Dominican Republic Deportations and the Global Economy


by Tim Shenk and Alicia Swords
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

This article originally appeared online at TeleSUR, here.

The Dominican Republic has been in the international press in recent weeks regarding threats of mass deportation. Those in danger of deportation are Haitian immigrants and especially a now “stateless” population of roughly 210,000 people born in the DR of Haitian descent who in 2013 were denied the rights of jus solis citizenship and relegated to a long-term “in transit” status.

Articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation and many other publications and blogs, leading up to and after the June 17 registration deadline for those with irregular status.

In focusing on the most recent ‘news,’ most articles on the Dominican deportations miss some very important ‘olds’ — that is, the history of the island and its relationship to the global economy.

We appreciate the international attention brought to this pressing issue. We denounce deportations carried out by the Dominican government and wherever they may occur. We agree with Bert Corona that “No Human Being Is Illegal.” Laws and practices that limit people’s free movement are often used to divide populations, and the designation of “illegal” or “undocumented” facilitates heightened exploitation.

Though we agree with the general sentiment of many recent articles on the subject, many of the perspectives are incomplete. In focusing on the most recent “news,” most articles miss some very important “olds” — that is, the history of the island and its relationship to the global economy. Putting this case into its historical and material context may show the complexity of the human rights crisis unfolding in the DR and provide a path toward resolving it.

Much of what we aim to do in what follows is to challenge the logic of identity politics, and particularly a US-based identity politics, that is being used to explain what’s happening in the Dominican Republic. In order to truly address the crisis in the DR, we must get beyond the oversimplified logic that Dominicans or Dominican officials are simply racist and object to Haitians and those of Haitian ancestry solely because of their dark skin.

Racism is a crucial factor in guiding relations on the island of Hispaniola, but it does not act alone. It must be understood in tandem with nationalism and economics. Studying this trio together may allow us to more clearly oppose the Dominican elite’s ongoing discrimination and marginalization of people of Haitian heritage, while at the same time denouncing a structurally flawed global economic system that rewards this behavior.

First, we’ll share a brief history of racism and capitalism with a focus on the island of Hispaniola. We argue that both under colonialism and in the current economic system, racism and fascism are not aberrations that are overcome as societies develop, but are rather key elements of the system itself.

Building on this history, we note that discrimination and deportation of Haitians and those of Haitian descent is not a new issue in the DR. In fact, racist anti-Haitianism upon which much of the Dominican national identity is built, allows for differential exploitation and is integral to the economy of the island.

Finally, we’ll share some conjectures and questions about the underlying reasons behind the deportation threats, connecting the exodus to the needs of transnational investors in Haiti.

If we can more clearly understand the historical and material roots of this human rights crisis and who benefits — nationally and globally — from keeping the island divided along lines of race and nationality, we’ll have a much better chance at developing a strategy to challenge the crisis.

Hispaniola and a history of race and class in the Americas

The island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is deeply connected to the global economy and has been since beginning of colonialism. Santo Domingo was the first European colony in the Americas, and for centuries it served as a major entry point to the hemisphere for European immigrants, speculators, military expeditions and the Church. Though Columbus’s proposal that the island’s peaceful Taino people could “make good servants” proved incorrect, Hispaniola’s western half became the Pearl of the Antilles for France for two hundred years, based on the importation and brutal enslavement of Africans in intensive extraction and agricultural production.

Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, was the primary source of the wealth and power of the emerging French bourgeoisie that would overthrow the crown in 1789. As this merchant class developed a democracy espousing human rights in France, deep contradictions remained in its most important colony. The new ruling bourgeoisie still required slavery in Saint-Domingue to fund its political project in the motherland. More broadly, profits — pillaged, stolen, or otherwise ill gotten via slavery — in the colonies facilitated primitive accumulation in Europe, providing the capital necessary for the development of industrial production in the late 18th century.

Understanding that colonial Hispaniola was one of the grotesque birthplaces of modern white racism, and that racism as a system of social control was instituted as an economic strategy during capitalism’s early development, allows us a different reading on today’s human rights violations.

The colonial system worked well for the owners as long as they had a pliable and agreeable labor force. Since in most cases owners were hugely outnumbered, colonial industries kept profits high by creating a system beyond raw force to keep workers, servants and slaves divided and disempowered while maintaining dreadful working conditions. By the 17th century, colonial elites had found that indentured peoples, when united, could be very dangerous. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 in Virginia — in which bond-laborers of European and African descent rose up together against the landed political elite — was the stuff of nightmares for the owners.

Fundamental to the colonial profit-making project, then, was the invention of a racialized social hierarchy to prevent such dangerous unity among the dispossessed. See Theodore Allen’s Invention of the White Race for a meticulously researched account of this historical period. The following paragraph is an excerpt of Allen’s summary of how colonial governments in the Chesapeake and Caribbean dealt differently with the stratification of the laboring classes:

“Here, then, is the key to the understanding the difference between Virginia ruling-class policy of ‘fixing a perpetual brand’ on African-Americans, and the especially bitter rejection of those born of an English father or mother, on one hand, and, on the other, the policy of the West Indian planters of formally recognizing the middle-class status ‘colored’ descendant (and other Afro-Caribbeans who earned special merit by their service to the regime). The difference was rooted in the objective fact that in the West Indies there were too few laboring-class Europeans to embody an adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the continental colonies there were too many to be accommodated in the ranks of that class.”

Creating this middle strata of people — whatever their color — who would be loyal to the interests of the owners, was fundamental in guaranteeing that workers would not endanger investments through rebellion, strikes or escape. This is where a US-style identity politics analysis breaks down when looking at the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Because race and class categories developed differently in North America and the Caribbean, they can’t be viewed through the same lens today.

In the American colonies, poor people of Western European heritage were offered a rotten bargain: in exchange for a comparatively small increase in standard of living and a few lies about their racial superiority, they would be required to do the dirty work of overseeing and punishing the darker-skinned workers and slaves. In the French Caribbean, because there were not enough petit blanc, mulattoes would become the bourgeoisie’s shock troops, the first line of defense when oppressive conditions became too much and rebellion boiled up.

Understanding that colonial Hispaniola was one of the grotesque birthplaces of modern white racism, and that racism as a system of social control was instituted as an economic strategy during capitalism’s early development, allows us a different reading on today’s human rights violations.

If we understand how racism came into the world, dripping with blood and dirt as an appendage of an emerging economic system, we may consider that today’s global economy could still depend on varied manifestations of racism. Racism, then, cannot be an aberration or a symptom of so-called underdeveloped or backward societies, as some have implied when referring to the Dominican Republic. Rather, it is fundamental for the continuation of an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Denouncing Dominicans or the Dominican government for a particularly bald-faced sort of racism is irresponsible if that denouncing isn’t accompanied by a questioning of the global economic model that survives because of such ideology.

Anti-Haitianism and deportations in the DR: Not a new problem

A second clarification regarding the recent coverage of DR deportation threats is that deportations are not particularly new. Though Mark Phillips’s July 3 article does an excellent job reporting on the past month’s so-called “voluntary departures,” he’s not correct in saying that “trouble for Dominicans of Haitian descent began last year.”

As we referred to above, economic and political elites in the Dominican Republic and Haiti have exercised social control via racism and nationalism since colonial days. La Sentencia of 2013 is the latest in legal justifications for what has long been a discriminatory system benefiting the owning class of both countries.

There has been an ebb and flow of Haitian labor in the DR for many decades, to say nothing of the porous border that existed only as a line on maps before the first US military intervention of 1916. US-trained and supported Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, infamous for his anti-Haitianism and for ordering the 1937 Parsley Massacre of thousands near the two countries’ border, began the practice of bringing Haitian laborers to Dominican sugarcane fields. In 1952 Trujillo negotiated a contract with the Haitian government to bring 16,500 Haitian workers to the DR, and official bilateral agreements long outlived the Dominican tyrant, continuing until 1986. Similar to the US Bracero Program with Mexican workers, Trujillo’s contracted laborers were brought in during times of labor shortage and repatriated or abandoned when work was slow. They worked often in return for company scrip and were moved into squalorous conditions in bateyes, or work camps, with no legal recourse. Amelia Hintzen’s July 14 essay deals well with this era and similar conditions in the subsequent Joaquín Balaguer regime.

The business world knows that the lower the input costs such as labor, the higher the profit margin. Haitians were cheaper workers because of a systematic nation- and race-based discrimination that allowed them little leverage to organize and no way to leave. Trujillo used Haitian workers when it was to his benefit, and he stirred up anti-Haitian sentiments and violent repression when he needed them quieted or gone. Trujillo’s racism was thus in service of his pocketbook, not the other way around.

Some sectors of the Dominican economy operate in much the same way today. It’s not uncommon for buscones, or labor contractors, to go to Haiti, recruit workers for a construction project in the DR, then call in Migration officers to scatter or deport the workers on payday.

Let’s be clear this sort of practice is not at the margins of the island’s economy. It is precisely because of its pliable, cheap labor force that the Dominican economy has been able to gain a competitive advantage and attract foreign investment while Haiti languishes as the poorest country in the hemisphere. Competitiveness often simply means lowering input costs. This in turn means that when workers are in a precarious position, such as having irregular migration status, the less able they are to demand just wages and conditions. This is one way Dominican goods and services become “competitive” in the global market.

Another way irregular migration patterns contribute to the economy is through a revolving system of deportation of Haitians and “those who look Haitian,” and their return to the DR. Bribes, payoffs and government contracts play heavily in this informal economy that preys on the most vulnerable.

A few years ago, Tim spoke with a Haitian man selling DVDs on a street corner in Santo Domingo. “If you don’t see me tomorrow,” he said, “it’s probably because I was deported. It will take me three days to get back here, but I’ll always come back.” The man confided that he had 1,200 pesos hidden on his person for his return trip, as he had calculated the cash necessary to bribe officers at each checkpoint between the Haitian border and the Dominican capital. These bribes are widely understood to make up the difference for the poverty wages paid to lower-ranking members of the Dominican armed forces and various branches of the police. Just as in the US, where the deportation industry is big business, there is money to be made at every step of the goings and comings of the migration process.

To this point, we have focused on the labor relationships between the DR and Haiti. Some authors have emphasized that La Sentencia changes the game, because it strips Dominican citizenship from hundreds of thousands of people born in that country of Haitian descent, leaving them stateless. We agree; this is a new and scary legal precedent. However, the issue of documentation has never been particularly clear or easy in the DR, even for those for whom there is no cause to doubt their Dominican heritage. We interviewed a veteran Dominican campesino leader who could not get a passport or visa to travel on a speaking tour for which he’d been invited. The handwritten records at the provincial office could not verify a record of his birth. This rural man of humble origins had no birth certificate and no way to get one, and thus no way to get further identification.

How many more Dominicans of mixed European and African ancestry might find themselves in a similar situation? Among the Dominican poor especially in rural areas, our campesino colleague’s case is surely not unique.

We share these examples to bring nuance to news articles on the subject that have engaged history sparingly and often incorrectly.

We have also challenged the notion that Dominican elites are prejudiced against Haitians simply because they are black. Instead, they foment anti-Haitianism primarily as an economic strategy that is encouraged, even obligatory, in today’s global economy. In this sense, we have attempted to show that larger critiques of the global economic system are necessary, in addition to objections to the Dominican government’s actions and omissions.

For further reading: Dominican historians Frank Moya Pons, Franklin Franco and Roberto Cassá have tried to correct popular misconceptions of Haitian-Dominican antagonism, and more recently Anne Eller’s June 26 piece is an excellent summary. Samuel Martínez’s “Not a Cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations” refutes the oft-cited fatal conflict theory and shares examples of everyday cooperation and solidarity on the island.

In the following section, we will consider the deportation threats and “voluntary exodus” in the context of the current foreign direct investment bonanza in Haiti.

Haiti’s economic recovery — for whom? — and an accompanying need for workers?

When thinking about deportation, it’s important to consider what may happen to deportees in the receiving country, and under what conditions they arrive there. We haven’t yet come across scholarship that addresses these issues. Here, then, are some thoughts about the Haitian context and questions for further research.

In Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, Jeb Sprague argues convincingly that the coups against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and 2004 were attempts to pave the way for transnational capital in Haiti at the expense of the national and peasant self-sufficient economies. Aristide wouldn’t open Haiti to the global economy; new political leadership was needed if this were to occur.

After Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, was banned from the November 2010 elections, neo-Duvalierist Michel Martelly won the presidency in which a record-low 23 percent of the population participated. Under Martelly, the country has indeed has become a hot new spot for foreign investment, according to the June 2015 issue of the Haiti Support Group’s “Haiti Briefing.” Here we cite the briefing at length:

“These are exciting times for foreign investors in Haiti with their eyes on the prize; business is booming and is only set to get bigger and better. Mining, Free Trade Zones, sweatshop labour and mono-cropping have been promoted as post-earthquake solutions to pull the country up by its bootstraps and boost a flagging economy. Direct foreign investment of over $250 million – over sixty times higher than it was fifteen years ago – was injected into Haiti in 2014 alone.”

Investors are betting that Haiti’s low wages and proximity to the US will spell healthy returns, and they trust UN peacekeepers to control the urban poor. Yet critics have expressed concern that investments will primarily benefit transnational companies and prey on the precarity of Haiti’s poverty.

In this context where Haiti needs laborers to exploit mines, build luxury resorts, run factories and create all of the accompanying infrastructure, we find it revealing that the Martelly administration has protested little about the denationalization and deportation process. Vanessa Rivera, a researcher based in Port-au-Prince, said on June 17: “Here in Haiti the noise is louder than ever over [the deportations] — but what is most interesting is the fact that there is NO contingent plan to receive these people nor any rebuttal by the Haitian government to stop this.”

Rather than working with the Dominican government and the international community to assist Haitian nationals and Dominicans with Haitian ancestry to regularize their status in the DR, Martelly has proclaimed that Haiti “is ready to receive with dignity our sons, our brothers.”

Is it outlandish that our minds conjure up images of a modern-day Grapes of Wrath, with families uprooted from homes they’ve had for generations and sent to contribute to a labor glut in a place they don’t know and can’t escape?

Concluding reflections

Hispaniola has been a key piece in the global economy for 500 years. The ongoing brutality in the Dominican Republic and Haiti — including a racialized, nationalized hierarchy where darker-skinned people and those of Haitian descent tend to have a more precarious existence — is no aberration. Instead of wringing our hands and shaking our fingers at the backwardness of the Dominican government’s policies — which are indeed retrograde — we would do well to study this case as part and parcel of a global economy that continues to use racial difference to generate wealth for a few at the expense of the many. Further, strategies for change require unity and collaboration among those dispossessed and brutalized by global economic forces.

Tim Shenk is the Coordinator of the Cornell University-based Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR). Alicia Swords is Associate Professor of Sociology at Ithaca College. Both have lived in the Dominican Republic and are part of the New Poor People’s Campaign for Today. Mark Porter Webb and Angel Pichardo Almonte contributed to this article.

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