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The Dominican Republic's "Ethnic Purging": Edwidge Danticat on Mass Deportation of Haitian Families

June 17, 2015
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Guests

Edwidge Danticat

acclaimed Haitian-American novelist. Her latest book is called Claire of the Sea Light.

The Dominican Republic is set to begin what some are calling "ethnic purging," placing the fate of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent into limbo. Half a million legally stateless people could be sent to Haiti this week, including those who have never stepped foot in Haiti and don’t speak the language. In 2013, a Dominican constitutional court ruling stripped the citizenship of children born to Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic as far back as 1929, retroactively leaving tens of thousands without citizenship. Today marks the deadline for undocumented workers to register their presence in the Dominican Republic or risk mass deportation. However, only 300 of the 250,000 Dominican Haitians applying for permits have reportedly received them. Many have actively resisted registering as foreigners, saying they are Dominican by birth and deserve full rights. Dominican authorities have apparently organized a fleet of buses and set up processing centers on the border with Haiti, creating widespread fears of mass roundups. The Dominican Republic’s decision to denationalize hundreds of thousands of people has sparked international outcry. We are joined by the acclaimed Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Dominican Republic is set to begin what some are calling "ethnic purging," placing the fate of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent into limbo. Half a million legally stateless people could be sent to Haiti this week, including those who have never stepped foot in Haiti and don’t speak the language. In 2013, a Dominican constitutional court ruling stripped the citizenship of children born to Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic as far back as 1929, retroactively leaving tens of thousands without citizenship. This is Dominican migration minister Ruben Darío Paulino.

RUBEN DARÍO PAULINO: [translated] Let’s not comment on any excesses in the reparation plan, but, yes, firmness in upholding the laws, so all the undocumented in this country return to their country of origin.

AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the deadline for undocumented workers to register their presence in the Dominican Republic or risk mass deportation. However, only 300 of the 250,000 Dominican Haitians applying for permits have reportedly received them. Many have actively resisted registering as foreigners, saying they’re Dominican by birth and deserve full rights. Dominican authorities have apparently organized a fleet of buses and set up processing centers on the border with Haiti, creating widespread fears of mass roundups. This is Tini Rosier, an undocumented migrant risking deportation.

TINI ROSIER: [translated] If the deadline lapses, what they say is that we will have to go. There will be no fighting it and nothing that can be done. And I will have to go, because my mother and father brought me here when I was nine years old.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Dominican Republic’s decision to denationalize hundreds of thousands of people has sparked an international outcry. Haitian President Michel Martelly has denounced it as "civil genocide." The United Nations protested the ruling, and the U.S. State Department voiced measured disapproval. Meanwhile, Dominican-American writers Junot Díaz and Julia Alvarez, Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat and American writer Mark Kurlansky have united to express their shared condemnation of the decision. They wrote in The New York Times, quote, "One of the important lessons of the Holocaust is that the first step to genocide is to strip a people of their right to citizenship."

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined by Edwidge Danticat right here in New York, the acclaimed Haitian-American novelist. Her latest book is Claire of the Sea Light.

Edwidge, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back on.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what’s happening right now in the Dominican Republic, the other half of the island, Hispaniola, from where you were born, in Haiti.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I think this—we’ve often had deportations from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, but this is the first time that they will be done with a law behind them that actually, since the law—this constitutional court decided to strip citizenship from that large number of people, has really made life much harder for Dominicans of Haitian descent, but also migrants who are on the island. So, this law not only now gives the Dominican government the power to deport mass amounts of people, but also creates an environment, a civil environment, that’s really hard for people, because, you know, others might feel now that we’ve had an increase of violence against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, because it seems like a state-sponsored open season on people who are not only—who are considered Haitians by the way they look, primarily, or by their Haitian-sounding name.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And most people here in the United States are not aware of this long, troubled history between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, occupying the same island. There are ultranationalists and conservatives among the Dominican Republic who still—who talk about, hearken back to what they claim was the Haitian occupation of their country, and they see a line running through historically on this issue. Could you fill us in on some of that history that’s led to what we are facing today?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, Hispaniola is shared by—the island—by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And we share a history of colonialism and occupations, and at some point it was split between the French and the Spanish. And after the Haitian independence, there was a shift, where Haiti—and there was a—the whole island was under one rule, post-independence. And then, Dominican Republic, in 1822, there was a separation. But there are all these historical scars, where, you know, we, on the Haitian side, remember the massacre of Haitian cane workers in 1937. And then these things are brought up. But there’s also, for Americans, a common occupation of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic at the turn of the century, and both sides of the island have been marred, really, by the corporate—this other kind of occupation of the sugar industry that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the significance of the Dominican government deciding on 1929 as the date from which they’re going to start all of the tracing of the lineage of those Dominican nationals who are now—who have been—I mean, Haitian nationals who have been Dominican citizens now for generations?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I mean, there are so many things that are—that seem very arbitrary about this decision, 1929, one can only guess. 1929 was the beginning of the Depression here, and maybe there was a—the Gulf and Western and these other companies that were part of the sugar plantation complex, maybe there was a [inaudible], and then they actually—Haitian workers were always brought to that side, and suddenly, when the sugar industry pulls out, they are left hanging. But 1929 seems very bizarre in terms of deciding that people are in transit since 1929. It boggles the mind to think that you can be in transit in a country for 86 years. I mean, there’s that several generations of families that have lived in the Dominican Republic, that made their lives there, that risk now being deported.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Edwidge, are people in the Dominican Republic speaking out? I mean, Dominicans?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Oh, there are several organizations in the Dominican Republic that are speaking out, because this issue is sometimes presented as an immigration issue. But a large number of people who are affected by this will be Dominicans of Haitian descent. And so, they’re—but often these voices are drowned out by the ultranationalist voices who use this issue to scapegoat the—and use this issue as a way to divide people and to further their causes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the great Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel laureate, is considered something of an adopted son in the Dominican Republic. His novel, The Feast of the Goat, is about the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Vargas Llosa recently denounced the deportation ruling in the Spanish newspaper El País. He wrote that the sentence, quote, "is a juridical aberration and seems to be directly inspired by Hitler’s famous laws of the Thirties handed down by German Nazi judges to strip German citizenship from Jews who had for many years—many centuries—been resident in that country and were a constitutive part of its society." Dominican nationalists responded to Vargas Llosa’s comments with outrage. They burned copies of his book, and more than 60 community organizations signed a formal petition to request that the government name the author persona non grata in the Dominican Republic. I’m wondering your response to this reaction to Vargas Llosa?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, many of us have also been named persona non grata. I think that’s the immediate reaction to speaking out against what’s an injustice. And I think what’s important to note is that those of us who are speaking against this law, we don’t have a quarrel with Dominican people. We’re speaking against an injustice and an unjust law, just as we would anywhere else in the world. The reality is that a very large number of people can be affected by this, and this is happening in our region. And, of course, I have a personal connection to it, but I think it’s something that should concern everybody who cares about justice and human rights. And it sets also a very dangerous precedent for—in terms of moving large numbers of people who happen to be migrant or citizens elsewhere in the region.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there’s also actually been—right here in New York state, in the state Legislature, there’s been a quiet little battle raging because some Dominican legislators have been trying to get a resolution to condemn what the Dominican government is doing, while others are trying to stop that resolution from coming to a vote in the state Legislature. So this is really forcing a much-needed debate, unfortunately, on this tragedy, within—among the political circles of the Dominican Republic, as well.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I think that’s always happened. You’ve always had people who have been very sympathetic to this cause within the Dominican Republic. Again, it’s important to stress that we are talking also about Dominicans of Haitian descent, people whose families will be separated. And sometimes this issue is always presented, sort of a Haitian migrants—and there are Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic, but also this law will affect people, Dominicans of Haitian descent, or—who can just be picked up because they have a Haitian-sounding name or because they look Haitian or black. And so, I think it’s important that this conversation is had. And the Dominican diaspora, along with the Haitian diaspora, has also been very active and vocal, especially since the law was passed, and continues to speak out, to bring attention to this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Some have said the ruling is equivalent to if the United States suddenly announced that everyone of Hispanic descent must be deported. Do you think that that’s a helpful way to understand what’s happening here? And also, how will this affect the Dominican Republic elections that are coming up?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I think it’s—people are so ill-informed about the situation that I think it’s—it is important for us to reach for the analogies that we had. It’s as if the United States said, "Yes, everybody who has been here since 1930, you have to prove you’re a citizen. You have to go back to the place where you come from to get a birth certificate from there."

I think we also have to remember that this is not the first time that we’ve had these deportations. There were somewhat large-scale deportations in the 1990s, and they also happened to coincide with elections in the Dominican Republic. And often as elections are coming up, you know, and parties who are in power want to keep their power, you always have in the Dominican Republic this population that you can easily scapegoat. But this is the time that it’s gone—this is the first time that it’s gone this far, where, as this action is happening, it’s also a way of—it seems to be cleaning out some voter roll—you know, the voter rolls and people who could possibly be voting. And it’s something that we have seen before, but never on this large a scale.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for? I mean, you’ve joined together with other writers in fiercely condemning what is happening. What do you think needs to happen now?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I think what needs to happen now is, first of all, awareness. I thank you for covering it, because the general U.S. media, in general, has been very silent about it. And so, for people to really inform themselves about what’s happening, to write to your congresspeople. And also, we are subsidizing, as Americans, the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic gets the largest ration of sugar subsidies, and [inaudible] to the U.S. So, you are—we are all implicated in this. So, make sure that this—that your voice is heard. Make sure you call your congresspeople, because lives depend on it.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Edwidge Danticat, for joining us, acclaimed Haitian-American novelist. Her latest book, Claire of the Sea Light.

And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is hiring a senior news producer and an engagement editor in social media. Find out more at democracynow.org. They’re both full-time jobs here in New York.


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