Nuestra herencia colonial

Hoy se celebran 173 años de la que es posiblemente la más significativa de nuestras declaraciones de Independencia de otro país u potencia extranjera. Digo la más significativa, ya que nuestra historia fácilmente se podría dividir entre una serie de períodos de invasión extranjera, entrelazados por (relativamente breves) periodos de inestabilidad política y regímenes autoritarios, hasta llegar a las décadas recientes de ‘democracia’.

Sin embargo, es fácil quedarse absorbido por el presente, y olvidar el peso del pasado. Más específicamente, el legado de las instituciones coloniales que todavía inciden en nuestro día a día como país. Es fácil pensar que hemos evolucionado en nuestra vida republicana, olvidando que realmente hemos durado más tiempo bajo el estatus de colonia que bajo el estatus de nación independiente. Aun viendo los sucesos de los años posteriores a nuestra Independencia, lo que encontramos son más invasiones, más intentos de anexión, caos político y regímenes autoritarios. Esto pone en duda si las instituciones creadas durante nuestra etapa como una nación libre, soberana, y democrática puedan producir un contrapeso real ante nuestra herencia colonial.

La economía del desarrollo presenta un sinnumero de teorías y estudios sobre los efectos a largo plazo de los diferentes modelos de colonización. Uno de los principales contrastes que podemos encontrar en la bibliografía es el que existe entre las zonas ricas en recursos naturales, las cuales atrajeron modelos de explotación colonial, vs. las zonas no-ricas en recursos naturales, las cuales atrajeron modelos de asentamiento colonial.

Nuestra isla sin duda se encuentra en el primer grupo. Su conquista y colonización empezó en el 1492 con la llegada de Colón, y fue seguida por olas de españoles interesados en participar en la economía del oro y enriquecerse rápidamente. Este pensamiento a corto plazo llevó a una repartición arbitraria de la tierra entre los colonizadores, y posteriormente a la extinción completa de la raza aborigen de nuestra isla (la cual sólo perdura a través de sutiles trazos en la mezcla de razas que el Dominicano lleva en su ADN). Sin embargo, la bonanza económica probó ser efímera cuando la explotación de recursos naturales no se vio acompañada por el desarrollo de un modelo económico más sostenible (¿suena familiar?).

De hecho, tan pronto los colonizadores españoles pisaron tierra continental en América (léase, México, Centroamérica, y luego Perú), se vieron tan cegados por el oro y la plata recién descubiertos que su interés en nuestra isla se desvaneció casi por completo. Sí, por un momento recobramos importancia como un significativo productor de azúcar, pero fuimos rápidamente opacados por Cuba cuando La Habana fue designado como el puerto principal para conectar Europa con América.

Aun con todo esto, logramos permanecer 329 años bajo el control de España (hasta nuestra primera independencia, apropiadamente denominada ‘efímera’). Sin recursos naturales valiosos para la época, sin industria, sin ser una gran potencia agrícola… qué nos quedó? Tres instituciones que pasaron a definir nuestra vida cultural, social, y política aún hasta en pleno siglo XXI: La Iglesia Católica, el situado, y el Hato Ganadero.

No es secreto que la Iglesia Católica fue quizás la institución que más influyó la conquista y colonización de América. Las bulas papales de la época sirvieron para legitimar estas expediciones, otorgando a la Corona el DERECHO a conquistar América y la OBLIGACION de evangelizarla. El prospecto de todo un nuevo continente de creyentes fue suficiente para apoyar la repartición arbitraria de tierras e indígenas, a cambio de que los colonizadores instruyeran a tales indígenas en la Fe católica (aunque cabe señalar que también se dieron casos de misioneros/religiosos que denunciaron el maltrato y abuso a los cuales fueron sometidos dichos indígenas).

De hecho, el Vaticano intervino repetidas veces para mediar conflictos entre potencias Europeas sobre cómo repartirse las nuevas tierras descubiertas. Los Reyes Católicos y sus sucesores promovieron la evangelización y constituyeron un Patronato Real sobre la institución religiosa, lo cual aseguró la remuneración del clero y la construcción de iglesias, catedrales, y conventos. La Iglesia también se convirtió en el agente de diseminación de la cultura Europea/Occidental en la isla. Debido a esta relación cuasi-simbiótica con la Corona, la aristocracia y burocracia local difícilmente le podían servir de contrapeso al poder político de la Iglesia Católica. Aunque el catolicismo es uno de los lazos que unen a todas las naciones Latinoamericanas, somos quizás la única que lleva estas referencias religiosas en su escudo nacional (la biblia abierta, la cruz, y el ‘Dios’ en el lema), y una de las que todavía no ha avanzado hacia un Estado laico.

La segunda institución clave de nuestro periodo colonial fue el situado. Esto era básicamente una anualidad proveniente de España, con el fin del pago de sueldos a los altos funcionarios y oficiales de la colonia. Estos altos oficiales bien podrían considerarse en su mayoría como las primeras ‘botellas’ de nuestro país, para los cuales el situado constituyó un medio de acumulación de riquezas a cambio de una labor mediocre. El pago del mismo no dependía de ningunas condiciones, garantizando en cierto modo la prevalencia en el poder de una burocracia ineficiente, atada al ‘viejo mundo’. Este paradigma sobre el rol y las funciones de la burocracia todavía están presentes en nuestra vida republicana, donde aún carecemos de un sistema de incentivos que mida o recompense la efectividad de esta rama del gobierno.

La tercera y última institución que marca nuestra historia colonial es el hato ganadero, el cual pasó a ser la principal actividad económica en nuestro lado de la isla. Dado a que la labor en los hatos era menos intensa que en por ejemplo, el cultivo de la caña de azúcar, la relación entre los esclavos y sus amos era diferente que en otras colonias similares (algunos historiadores la han caracterizado como mas ‘amigable’ o ‘humana’). La mano de obra que fue necesaria fue menor, y la actitud con respecto al mestizaje era más favorable. Esto no sólo marcó grandemente nuestra composición racial actual, sino que también evitó un resentimiento de la clase esclava similar al que llevó a la Revolución Haitiana en el Occidente de la isla.

El otro efecto importante de la economía del Hato es que movió la principal actividad económica hacia el campo, lejos de la capital, y por ende, lejos de la sede del gobierno. Esto crea una desconexión entre la clase burócrata y la clase terrateniente, quienes tenían el mayor poder económico, y pasan a ejercer el control político por de facto en las otras áreas provinciales. La economía del Hato de esta forma descentraliza el poder político en el interior del país, y dificulta la unificación de otros actores en Santo Domingo para defender los intereses económicos de la colonia frente a sus gobernantes. Este orden sociopolítico fue un factor decisivo en el desarrollo de algunas de las características distintivas de nuestra cultura política, como lo son el paternalismo, el caudillismo, y la tendencia hacia líderes de apariencia ‘fuerte’ que terminan presidiendo regímenes autoritarios.

No es por coincidencia que tras revisitar brevemente estos aspectos de nuestro pasado colonial, podamos distinguir algunas de las tendencias de nuestra vida económica, social y política. El periodo colonial terminó con una primera Independencia, la cual fue seguida de 22 años de invasión Haitiana, y luego de otra Independencia (que es la que celebramos hoy). A partir de esta segunda independencia fuimos anexados, nos re-independizamos (la tercera es la vencida!), tuvimos una dictadura por 17 años (Lilis), una intervención Estadounidense por 8 años, otra dictadura por 31 años (Trujillo), otra intervención Estadounidense, y una pseudo-dictadura (Balaguer) por 12 años. Para los que han ido trabajando los números, esto cada vez reduce mas el tiempo que hemos tenido como nación para corregir los males institucionales heredados y/o reemplazarlos con instituciones democráticas sostenibles.

Podríamos marcar nuestra verdadera transición a una democracia representativa a partir de el fin de ‘Los Doce Años’, lo cual resultaría en unos meros 29 años de vida democrática moderna. Esto es apenas una generación, y constituye incluso menor tiempo de lo que duró la dictadura de Trujillo. Aun así, de estos 29 años, 4 fueron de otro gobierno de Balaguer, 12 fueron del mismo Presidente, y 17 del mismo partido, el cual al día de hoy, en términos reales, se encuentra sin oposición.

Entonces, ¿Qué nos enseña todo esto? Simplemente, que debemos ser realistas sobre nuestro desarrollo como nación. Que no somos inmunes a la historia ni a la herencia que ésta ha dejado en nuestras instituciones. Que debemos reconocer las actitudes y procesos políticos que un pasado no tan lejano se interpusieron al desarrollo de un modelo económico sostenible. Que, poniendo todo en perspectiva, quizás falta más tiempo todavía para construir y asimilar una cultura política que garantice el éxito y la permanencia de nuestra democracia representativa. En fin, que hoy podemos celebrar que somos independientes, pero no podemos olvidar que todavía tenemos la labor de construir nuestra nación.

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Pensando en RD… ‘Amor es amor es amor’

Hay veces que leo algún artículo, alguna noticia, que me deja una increíble sensación de rabia, seguido por una tristeza que no siempre logro expresar o compartir. Me deja sintiendo incómoda e incluso impotente al saber que mi visión del mundo no siempre corresponde con la realidad que vivimos. Me duele aún más cuando esa realidad se vive en la República Dominicana, el país donde nací, donde me crié, al que algún día quizás vuelva, con la ilusión de trabajar por el cambio que siento que merece. 

Este post es el resultado de esa rabia, esa tristeza, esa incomodidad, y esa impotencia. Son todas aquellas palabras, oraciones, y párrafos que no he podido soltar en el día entero, luego de ver la siguiente noticia:

  

Justo el mismo día en el cual el mundo se mostró en solidaridad con los Estados Unidos debido a la masacre ocurrida en una discoteca LGBT, en la República Dominicana se movilizaban cientos de personas para expresar su rechazo al reconocimiento de los derechos de esta misma comunidad. Como comunicó el embajador Wally en un conmovedor post en su Facebook (originalmente en inglés, pero lo he traducido): ‘Cómo pueden los líderes religiosos justificar y liderar una marcha en contra de los ciudadanos LGBT y sus derechos cuando todavía están siendo removidos los cadáveres de la discoteca donde sus vidas inocentes les fueron quitadas por el hecho de ser gay’.

En esta protesta decían que ser gay, o reconocer que dos personas del mismo sexo puedan contraer matrimonio frente a la ley APARENTEMENTE ‘atenta contra nuestros valores’, o ‘es una nueva forma de imperialismo norteamericano’, o ‘atenta contra la familia’.

He tenido el privilegio de vivir en países como Canadá y el Reino Unido, donde la diversidad no sólo es respetada, sino también promovida. Donde las mejores universidades y las mayores compañías se enorgullecen de sus políticas de inclusión, y donde dichas políticas no pasan desapercibidas y suelen dejar sus frutos. Donde se cree que aceptar a cada ciudadana y ciudadano por como es, sin importar el credo, raza, o preferencia sexual contribuye a que cada una y cada uno pueda alcanzar su verdadero potencial en la sociedad. Donde hasta los mismos partidos Conservadores han reconocido los matrimonios homosexuales precisamente por creer en el valor de la familia, y por ende, de reconocer que, legalmente, una persona puede establecer una familia con la persona que ama sin importar el género de la misma.

Pero ya sé lo que me van a decir. Que aterrice. Que la República Dominicana ni es Canadá, ni es el Reino Unido. Que esos son países con otro tejido económico, otro tejido político, y otro tejido social. Que en la República Dominicana la educación (o falta de) es diferente. Que el tema LGBT en la República Dominicana es todavía un tabú. Que ser LBGT en la República Dominicana es todavía una tragedia (e.g. ‘¿Ese muchacho es gay? Qué despedicio…’), una vergüenza (e.g. ‘Ningún padre quiere que su hijo sea gay…’), o un obstáculo. Que en la República Dominicana todavía se cree que hay una ‘agenda’ LGBT que la amenaza, como si la aceptación y el reconocimiento pudiesen llevar a -Dios nos libre- el contagio. Que en la República Dominicana las iglesias católicas y evangélicas tienen demasiado poder. Tanto así que, aún cuando el mismo Papa se muestra en solidaridad por la tragedia ocurrida en Orlando, éstas se muestran insensibles, sin posibilidad alguna de cancelar su movilización de miles de ‘creyentes’ para manifestar abiertamente su discriminación a la comunidad LGBT.

Claro, en sus ojos ellos no discriminan. Sólo quieren lo mejor para la familia, para la ‘verdadera sostenibilidad’. Pero la última vez que revisé el diccionario, el hecho de negar los derechos civiles a una parte de la población por razones arbitrarias como su preferencia sexual cabía dentro de la definición del verbo ‘discriminar’. Así como creer que la felicidad de otra pareja puede atentar contra la felicidad suya podría ser catalogado como ‘delusión’, o querer someter a los demás a que vivan de acuerdo a sus pre-concepciones de la forma que el amor puede o no puede tomar bien podría ser clasificado como un acto de tiranía. 

¿Y lo que más me molesta? Fui criada en una familia donde se creía (y se cree) que ‘Dios es amor’, y que Jesús vino a la tierra para enseñarnos, entre otras cosas, a amarnos los unos a los otros. No a ‘amarnos siempre y cuando su nacionalidad sea “x”, o su color de piel sea “y”, o su preferencia sexual sea “z”‘. Sin embargo, ¿en nombre de ese mismo Dios se pretende privar a tantos de su felicidad? ¿En nombre de ese mismo Dios se pretende condicionar el amor que alguien puede o no vivir? ¿En nombre de ese mismo Dios vamos a decidir arbitrariamente quien puede legalmente constituir una familia? Y por favor, si va a venir a decir que ‘Dios creó al hombre y la mujer’ o ‘Dios creó a la mujer para el hombre’, ahórreselo. Aprenda a pensar, a razonar, en vez de estar citando ad verbatum lo que le dicen que piense. Y si aún así usted insiste en que el mundo debería de funcionar de acuerdo a lo que dice esa Biblia que para usted es tan sagrada, le pido que la lea de nuevo y vaya anotando todo lo que ésta le prohíbe o le obliga a hacer (preste particular atención al libro de Levítico!) y trate de llevar su vida de acorde a ésto. ¿Que no se puede tomar todo lo que está en la Biblia literalmente y fuera de contexto? Exactamente.

Amor es amor es amor. 

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‘Es la economía, estúpido’

Con este título no pretendo insultar al lector, sino más bien recordar una de las frases que utilizó la campaña presidencial de Bill Clinton en 1992 (‘The economy, stupid’), para enfocar la misma en la predominante recesión que afectaba a los Estados Unidos en aquel entonces. Esta frase resume el sentimiento de que en unas elecciones, el tema que acapara la mayor atención del electorado es la economía, lo cual obtiene una prominencia aún mas significativa en tiempos de crisis. En su interpretación mas simplista, deja inferir que unas elecciones no son más que un referéndum sobre el estado de la economía: una economía saludable que presente crecimiento es un voto a favor del candidato o partido ‘responsable’ por dicho crecimiento, mientras que una crisis económica, recesión, o incluso depresión, es un voto en contra.

Dicho esto, pienso que esta frase (menos el insulto, quizás) bien se aplica a lo que está viviendo la República Dominicana hoy en día, cuando al parecer el PLD va entrar a su cuarto mandato consecutivo, para un total de 16 años en la presidencia. Aunque en términos nominales existe una cantidad de problemas que afectan al país que bien podrían ser ‘decisivos’ para un voto (léase corrupción, seguridad, educación, protección de los recursos naturales, salud, etc.), en términos reales éstos terminan tomando la segunda plana ante esta simple consideración: Al día de las elecciones, ¿estamos mejor que hace 4 años?

Esta pregunta también proviene de una campaña presidencial estadounidense, más específicamente del debate presidencial de 1980 entre Ronald Reagan y Jimmy Carter (quien era Presidente en aquel entonces). En el mismo, y haciendo referencia al mal estado de la economía, Reagan lanzó esta pregunta, siguiéndola con: ‘¿Acaso es mas fácil ir a comprar cosas a las tiendas ahora que hace 4 años? ¿Hay más o menos desempleo en el país ahora que hace 4 años?’

Continuando esa misma línea de razonamiento, recordemos las circunstancias en las cuales el PLD se eligió en el 2004. El país había sufrido de una crisis económica y financiera durante el gobierno de Hipólito Mejía, la cual vio la quiebra de 3 bancos, altos niveles de inflación, la devaluación de la moneda, y la creación de nuevos pobres (entre otras consecuencias). Creo que no es muy descarado concluir que esta crisis fue una de las principales causas (sino la principal) que le impidieron la reelección a Hipólito. Claro, el país tenia otros problemas en aquel entonces, pero ¿Cuáles de estos se podían sentir tan cotidianamente? ¿Cuáles de estos literalmente llevaron a familias a la pobreza? ¿Cuáles de estos amenazaron los ahorros de tantos Dominicanos? ¿Cuáles otros generaron un sentimiento de desconfianza tan grande?

Comparemos esto con el comportamiento de la economía durante los gobiernos del PLD. Con esto me refiero específicamente a índices macroeconómicos como el desempleo, la tasa de cambio con el dólar, la inflación, o el crecimiento del Producto Interno Bruto (PIB). Aunque estos índices no son indicaciones exactas del bienestar colectivo, ni muchos menos de desarrollo económico (el PIB per capita es considerado como una medida de desarrollo sólo en conjunción con indicadores de salud y de educación, en el índice de desarrollo humano), sí son un proxy para saber, por ejemplo, cómo ha cambiado el poder de compra de la población. Esto a su vez es un proxy para saber si, en términos económicos, la población esta ‘mejor’ que antes.

Según las estadísticas, desde el 2005 al 2015 (no cuento el 2004 ya que fue el año de transición) la tasa de compra del dólar, un indicador de la valuación de nuestra moneda, ha aumentado en promedio un 3.7% anualmente. Comparemos esto con un aumento de un 99.03% del 2002 al 2003. Igualmente, la tasa de inflación anualizada promedio se encuentra alrededor de un 5.9%, aunque ésta ha bajado notablemente, y en el 2015 alcanzó el 0.84%. Comparemos eso con una inflación promedio de 27.45% en el 2003 y 51.46% en el 2004. En términos del crecimiento del PIB, mientras que en el 2003 el PIB se contrajo un 1.3%, del 2005-2015 éste ha crecido en promedio un 6.7% al año (y un 7% en el 2015).

Ahora bien, mi punto no es implicar que este ambiente macroeconómico sea sólo por obra y gracia del PLD. No, influye el sector privado, e influye la economía internacional y su efecto en la demanda de nuestras exportaciones. Tampoco es sugerir que la salud de la economía pueda expiar las otras faltas de estos gobiernos, notablemente, la calidad de la educación pública y la prevalencia de la corrupción. Mi punto es decir que, ante los ojos del electorado, un ambiente macroeconómico positivo ayuda al partido que está al mando.

Muchos pensaran que esta aparente ‘salud’ macroeconómica no necesariamente se va a traducir en mejores condiciones económicas a nivel individual. Es decir, a fin de cuentas, seguimos presentando altos niveles de pobreza INCLUSO con un crecimiento de 7% del PIB. ¿Cómo puede una persona que todavía se encuentra en la pobreza pensar que su situación ha ‘mejorado’? Pues bien, para entender este fenómeno hay que tener en cuenta que, si bien el gobierno no ha podido ayudar a sacar a un porcentaje significativo de Dominicanos de la pobreza (lo que llamaremos ‘movilidad social’), sí ha hecho aportes a esta parte de la población que podrían ser interpretados como mejoras dentro de la condición de pobreza.

Me explico. Normalmente, para mejorar la calidad de vida de sus ciudadanos, un gobierno invierte en bienes públicos. Estos en teoría benefician a toda la población, ya que, una vez instaurados, es muy difícil discriminar a los recipientes potenciales. Algunos ejemplos comunes son la educación o la salud pública, bienes que tienen un efecto significativo a largo plazo, y que pueden contribuir a la movilidad social (ya una población mas saludable y mejor educada tiene mayores oportunidades de emprender o de integrarse al mercado laboral). El problema radica en que estos bienes requieren una gran inversión, no son necesariamente ‘visibles’ en el corto plazo, y por lo tanto, son muy difícil de ‘asociar’ con un gobernante en particular.

En la República Dominicana, este tipo de bien públicos que bien podría contribuir a la movilidad social es remplazado por: a) bienes de infraestructura, como la construcción de escuelas o puentes (estos no necesarios pero no suficientes para el progreso), o b) transferencias directas, como por ejemplo, la Tarjeta Solidaridad. Estos ‘reemplazos’ son altamente visibles y generan bienestar en el corto plazo, por lo cual no es difícil ver cómo pueden llevar a muchos a pensar que sus condiciones económicas sí han mejorado. ¿O acaso se puede contradecir a una madre que piensa que su situación ha mejorado porque ahora sus hijos pueden asistir a una escuela mas cerca de su hogar, donde les dan desayuno gratis y pueden aprovechar la oferta de una tanda extendida? ¿Acaso se le puede contradecir cuando piensa que su situación ha mejorado porque ahora puede complementar sus ingresos (aún estos siendo bajos) con dinero proveniente de la ‘Solidaridad’ del Estado?

Entonces, ¿Cuál es el problema de este tipo de ‘transferencias’? …Que son un gasto y no necesariamente una inversión, y como tal dependen en gran parte del superávit de la economía. Es decir, la continuidad de dichos programas bien pudiera verse amenazada por un desaceleramiento (o una contracción) del crecimiento del PIB. Asimismo, el hecho de que el gobierno ha podido costear esa infraestructura y demás transferencias directas ha sido en gran parte consecuencia de la estabilidad y el crecimiento económico. Dicho esto, una persona de bajos recursos quizás no esté al tanto de cuál es la tasa de inflación o el valor del peso en el mercado cambiario, pero sí sabe que su situación empeora cuando ya no puede contar con una transferencia de dinero por parte del gobierno, o cuando esa transferencia no le alcanza para comprar hoy la misma canasta que solía comprar ayer.

Volviendo al escenario político, ¿Cual es la otra cara de esta moneda? En cierta forma, el miedo a lo desconocido. Esto quizás sea una de las causas que previene a muchos de depositar su confianza en el PRM, un partido que aunque nuevo, permanece ligado a la figura de Hipólito Mejía y por ende, al recuerdo de la crisis. También quizás sea uno de los factores afectando a los partidos progresistas minoritarios en el país. Partidos cuyos líderes son muy vocales en términos de política social (y por ende, podrían terminar invirtiendo mas en bienes públicos como salud y educación de calidad), pero cuyo ‘performance’ económico podría ser un riesgo.

Por ejemplo, he oído comentarios de que uno de estos partidos minoritarios es muy ‘de izquierda’ en términos de política económica (lo cual desde un inicio es un argumento errado, ya que ‘la izquierda’ se ha convertido en Latinoamérica en un termino heterogéneo que abarca desde gobiernos progresistas anclados en el neoliberalismo como Chile, hasta gobiernos totalitarios anclados en el socialismo como Venezuela). Sin embargo, no es sorpresa que la clase media-alta asocie este ‘izquierdismo’ con más impuestos directos al corto plazo, e incertidumbre al largo plazo, y la clase baja con menos transferencias directas y/o prácticas clientelares que le beneficien (y también incertidumbre al largo plazo). Esto nos lleva de nuevo a nuestra pregunta inicial: ¿Acaso el electorado puede ver esto como una ‘mejoría’ en comparación con los 4 años pasados?

¿Qué nos dice todo esto? Que los números, las estadísticas, los índices macroeconómicos importan. Y que, si bien éstos no se encuentran explícitamente en la conciencia del electorado, aún así terminan ejerciendo una fuerza considerable sobre el mismo al momento de votar. O que, si bien éstos no constituyen un resumen estilizado de la situación del país y todos los problemas que le aquejan, su buen manejo es una precondición para depositar nuestra confianza en cualquier gobernante. En fin, no es que necesariamente tendremos que esperar la próxima crisis económica para que cambie el estatus-quo político, pero aquellos que pretenden gobernar deberían tomar esfuerzos para reforzar sus credenciales económicos y enviar un mensaje conciso y claro, que disipe cualquier incertidumbre en el electorado de cómo su mandato puede verdaderamente constituir una mejora en el bienestar económico.

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A society in diapers

To all my fellow Dominicans….

 

I really enjoy watching Neil deGrasse Tyson interviews on Youtube. If you do not know who I am talking about, Dr. deGrasse Tyson is the guy that makes astrophysics seem like the sexiest career path there ever was. Not only is he full of wisdom, but also, his evident passion towards the universe and scientific discovery is more than just inspiring: it is contagious.

Recently, I watched this video of a debate Neil was participating in, where he was pointing out how religious texts should not be taken as the access point to understand the natural world:

“There is no compelling reason to just say: “Well, God did it”, and then sort of give up (on finding the scientific explanation of things) and move on to other problems (…) My issue is that, if you feel that way, you should not be writing the science curriculum of a classroom. Because if you do, you are undermining the very process science is about. If you undermine that foundation, you undermine the ability of your nation to compete technologically in the 21st century”

 Huh. Makes sense. Sad though, how the whole “what-should-be-our-science-curriculum debate” seems more like a luxury of more developed societies. Never, in my 9 years reading the Dominican press (I calculate that I started reading newspapers around the time I started high school, which was also around the time I started drinking coffee in the mornings. Probably not a coincidence) have I come across an even similar issue. This probably comes to no surprise, as the whole education-policy-thing progresses in baby steps: we have spent the last couple of years advocating to even get the legally-stipulated government budget amount directed at public education, surely we have not even began questioning the competence of our science program.

And I do think that our attitude towards scientific endeavour, and our lack of concern for the scientific progress that we are NOT achieving says a lot about us as a nation. I like to joke around and blame it on our indigenous predecessors, the taínos. If you are not Dominican, there is no reason why you should have come across the taínos at any point in your studies. Usually, the culturally-acceptable minimum knowledge of Latin American indigenous peoples involves only the three “mainstream” tribes: the Mayan, the Aztecs, and the Incas. But you know about them for a reason, I mean, these guys were the true geeks of indigenous peoples, and were all, for the most part, very science-oriented (in their own spiritual, holistic way).

How else do you explain their still-astounding achievements? The Mayans developed their (in)famous calendar, which was, for the most part, pretty damn accurate (we can all now leave that whole 2012-end-of-the-world moment of irrationality behind us). They also had pyramids. The Aztecs pretty much built their capital city on top of a lake, which probably required some tricky engineering work. They also had pyramids. The Incas were the ones with the most unfortunate geography, but hey, they did not let that stop them, and they built a pretty impressive road system, and developed very sophisticated agricultural techniques to cultivate on the hillsides.

You want to know what the taínos’ greatest achievement was? Well, my friends, they invented… THE HAMMOCK. That’s right. Because our indigenous people had their priorities straight, and everyone knows that you cannot go back to work without first having your siesta. You’re welcome, western civilization. (I’m half-joking here, of course. There’s very little taíno DNA in the Dominican blood, as the race pretty much saw its extinction with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers).

But jokes and historical rants aside, I do see a problem. To me, the virtues of science go beyond the results. It is not only that we are able to expand the frontiers of knowledge, invent new devices, or figure out cures for diseases. It is also the fact that it all starts with a question: Why? Or: How? Or: What if? If compels us to look into pre-existing explanations only as a starting point, to then figure out new ways to come up with evidence that will add to previous knowledge, or contradict it. Science is the greenhouse of curiosity, and well, there is an evident lack of curiosity in my country.

Obviously, there are outliers. I once read in one of my textbooks how a Dominican scientist discovered a new breed of the common fly! Good for him! But see? No one really cares (Sadly). We have no science museum the children can go to, and get inspired, and realize that they too, want to discover “stuff” in the future. We have no rigorous lab requirements in high-school, we have no competitive “physics”, or “chemistry”, or “biology” university career option. In fact neither one of my classmates went into “science” after finishing high school. I mean, you have engineering, where there’s applied physics, and medicine, where there’s applied biology and chemistry. But no science “for science sake”. We are too practical for that. We are too materialistic for that. We find absolutely no joy in discovery (apparently, as I like to believe that actions speak louder than words). And this is a problem, because I sometimes ask myself whether we even know what science means, or what it can do for us.

There is the very cliché saying: “Ignorance is bliss”. While this may apply at the individual level (because it does), I do believe that, at the national level, ignorance is doom. I guess it is one of the things that struck me the most coming back to Santo Domingo from studying abroad, how we Dominicans tend to hold tight to whatever “truths” someone with apparent knowledge of power throws your way. But we are not, as the foreign media sometimes portrays us “relatively conservative”, we are just uniformed. Uniformed because our citizens have had very limited exposure to the scientific methodology. And by this, I now move from the specific field of just “science”, as I believe that the scientific methodology pretty much applies to any exercise in analytical thinking that a person undertakes. I mean the ability to actually question what is given to you, and to find and use evidence in the world around you to prove your point. But no, we look for the “truths” from someone or something (religion, mostly) and never ever dare to find them on our own.

And it annoys me because these shortcomings also leave our potential social progress unrealized. Any issue under debate is quickly vetoed under the flag of controversiality. And why is it controversial? “Well… because the BIBLE says…” And because, anything new or different will OBVIOUSLY undermine the well-cherished values of our society (Apparently, discussions about human rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and reproductive rights are indeed a luxury for better-educated societies. We less educated societies have a more limited media-attention span, which is mostly at capacity with issues related to corruption). And yes, there are ultra-religious people in every country of the world, and they are, honestly, a mediatic pain in the a** sometimes, but in more developed nations, they comment because the issue is open for debate. In this case, there is no current national debate going on (heck, debate requires a minimum of logic on both sides, and the ability to support your argument for at least a couple of rounds of cross-examination), and these comments are what is keeping the issue from ever reaching that dialogue stage.

The fact that we live in a traditional machista society does not help much. Why else would Dominican women never challenge the notion of the glass ceiling? Why have Dominican women taken the obvious harassment they face probably at a daily basis, whenever they go to the streets or to most public places for granted? Why has no one questioned whether this is OK? Why are we not debating about this, and finding solutions?

So my point is: our scientific illiteracy shows. And it’s not only that we have to get our sh*t together and start teaching kids in elementary and high school what science can do for them, so that we can ever actually make a contribution to this technology-driven world; but we also have to learn to start to think. To actually think by ourselves without having “the truths” spelled out to us. Because true ignorance is just a lack of curiosity, and until we learn the value of justified skepticism, until we are genuinely captivated by the possibility of discovery, and until we exercise those logic and reasoning muscles that are somewhere under those rolos, we will be a society in diapers.

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…on Communism and my first fencing instructor

My first fencing instructor was Cuban. This should come to no surprise to someone with enough imagination to probably figure out that fencing instructors are in short supply in the Dominican Republic. In fact, the sport itself is not exactly “popular”, as the country’s attention span is, for the most part, limited to everything baseball-related (the Roland Garros final will probably get one column in the last page of the sports section, but if David Ortiz strains his shoulder, oh believe me, it will make the front page of the paper).

Anyways, back to my Cuban instructor: he was an… interesting  fella. Had a bit of a tough time with the whole smiling thing, and for the longest time I could not figure out whether I was just terrible at fencing, or whether it was actually physically impossible for him to point out whenever I would correctly perform an action. But don’t get me wrong, I learned a great deal from the man, and it was probably thanks to his incessant brainwashing attempts that I ever became so disciplined in sports.

He was sent to the Dominican Republic (in my understanding) by  some agreement that someone from my government made with someone from his government, which basically meant that he was on a sort of “sports-diplomatic duty”. He was representing the Cuban government and the Cuban people, and had a very specific mandate in this “mission”. I wish I had more of an insider’s scoop on what they were or were not allowed to do, or how, actually, they were selected in Cuba, but one of the things I did find out was that they, under no circumstances, should undertake another paid job somewhere else.

Now, I know I mentioned the whole “representing the Cuban people” as sort of a hyperbole, but he sure seemed to take this role seriously. I mean, he would not waste one single opportunity to point out what was wrong with us Dominican people. Every time one of my fellow team-mates was late for practice, he would just go:

“You Dominicans can NEVER be on time. You see, in Cuba…

Or whenever something “went missing” from the equipment room:

“You Dominicans have the BAD HABITS of stealing. You see, in Cuba…”

Or whenever he yelled at us for doing something wrong, and we tried to explain:

“You Dominicans always want to JUSTIFY YOURSELVES for everything. Why do you always have to find an excuse? You see, in Cuba…”

So yes, he was THAT guy. Always implying how Cuba was somehow “morally superior” to the Dominican Republic. He seemed so eager in proving to us how their country’s regime made them such great individuals, and how we Dominicans should try to learn more from them. We would sometimes even get into discussions about it, and I was really curious just to see how Cubans who are actually on the side of the government (technically, as he was in a sort of government mission, like I mentioned before) thought about certain issues. In the most memorable discussion we had, he went on a twenty minute rant explaining why garbage collectors should have the same salary as doctors.

“BECAUSE THEY ARE DOING THE JOB THAT NOBODY IN SOCIETY WANTS TO DO!! THEY ARE THE ONES DEALING WITH THE GARBAGE!! SURGEONS, THEY’RE PRETTY COMFORTABLE, THEY ARE NOT THE ONES GETTING THEIR HANDS DIRTY, ANYONE COULD WORK LIKE THAT.”

I was a little shocked by his logic:

 “So you’re saying that anyone can do a surgeon’s job? That you don’t have to go to college, and then get your pre-med, and then get your medical degree, and then do internships, and then get a specialty, all while sacrificing most of your relationships with your loved ones for your career. And still, go into operations that last for hours, where there is a risk that the patient won’t even make it, to then go back home and pretend you did not just see someone die…. Is easier than being a garbage collector?” (No offense to garbage collectors, I do appreciate your contribution to society, but I also think a little perspective never hurt anyone).

But he would just go in circles:

 “BUT THE GARBAGE COLLECTORS HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE FILTH OF SOCIETY. THAT IS ACTUALLY THE HARDEST JOB!”

(Alright, no point in wasting my time trying to convince this guy).

And it’s funny, you see, because Cuba and the Dominican Republic are really similar. In fact, you could almost take the introduction of Communism in Cuba, and the “democracy” in the Dominican Republic as a natural experiment to how regime type can affect a country’s development. (Econometricians reading this, and I know there’s a lot of you, don’t freak out, I know this would be pretty tricky, inaccurate, and most of the results would probably be greatly biased anyways. But my point is, if Cuba had not become Communist, we probably would have a lot in common. I mean, you can’t really predict how history will go, but let’s just stick to that assumption for the purpose of this blog post). Other than the whole regime thing, we’re both islands in the Caribbean, we were both colonized by the Spanish, and they pretty much brought the extinction of the indigenous population on both of our islands, so we are today, for the most part, mulattoes. We both speak Spanish, and have that Caribbean accent that make other Spanish-speaking nations wonder what the hell is it that we’re trying to say.

Now, a small parenthesis on that point. I am aware that Dominican Spanish is a sacrilege to the “proper Spanish”. How I explain it to my non-Spanish speaking friends is: “Well, you know Mexican Spanish?” (I find that most American/Canadians are more familiar with that particular breed of Spanish). “Think of Mexican Spanish as a pop song, and then Dominican Spanish would be sort of like… a RAP song”. I also find that stand-up comedian Anjelah Johnson has a brilliant way of putting it: “You see, to me when I hear Puerto-Ricans speak Spanish, it sounds like they have water in their mouth… and they don’t want it to spill… you know what I mean? Like… óla cómo tá ké kiere komé…. Oié ké tá pasando?” (So Caribbean Spanish in general is similar-ish). End of parenthesis.

Back to the comparisons: we also both have a soft spot for fried food, we both had sugar plantation economies, and we both are crazy about béisbol (which is directly a consequence of the sugar plantation economies, but that’s a story I’ll leave for later). Tourism is our main export, and we have also a reputation with Rum and Cigars (although the whole US-embargo thing has somehow worked to put Cuban cigars on a pedestal… they’re not normatively better than Dominican cigars, they’re just forbidden so you get that whole badass vibe going for you if you claim to be smoking one). We both have similar music and dance styles (men dance with their hips, which I have realized that some non-latinos find it hard to wrap their heads around the fact), and so we could go on with the similarities…

And yet, objectively, even though I would probably want it to be otherwise, Cuba can kick the DR’s a** in every education indicator. Hell, most of my most brilliant and memorable teachers in high school were from Cuba. You will not see Cuban university students struggle with their grammar, and for sure, if they had access to internet and online press, I can bet they would not make sure embarrassing spelling mistakes in every comment they leave. They can also kick our a** in most Olympics sports. I mean, there are exceptions to the rules, obviously, and you cannot make generalizations, and we do have excellent athletes in the DR etc etc etc… But the numbers speak by themselves. I mean, Cuba has won 208 Olympic medals, that is 18.8 medals per million people. The DR was won 6 Olympic medals, which is 0.59 medals per million people. It is also a known fact that Cuba has a stellar crew of Doctors, which they seem to deploy (similar to the fencing instructors) to other countries as well, or put at the disposition of diplomatic missions. Another known fact is the government’s competence in disaster preparation and reliefs efforts. In fact, their low number of casualties and death in response to hurricanes or tropical storms can put the Dominican government to shame.

But what do Olympic medals, great teachers, competent disaster relief and doctors tell you about a nation? Well, although by any economic standard Cuba may look very third-worldy, by most health and education standards they are outliers in the region, standing shoulder to shoulder with other developed nations. And they are great athletes too, which is always a plus.

Ah yes… my instructor would always point out to me how Cuban fencers were so dedicated that, even if they were out of weapons, they would scrap something together from sticks or something like that (ironically, I couldn’t understand the process he was trying to explain to me because of his accent). Unfortunately (actually, fortunately) I went abroad for college, and so that marked the end of that trainer-trainee bond. I never saw him again, and it was only after asking one of my team-mates that I found out what became of him…

My mother advised me once to “never spit to the sky” (obviously, doing so would make the spit fall straight into your eye. The phrase has a better ring to it in Spanish, trust me on this one). And I think this phrase summarizes perfectly what became of my old instructor. You see, for all that is worth, all the wellbeing and the “moral superiority” thing he was so adamant about (for the record, he never explicitly said that Cubans were morally superior to Dominicans, but to me it was implicit in his attitude), he chose to broke the terms of his contract and now cannot go back to Cuba. I learned that, after I left, he took a job as an aerobics instructor for a resort or a gym (or both), and was also kind of making a business of selling injury relief creams.

So why then, were all the perks of a healthy, educated society not enough? While there are a handful of explanations in every social science of why communism doesn’t work, and why you see repression in these regimes, and why their incentive system is so messed up etc etc etc,  I just wanted to humbly go back to one of them: lack of choice.  You see, we humans need choice, because it makes us believe that we are somehow in control of our lives. And apparently, choice is so important to us that we are even willing to sacrifice returning to a regime we once so eagerly stood up for. Of course, I do like to believe that there are diminishing marginal returns to choice. (Economists love to talk about “marginal returns”, I know, but once you get familiarized with the concept, it’s hard to keep yourself from using it as your go-to-explanation for anything that it could apply to). Anyways, for non-Economists out there, diminishing marginal returns is why the first bite of your meal is always the tastier, and why going from your first to your second beer makes you happier than going from your eight to your ninth. It also explains why having a 108th brand of cookies is not going to make Americans any happier, but why even selling another brand of anything in Cuba can make such a difference .

Another Cuban professor of mine liked to tell us the story of how, when they arrived to the Dominican Republic, they were the most impressed at the ice-cream shops. You see, in Cuba they only have the original trinity (chocolate-strawberry-vanilla), but in the DR, as they walked into the ice-cream shop, they couldn’t help to be amazed at “all the colors”. So I just find it interesting, how choice seems so relevant after you have your basics sorted (you know, education, health, etc…), whereas for us Dominicans (and for most of the western world) it is something we take for granted, and we currently struggle to sort our basics…

Sorry if I disappoint the reader with my lack of a conclusion, but I did not intend to make a political statement here, I just wanted to tell a story, and maybe have its political implications resonate with the reader depending on their own experience. I guess I do like to wonder off comparing Cuba with the Dominican Republic sometimes, and wonder about the “what ifs”. The fact is that our geography and our people are so alike that we would mostly be competing in every possible international arena. Or hey, maybe our history would be different if Cuba had not become communist: maybe the US government would not have been so scared of the communist threat in the region and would not have helped depose the most progressive and democratic president we had at the time (and probably ever, in our history as a nation). But, bottom line is, sometimes regimes can get so stuck up on an “ideal” that they lose sight of what really matters for their people. And sometimes we would like to think that Utopias where everyone has the same, and collaborates, and no one exploits anyone is possible can make everyone happy. But history has proven for it to be otherwise. Because at the end of the day, ideologies and Utopias cannot contradict human nature, and what once was seemed like the solution, can be a mere anachronism today. Because while health and education are necessary but not sufficient for the progress and wellbeing of a nation; and because “isms” can quickly turn into the concept mummies that haunts and hinders our very human instinct to adapt to the times, for the sake of our own people.

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So you want to get your driver’s permit?

It was a Wednesday morning in the beginning of July in Santo Domingo, and for some reason it seemed like the perfect time for me to finally go get my driver’s permit. I was 21 at the time, so yes, it kind of took me a long time to finally get that sorted, but hey, I lived abroad for four years in a city with a more-than-decent public transport system, so it’s not like I ever had the need to…

Anyways, it was probably the living abroad thing that completely spoiled me. Blame the fact that I was so used to Canadian bureaucracy that was kind of expecting a near-competent treatment from its Dominican counterpart. So, in the eve of my visit to the Transport Office, I looked up in their website (very naïve of me, in retrospect) which documents I needed to bring with me. I needed 2 2×2 photos (check), a copy of my ID (check), and the receipt of the payment of the corresponding taxes (check).

I arrived to the reception, only after receiving the “up and down stare” from every “officer” in the vicinity (the “up and down stare” is pretty much a custom among uneducated Dominican males, as they feel it is their legitimate right to violently observe every women that crosses their way, and their duty to shout at them any compliment that, in their view, is both clever and flattering).

“Buenas, I am here to get my driver’s permit”

 “Did you pay the tax?”

“Yes I did” (Amalia: 1 – DGTT:0)

“Did you bring a copy of your ID?”

“Yes I did” (Amalia:2 – DGTT:0)

“Did you bring your photo?”

“Yes I did” (Amalia: 3 – DGTT:0)

 “Did you bring your certificate of good behaviour?”

 “My WHAT?!”

 “CERTIFICATE-OF-GOOD-BEHAVIOUR” (Amalia: 3 – DGTT: 1)

“Yeah… I understood, but in the website… it didn’t say I needed one” (Again: NAÏVE)

“Well, nobody ever checks or updates the website anyways. But you do need one, you can get one at that booth over there to your left. It’s 150 pesos. “

“C*ño” I thought to myself. I headed over to where the receptionist pointed me, and struggled to find where exactly it was that I had to line up. You see, I firmly believe that practices like “making a line”, or “raising your hand to speak”, or “taking the right side if you’re standing up on electrical escalators” are specific to some cultures and not others, and well, I guess Dominican culture falls within the latter. I make my way to the front of the… bunch, and ask the guy at the other side of the window where was the line (Naïve). He told me to just hand him the papers, and that they would call my name when my papers were ready. Fair enough. I do so, and go to sit down.

If we Dominicans were not so creative at naming our offspring, that hour and-a-half that I waited for my certificate of good behaviour would have probably felt like 5 hours instead of 3 and a half. I tried to keep myself from laughing at hearing through the loudspeakers:

“HUGOBERTO DÍAZ. HUU-GO-BEEERTO DÍAZ”

or

“DAYNERIS MENCIÓN. DAY-NEE-RIS MENCIÓN”

or, my personal favourite:

“DESVALIDO PÉREZ. DEES-VA-LII-DO PÉREZ”

I also was somewhat amused at the guys who actually got nervous about whether they would actually qualify to get a paper of good conduct. I heard this one guy ask the window-man:

“Ey, amigo, so… if I have one teeny–tiny record in deportations, can I still get my license?”

The window-man just stared at him, but said that it was no problem. Finally, my name is called, I get my certificate, and move on to the next stage. So, in a nutshell: I had to go to the registration desk, where they get my documentation, and send me to get my eye exam. My eye exam consists of repeating three letters that were in a poster on the wall. I get a card that says that I have 20/20 vision, even though I was clearly wearing glasses. I then go to get tested for my blood type, to finally receive my “driver’s manual”, and sit on the waiting room for the infamous 45-minute long “educational video”.

By the time I walked into the classroom where the video was going to be projected, I had been in that building for almost 3 hours, and was at least one hour away from doing the actual test. It was Santo Domingo in the summer, so it was pretty hot, and it was a government building, so there was obviously no AC. The room starts packing up with others in my same situation. It was a very heterogeneous group: you had the 17 and 18-year old students, you had older ladies who finally decided it was about time to start driving legally, you had the truck drivers, motorcyclists, university students…. A fairly good sample of the Dominican ecosystem. Then, right after the room is at capacity two older ladies walk in, and the instructor asks if someone can give them their seat. Well, Dominicans are pretty good at not shutting up, but I can assure you, at this point, I heard crickets. All the guys just stared at the celing, one even complaining:

“I ain’t giving no one my seat”

or

“You have to move fast, otherwise people come and try to take your seat from you”.

Chivalry, my friends, is dead.

The video starts, and although it was only 45 minutes, it is as if the heat makes everything move slower. Every time the instructors would walk back into the room to check on us, someone would complain:

“Qué caloraso!”

or

“Así no se puede”

or

“Turn on a fan or something que no vamo’ a morí”

or, my all-time favourite:

“We’re going to suffocate in here from all the carbon MONOXIDE” (hey, you can’t blame the guy for having an automobile-complex).

It only got worse after the video ended and the instructor walked back into the room. At that point, she was so kindly giving us some of the answers to questions that may appear on the test. In fact, she even made us repeat them: kindergarden-style:

“SE-REBASA-POR-LA-IZQUIERDA”

or

“YOU-SLOW-DOWN-WHEN-THE-LIGHT-IS-YELLOW”

At one point she even tried to spice it up, and instead of having us repeat the statements, she would ask yes/no questions:

“Do you stand half a meter apart from a motorcycle?”

“NO”

“Do you stand a meter and a half apart from a motorcycle?”

“YES!!!”

(Apparently, she knew what she was doing, everyone around me was really getting into this “game”)

I finally go and take my exam. No fun stories there. I pass the exam (surprise, surprise), and finally, start to see the light at the end of the tunnel as I go to another booth to get my photo taken, get my card, and get the hell out of that office. (I was also starting to get hangry. Yes, hAngry). I make yet-another line for my picture, wait like 20 more minutes until I finally get to the counter. This guy sees my papers, asks for my weight, height, and all the other crap they have to put in your card. He takes my picture, I start to feel tears of joy coming, and then:

“It says here you have a restriction”

 “A WHAT now?!”

 “A restriction, because when you issued your previous permit you were underage.”

 “Yes, but I did not went through all the stages as if I was renewing it, I started from SCRATCH.”

“Yes, but you have to get that removed”

“Well, remove it then”

“I can’t do that. You have to go to another booth…”

“ANOTHER BOOTH? LISTEN, I HAVE BEEN HERE FOR NEARLY FIVE HOURS. I HAVE BEEN TO EVERY SINGLE BOOTH IN THIS BUILDING, AND NOBODY EVER MENTIONED ANYTHING ABOUT A RESTRICTION. THE GUY WHO FIRST TOOK A LOOK AT MY PAPERS IN RECEPTION SAW MY RECORD, AND HE DID NOT SAY A THING, AND NOW YOU’RE TELLING ME THAT I HAVE TO GO SEE ANOTHER OFFICER TO GET THIS STUPID RESTRICTION REMOVED” (It may sound lame in print, but it was a pretty intimidating explosion, trust me on this). The guy got a little scared, and the sight of my bright red face was probably not helping much.

“It will only take a second, I promise. And you won’t have to line up when you come back”

I had no other choice, so I walk to the opposite end of the building, storm through every door that I had to storm, and pretty much answer in bark-form to every question that requires a yes/no answer. That last stage is a mere blur just now, but I remember that I had to go to one office to get a piece of paper, then take that piece of paper to someone else in another office to stamp, then take the stamped paper for someone else to sign, and then get that person’s signature signed over by her supervisor. They all noticed I was mad and tired (and if they were any clever, they would have realized that I was hangry too). So they were all like “No te quille” (don’t get mad, in Dominican slang). Or, “cambia esa cara, que tu eres muy linda” (Change that face because your pretty, a prime example of Dominican logic at work. Also, apparently is ok for workers in government office to say this to you). Or, “Que te pasa? No te preocupes, eso no es nada” (What’s going on? It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.

I go back, cut the line, and stare at the window-man that was going to give me my card straight in the eye. He takes my papers from me and says that it will only take a minute. I go sit down for the (hopefully final) wait. At that time, the two guys sitting next to me probably realized how mad I was (I would be surprised if there was no steam coming out of my head). So, he though it would make it all better to go for a round of compliments. This one was even more interesting, as he was not complimenting me directly, but rather talking to his friend next to me about me. Smooth guy. I wonder what could have been…

“Ella ta’ como killá” (She looks like she’s kinda mad)

“Eso é polque ella fea… pero a la inversa” (It’s because she’s ugly… but in inverse.)

Again, I’m not sure why I had never heard that brilliant piece of compliment before, but I encourage everyone to start using it: “She is ugly, but in inverse”.

Finally, yes FINALLY, my name is called; I get my card and shove it so quickly in my purse that I don’t even get a chance to look at it. 6-and-a-half hours later, I had my driver’s permit.

 

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What the international press is missing about Dominican-Haitian relations

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Last week, the Dominican Senate unanimously approved a bill that grants citizenship to Dominican-born sons of immigrants that are in the Civil Registry. The law was sent to Congress by President Medina after the disastrous international response to the Tribunal Constitucional’s ruling that stripped all offspring of immigrant parent’s off their Dominican citizenships, plunging them into a constitutional, legal and administrative vacuum. Now, just to get the numbers out of the way, according to an immigration census carried in 2013, there are around half a million Haitians in the Dominican Republic, which represents 87.3% of all immigrants, and 5.4% of the total population in the country.

 

However, it is not my intention to get into the details of either of these rulings, or their implications for the Dominican or the Haitian people. Instead, I am more concerned with the national and international reception of the news, and how these have (once again) re-sparked the debate about what “ideal” relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti would look like, and whether the Dominican Republic should have a more flexible immigration policy towards their Haitian neighbors. On the one hand, the ultra-nationalists claim that Haitians want to invade our country and unify the island, and that we should stand by the ideals of our patriots and “defend” our sovereignty. On the other hand, the international press thinks that the Dominican Republic has systematically committed violations against the rights of Haitian people, that our immigration policies are guided by racism and disdain for the Haitians, and that there is a certain lack of solidarity from our part, as maybe, we are just not doing enough for our neighbors.

 

Well, the truth is that this is not a “good country/bad country” story, and that it may be time for all of us (Haitians, Dominicans, international press) to swallow the bitter pill: yes, there definitely are some issues between Dominican and Haitians, and they will probably will not be solved by a law passed by congress. This is because we are dealing with a case of historic resentment here, resentment that unfortunately has been continuously fed by authoritarian leaders on both sides of the border, resentment that has led to mass killings, resentment that has led to a racism embedded in an entire nation, resentment that has led to stereotypes, misconceptions, and insults.

 

There are no analogies here. It is not a “US-Mexico” scenario, it is not a “Eastern Europe-Western Europe” scenario, or any other current immigration scenario under debate. No, the fact is that because some Spanish colonizers a few hundred years ago left the West of the island for the French to take, now we have two completely different nations cohabiting a 29,530 sq-miles territory. To make matters more complicated, it is not that Dominicans and Haitians were  “part of the same people separated by some arbitrary border”. No, what the international community seems to miss is that Dominicans and Haitians are racially and culturally very different. Interestingly, this racial difference demonstrates how the French colonizers differed from the Spanish colonizers. You see, even though both imported African slaves to work the plantations on their sides of the island, the Spanish colonizers would “mix” with their African slaves, bringing a race of mulatto descendants, while the French colonizers would not “mix” with their slaves, and so the majority of their population would remain black (the white minority would be mostly kicked out with the Haitian independence).

 

As for tales of Independence, I had been taught in high school that after we got our Independence from Spain, the Haitians (already independent from France) would invade our country, and occupy it for 22 years. It somewhat surprises some of my non-Dominican friends when I tell them that the day we commemorate as our independence day is not the day we got our independence from Spain, but the day we got it from Haiti. Yes, it seems hard to believe that any country would have to go to war to get their independence from what today is the poorest country in the hemisphere.

 

And yet, while talking to some Haitian friends, I learned THEIR version of the story. They were not “invading” us, they were “protecting” us from Spain, and eradicating slavery on this side of the island. We Dominicans, as ungrateful as we are, kicked them back to their side (only to then be sold again to Spain, but that’s another story). In many comments in international papers and magazines about the topic I have seen Haitians explain how they were taught that the island of “Hispaniola” is one and indivisible. Try mentioning that to any Dominican you see walking on the street and see how he reacts. See the historical resentment brewing?

 

So yes, Dominicans and Haitians got off to a rocky start, and it did not get better after that. Anti-Haitianism became somewhat embedded in our identity, and the battle for Dominicaness moved to a new battlefield: “race”. I dare you to find a Dominican who admits to being black. It is impossible; because the Haitians are black, and Dominicans and Haitians are different people, so a Dominican cannot be black. He may be a darker shade of mulatto, but never black, obviously.

 

And yes, diplomatic relations have not been the greatest either, with both nations (still) striking whenever they get the chance. The fact that in 1937 our dictator ordered a mass killing of Haitians probably did not help this historical resentment from both sides, but hey, any educated Dominican will tell you that she/he is not proud of it either. Point is, we have to take things for what they are. We have two ethnically-different, developing nation cohabiting a small island in the middle of the Caribbean. Immigration flows from West to East, as there are presumably more economic opportunities in the Dominican Republic than in Haiti.

 

Pro-Haitian groups will quickly highlight the fact that the Haitians are a vital economic force in the country, being the majority of the sugar plantation and construction workers, and that acknowledging their legal presence has obvious implications for the economic growth of our country. Anti-Haitian groups will highlight the fact that a significant portion of the public health budget goes towards attending Haitian women that “come to the country to give birth under better conditions”. Pro-haitians will point out that most Dominican-born Haitians are already assimilated into Dominican culture, and do not even know how to speak French or creole. Anti-Haitians will point out that it is not in most Haitians’ interest to “assimilate” into Dominican culture, and that what is going on is a “new invasion” of our side of the island. And so arguments go on, and on, and on…

 

As for the international community, the relevant news is the Dominican Republic’s shortcomings in legislating a solution to this immigration issue. But, to be fair, immigration is a recurrent debate in many developED nations in the world. Nations that by most indicators fare better than the Dominican Republic in terms of education, governance, and wellbeing, and they still have yet to devise a solution to their immigration issues. Now, I’m not attempting to atone the DR’s policy-makers, and as I mentioned before, I do not think we can draw analogies from one immigration scenario to another, but I do want to put things in perspective to show that there are, in fact, no easy solutions to immigration issues.

 

So, why can’t we all just get along? Until we get past our historical resentment, we will continue to see ourselves as antagonists, rather than brothers. Until we get past that resentment, we Dominicans will turn to racism as our primed mechanism of defense against whatever threat Haitians may represent to us. Until we get past that resentment, we will keep telling two sides of the same story, and amending it to our convenience with each further diplomatic crisis. Until we get past that resentment, we will feel trapped in island that seems to claustrophobic for the both of us. Until we get past that resentment, we will continue to attempt to exploit the other side to our advantage, taking advantage of their cheap labour or their slightly more efficient services. Until we get past that resentment, we will not be able to see that the prosperity on our side does not need to come at the expense of the misery on the other side, and that cooperation would in fact, make us both better off. Until then, every debate on the issue will only result in extremisms, every piece of legislation is going to be perceived as a new threat, and every wrongdoing is going to be blamed on the other side.

 

 

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