The Dominican Republic is preparing to deport more than a hundred thousand people to Haiti. Born in the Dominican Republic, the targets for expulsion are descendants of Haitians who came to work in sugar plantations in the early 20th century yet never legalized their residency status. They are nearly all poor, street venders, peasants, domestic servants, laborers, mothers and fathers.
Like most every other nation in the Americas, the Dominican Republic defines (or did until recently) citizenship according to a version of jus soli—“right to the soil,” what in the US is often called birthright citizenship. Who is a Dominican? “Persons born in the national territory,” says the 1980 constitution. But that charter, as do many other jus soli constitutions, lists exceptions, usually related to the children of diplomatic personnel or of persons “in transit.” In September 2013, the Dominican Republic’s top constitutional court interpreted those exceptions to apply to descendants of undocumented migrant workers.
According to Rachel Nolan, writing in a recent excellent Harper’s essay (behind a firewall), the ruling applies “to all Dominicans with undocumented foreign parents, most of whom…have no family in Haiti, speak little or no Creole, and are not eligible for Haitian citizenship. The decision was retroactive, affecting anyone born in 1929 or later. Two hundred ten thousand people were suddenly stateless.”
Haiti and the Dominican Republic don’t just share an island, Hispaniola, but a history, one that includes all the signal events that went into creating the modern world: Columbus, conquest, genocide, slavery, imperial war, revolution, and US counterinsurgencies and military occupations. And over the course of that history, for Dominicans, Haitians came to serve, as they do for the larger international community, as objects of reaction formation. “Race does not exist without a referent,” as Nolan writes; in the Dominican Republic, “’black’ means Haitian, or a child of Haitians. To Dominicans, the supposed distinctions are clear: Dominicans are European. Haitians are African. Dominicans are Christian. Haitians practice voodoo.”
Prior to the court ruling and impending deportation, the key moment in 20th-century Haitian-DR relations was a 1937 massacre, ordered by DR’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo (an US ally). The idea was to accelerate the whitening of the country. And for Dominicans to be whitened, the soil had to be reddened: Trujillo, again according to Nolan, “ordered the murder of between 7,000 and 15,000 Haitians who were living on the Dominican side of the border. Trujillo himself had a Haitian grandmother, and wore pancake makeup in the Caribbean heat to lighten his complexion…. The 1937 massacre is known in the D.R. simply as el corte, ‘the cutting.’ To differentiate Haitians and Dominicans, Trujillo’s men forced residents with dark skin to pronounce the word for parsley, perejil. If they could not roll the r like a Spanish speaker, they were executed. The army used machetes to make it look as though nationalist farmers had turned on their neighbors spontaneously, without government orders or assistance.”