Historical Perspective

I think it’s interesting how feelings towards immigration and immigrants played such a key role for the electoral victories of both Brexit and Trump. A significant number of citizens in the UK and the US had pretty strong feelings about the waves of people coming into their country (legally and illegally). Many (if not most) of these people come either fleeting unstable and even dangerous political environments, or looking for better economic and/or professional opportunities that they just can’t find in their own home countries. Luckily I am one of the latter, but to what extent is this just historical luck?

With regards to the former, there are both pull and push factors in immigration, and while the pull factors of the US and the UK are pretty obvious, we cannot be so biased as to overlook the role that both of these nations have played in contributing to the factors that push latinos, africans, middle-easterns, south asians, etc. to leave their home countries.

Both of these nations have a long history of colonialsm and imperialism. Of using their military might to go into other countries uninvited, without any other justification than their colonialist/imperialist pretensions. Of seeking to expand their territory and increase their wealth at the expense of the native population and their natural resources. Of doing away with the existing institutions and/or borders and establishing new, unsustainable ones. It is no surprise then that these actions fostered political, economical, and social imbalances that are still felt throughout the world today. 

Thinking about the US (just because it’s the more salient example), just look at how many autocratic governments the US government openly sponsored throughout Latin America, and the terrible consequences this had for democracy and peace across the hemisphere. How they oppossed and helped overthrow democratically-elected presidents because their inclusive and progressive policies smelled of Comunism (this one rings close to home). Think about all the Latin American countries that have been raided by drug wars, and how this has been funded, motivated, and sustained in part by the vast extent of the American consumer demand. 

Now, my post is not one of anger or resentment. Its objective is not to encourage illegal immigration, or justify the actions of every immigrant. Neither is it to indulge in the narrative that many far-left Latin American leaders have embraced , of blaming ‘American Imperialism’ for all their problems. Foreign policy has changed, diplomacy has changed, and more goodwill between our nations has been established. 

No, the message that I wanted to get across is that history goes both ways: the imperialist ambitions of yesterday become the immigration waves of tomorrow. Yes, there are things that we could and should do to manage this, and the most fair and humane approach should always be sought. But we cannot resort to discrimination, anger, or ignorance. Instead, we need to have empathy and understanding because, after all, things might look a little bit different after putting them in historical perspective. 


What the international press is missing about Dominican-Haitian relations


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.