing privatization,
many expect the harvesting to become more mechanized, reducing the need for
Haitian laborers. Many Haitians feel that the deportations are part of a plan
to clear the bateys out of fear that those who have lived and worked in the
fields for decades will spill into the general Dominican population.
The deportations started earlier this month, shortly after the human rights
commission of the Organization of American States denounced the low pay and
living conditions of Haitian agricultural workers in the Dominican Republic.
The report also noted that in spite of the Dominican civil code, which grants
citizenship to all those born on Dominican soil, most children of Haitian
parents are denied Dominican citizenship.
Those who have been deported say they were given no opportunity to prove
their legal status or citizenship and no time to return to their homes to
collect their belongings, notify their families and make arrangements for
their children. The Haitian government is given no notice that the workers
are to be dumped at the border.
Did the human rights report on labor conditions provoke the Dominican
president, Leonel Fernández, to order the deportations? There would be a
precedent. After a similar critical report by Human Rights Watch in 1991,
more than 50,000 Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans were expelled from the
country by Mr. Fernández's predecessor, Joaquín Balaguer.
There may also be other factors at work. With a presidential election
scheduled in May, the deportations may be a tactic to make Haitians a
scapegoat for the country's inflation and unemployment problems, according to
critics of the Fernández government.
The "Haitian question" has often been a crucial factor in Dominican political
rhetoric, particularly during the periods in this decade when the late José
Francisco Peña Gómez, who was black, was a leading candidate. Mr. Peña
Gómez's opponents depicted him as sympathetic to a Haitian cultural and
economic invasion that would derail the Dominican Republic's relative
Some anti-Haitian sentiment is also being stirred up in advance of a summit
meeting of more than 50 African, Caribbean and Pacific nations that will take
place next week in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. One
leading party has called for a demonstration to take place there today; it
urges Dominicans to take to the streets and protest the "Haitian invasion."
For any Dominican, that language echoes the oratory of the dictator Rafael
Trujillo, whose government massacred thousands of Haitians along the border
While Dominicans cannot be expected to harbor every Haitian who flees
economic hardship, the expulsions are violations of the workers' human rights
and of the country's own laws. Haitians do not want to invade the Dominican
Republic, culturally or otherwise. Most have gone there seeking a better
life, much like the nearly one million Dominicans who have emigrated to the
Haitians, Dominicans and Americans should protest the deportations, as well
as the racially tinged political rhetoric that has given too many Dominicans
the false perception that all their problems will disappear if only the
Haitians will go away.
Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American novelist. Junot Diaz is a