On December 6th, at the Human Rights Day event honoring Sonia Pierre, we remembered a woman who amplified the voices of people who were the most marginalized and excluded in her country – women, people in poverty, and ethnic minorities. We celebrated the ambitious and relentless way she developed international coalitions to expose her government for systematically denying basic rights to 1.6 million people of Haitian descent. Through her daughters, Manuela and Leticia, we were reminded that in order for change to occur, we must reverse the model of waiting for one leader to emerge who will risk her life for others.
We viewed the video Birthright Crisis, which Sonia commissioned in 2005 as a record of the cyclical government sanctioned violence toward both Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Professor Monisha Bajaj spoke about Sonia as a mentor for her work in human rights education, introducing her to the hand-on application of human rights theory to community organizing. Ninaj Raoul, founder of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, and a close friend of Sonia, discussed Sonia’s role in mobilizing not only international human rights groups, but also individuals in the Haitian and Dominican diaspora, to respond to humanitarian crises on the island.
Manuela Pierre and her sister Leticia Pierre gave incredibly moving testimonies of learning from their mother’s courage as they work to build their own organization that supports young people of African descent in the Dominican Republic. Although it was painful to see the toll this struggle took on their mother’s health, they and other young people continue to find inspiration in her strength and determination to never give up. Manuela told the story of her mother’s request that although it would be challenging for her- as a young woman, a law student, and a mother of two, that she must try to help raise thousands more Sonia Pierre’s.
One hope I had for this event is that bringing people together who cared about the ongoing human rights violations against Haitian-Dominicans would result in further collaborations between local community activists and groups in the Dominican Republic. There were several suggestions from both audience and panelists about how to get involved – starting with becoming more informed. Manuela made the point that people waiting for human rights violations to make it into the international news would never get a true picture of what is happening:
“The Dominican press… serves certain powerful interests, which do not want certain things to be known. We must create networks where we keep telling each other, because if we wait around for the press to cover it, nothing is going to happen.”
This is a suggestion I would like to follow into the realm of possibility. What if Americans refused to vacation in a place that denies children born on its soil the right to a birth certificate and a nationality, and goes so far as to strip citizens of their nationality because they are the children and grandchildren of immigrants?
Approximately 4.4 million people traveled to the Dominican Republic for tourism in 2011, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. 1.2 million were foreigners traveling from the United States. Most of us can think of someone who got married on a Dominican beach, or traveled there for quick “R&R” as it is one of the least expensive places in the Caribbean for all-inclusive resort vacations. The loss in revenue from tourist visas alone could be as much as $12 million.
It will take something on that scale to catch the attention of a government that snubbed a landmark ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005 to reform their birth registration process and allow children of Haitian immigrants the right to attend school. Instead, they have done a total about-face and changed the country’s constitution in 2010 in order to make it legal for the Central Electoral Commission to deny Haitian immigrants identity cards and the opportunity to naturalize. And, they have taken the rejection of the population one step further, by denationalizing thousands of Dominican-born people, whose parents have been retro-actively classified as “undocumented.” See the case of Emildo Bueno vs. Dominican Supreme Court (December 2011). Bueno, born in the Dominican Republic, was told his birth certificate was invalid when he attempted to obtain a passport to travel to the United States to be with his American citizen wife. His case was rejected by the Supreme Court in December 2011, and his family faced violent retaliation for his public appeal.
Perhaps if some American tourists knew the implications of denationalization and forced invisibility, they would lose their appetite for a resort vacation. This is what happens to people when the government will not issue documents or recognize the documents they have: In the fall of 2011, in the shadow of one of DR’s most popular tourist beaches, Boca Chica, a 9-year-old girl was was kidnapped, raped, and killed by a 53-year-old man. The girl’s 5-year-old brother witnessed her abduction and identified the murderer. The girl’s blood-soaked clothing was found in his home. After he paid 500 pesos to the police, all charges against the murderer were dropped. The little girl’s mother could not find justice in Dominican courts—because she was Haitian, the municipality would not release her daughter’s birth certificate, and the judge determined that her Dominican-born daughter “did not exist.”
The rape of this little girl, her erasure from the record, and the denial of justice to her family, is emblematic of way social and legal exclusion are experienced every day by ethnic Haitians. Sonia Pierre was working on this mother’s case before she passed away, sharing the mother’s story with international audiences and vowing to keep challenging the courts until she was heard.
This week, as more than one thousand Haitian migrant workers who paid for authorization to return to Haiti temporarily for the holidays, now stand trapped on the bridge to Dajabon, where they are not being allowed to return to their jobs with Dominican employers because of “improper documentation,” I wonder how big the boycott would have to be. Would it be enough for Americans to stop visiting? Maybe we would need the European (1.1 million in 2011) and South American tourists (400,000), to make a noticeable impact. What if all the bars in Boca Chica, Cabarete, Punta Cana, and Zona Colonial went silent this year because people refused to go? Almost certainly, there would be consequences for the workers, and the poorest communities would feel the pain first. But with global support, perhaps the results would be worthwhile.
On the other hand, maybe the strategy is to go. Go and get informed, collect the information we need to share the realities with others. Stay out of the hotels. Go into the bateyes. Flood the streets with people who stand in solidarity with young leaders like Manuela and Leticia Pierre as they organize young people to combat the experience they call being like the “living dead.” We can also take action here at home to continue raising this issue within the Dominican diaspora, which now has voting power in Dominican elections.
For those who are thinking of visiting the DR anytime soon, there are some ways to do it responsibly:
- Join a Friends Beyond Borders tour this summer, which takes teachers and students into DR to meet with free-trade and fair-trade workers and union activists, spend time in the bateyes where many Haitian migrants live, experience garbage picking in Puerto Plata, and dialogue with other students and educators. This program is based in New Jersey.
- Go with Global Exchange, or the Fair World Project which provide reality tours each year.
- Use social media networks to find out what’s going on. Reach out to organizations such as MUDHA, GARR, and Reconoci.do before you travel to find out what current issues they are facing, and how you can meet with them to provide assistance.
- Use the privilege of a US passport to cross the border into Haiti from Dajabon or Elias Pina – an act that most tour companies and many Dominican residents would warn against, based on generations of misinformation about the danger and menace of Haiti. Talk to Haitians at border marketplaces and river crossings about their experiences trying to earn a living, sell their wares, send their children to school, and avoid harassment by the police and military officials. One organization to visit in Dajabon is Jesuit Relief Service’s Solidaridad Fronteriza.
- Read about the changes in the Dominican Constitution, and start talking – Why is there a constitution in the Americas which classifies over 10% of the country’s permanent population as “in transit,” so they will never enjoy the right to vote, own property, get legally married, or travel internationally?
- Write to the US State Department, and question why they continue to have excellent diplomatic and trade relations with the Dominican Republic; when their their own country reports detail the human rights abuses year after year?
There is so much that can be done right here. I personally look forward to the lunchtime conversation that BCRW will facilitate later this semester, in which professors Kaiama Glover and Maja Horn will talk about the challenges of teaching Hispaniola – this dear island fraught with both division and a powerful shared history. It’s wonderful opportunity to continue this conversation.
Miriam Neptune is a video producer who documented collaborations between Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees and the Movement of Haitian Dominican Women from 2004 to 2010. Her video Birthright Crisis is an award-winning documentary depicting the cycle of deportation and violence faced by Dominicans of Haitian descent. She is currently an Instructional Media Specialist at Barnard College.