The Haitian OccupyDR Movement

I visited the Dominican Republic a couple weekends ago, something I had resisted for a long time, given the stories of racism that seep across the border into Haiti. Sometimes the stories are subtle, like a barber doing you the “favor” of cutting your hair low enough that no one can see your naps. Other times they are horrific, such as a years-old whispered rumor of Dominicans lighting a bus of Haitians on fire. Substantiated or not, enough Haitians seem hesitant about the Dominican Republic that I didn’t see myself vacationing there anytime soon. Nonetheless, I found myself there for a work trip. Though admittedly I kept my guard up at first, the Dominican Republic surprised me in many ways, particularly, in its relationship with Haiti.

The relationship between Haiti and the DR is… complex. Few people recall the fact that Haiti once successfully invaded the Dominican Republic, and held on for 22 years no less. At the time, the Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic was somewhat jointly motivated, with members of the political and military elite of the newly minted Republic of Spanish Haiti (modern-day Dominican Republic) sought the economic security of unification with the already 17-year old nation of Haiti. Today, the Dominican Republic finds itself the center of another “occupation,” once again largely Haitian inspired, though the situation couldn’t be more different than the one which took place in the 1820s.  Since the 2010 earthquake, tens of thousands of Haitians have migrated to the DR, seeking opportunities for employment, education, and an overall opportunity at a better life. While some were able to find this within the DR’s borders, recent legislation actually strips away these gains. Dominican legislatures recently passed a law preventing Dominican-born Haitians from obtaining Dominican citizenship. This, in turn, prevents them from receiving proper birth documents. One would then posit that these Haitians could simply obtain birth documents from the country of their parents. It’s not so easy. Without Dominican birth documents, or some form of original state-issued document, these Haitians are unable to obtain birth documents in Haiti. The end result? Statelessness. To further complicate matters, the new legislation retroactively strips citizenship from Dominican-born Haitians who had previously obtained Dominican citizenship, leaving two or more generations stranded without citizenship, unable to obtain a legal identity on either side of the island.

And so the Dominican Republic finds itself in an odd situation. The legislation, which was likely intended to reduce the influx of Haitians desperate for work or medical attention from seeping across the border, has instead created a perpetual class of stateless Haitians, unable to seek legal work or send their children to school or, most importantly, return to Haiti legally. From a Dominican legislature standpoint, they are merely reacting to what might be termed as a Haitian-led “occupy” movement of the Dominican Republic. At the same time, many Dominicans view the situation differently.

The same day the Occupy Wall Street movement went global, hundreds of Dominicans took the cue and organized their own OccupyDR Movement. The movement addressed numerous social and political dilemmas facing the country, with many Dominicans rallying behind the “four percent” issue (DR legislation calls for at least 4% of the budget to go towards education, instead of the current 2.8%) as a central flag. Though the 4% theme dominated the rally, one couldn’t help but notice another group, donned in black t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase across the center.

“Reconoci” translates to “recognize” as in “recognize us.” As is the case with most movements, it is youth-led. Tellingly, the group is composed equally of Dominican-born Haitians and Dominican-born Dominicans, each demographic just as passionate as the other.

Though I imagine we would all agree that everyone has the right to nationality, the true gravity of the movement didn’t quite hit me until I tried speaking to one of the representatives. Parlez-vous francais? I asked. He shook his head, and in a strong accent replied “Espagna y Creole.” Even then, as we spoke in Kreyol, he freely substituted Spanish words for the ones that didn’t readily come to mind in Kreyol, much the same I (frequently) substitute English for words I don’t know in French or Kreyol. By multiple measures, he was more Dominican than Haitian. That statement opens up a world of debate on what defines nationality and heritage. Nonetheless, the point became immediately evident that he, everyone involved with the movement considered themselves proud Dominicans. Soy Dominicano read one prominent sign. Yes, I agree.

As if to accentuate the point, another group of Haitians, a group of artists, had set themselves up on the other side of the main plaza. Throughout the day they had been working collectively on a mural depicting the Haitian presence in the DR.

By early afternoon, their message became clear: The Dominican Republic exists because of Haiti, and the two are one in the same. Haitians hunched over, arms tied together, carry the DR’s towering buildings on their backs. Simultaneously, a tap-tap (Haitian taxi) marked with Migracion on the side transports Haitians away from the DR, while Haitians in the background hold up photos of Dominican scenery. As stated earlier, the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is… complex.

While the movement and others fighting for the rights of Haitians living in the DR have an uphill battle, their passion is clear. And while many may debate the degree to which their cause is justified, one cannot deny that the two halves of the one island are intertwined in a complex reality that is not neatly divided into black or white, Kreyol or Spanish.

More OccupyDR photos.

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