Thursday, November 6, 2008

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC-US: Exorcising the Ghosts of SlaveryBy Elizabeth Eames Roebling

On the island where the African slave trade was first introduced to the western hemisphere in 1520, the United States embassy in Santo Domingo hosted more than 1,000 people to view the possible election of the son of an African to the U.S. presidency.While the current ambassador, Robert Fannin, is from Arizona and a close friend of Republican Sen. John McCain, there was a clear pro-Barack Obama sentiment in the room.

At the entrance to the elegant Jaragua Hotel, Dominicans could cast mock ballots for either Obama or McCain and have their photographs taken next to cardboard cutouts of the candidates. The gathering reflected the skin tones of the Dominican Republic, whose population is described as 15 percent white, 15 percent black, and 70 percent mixed race. For Dominicans themselves, the issue of race and skin colour is more subtle than the simple "black-white" line in the United States, with six different shades of skin tones, including "blond", "wheat", "indian" and "negro (black)". Few Dominicans self-identify as "negro" or celebrate any historic relationship to Africa. The majority refer to themselves as "indians" despite the fact that historians estimate that the indigenous Taino Indian population fell from over 400,000 to less than 3,000 within the first 30 years of Spanish domination.

The Dominican Republic has been accused of racism against Haitians, both by human rights activists and representatives of the United Nations. However, most Dominicans insist that any animosity is not based on race but on nationalism. The Dominican Republic celebrates its independence from Haiti, which it won in 1844 after 22 years of occupation. The differences between the two nations are much deeper than racial tones and encompass respective preferences for soccer and baseball, as well language and culture. Nevertheless, last year the U.S. embassy issued a directive that none of its employees could patronise two of the upscale discotheques in the capital which had denied entrance to several African-American embassy employees. Subtle reminders of racism are evident in most Dominican women's hairstyle, straight and long like Indians, referred to as "good hair", not curly like Africans, called "bad hair". Hidden racial tag lines in job advertising, such as "good presence", indicate a national preference, reflecting both the larger regional and global preference, for whiter skin.

Ramon Martinez Portorreal, trade ambassador to Eastern Europe, who attended college at Columbia University in New York and whose own skin tone is darker than Obama's, discounted the issue of race both inside the United States and for Dominicans. "I think that the black-white issue was one for the 1960s. Today the issue is the economy, just that. I think the U.S. needs closer relations with the Caribbean in general, not just the Dominican Republic. We need closer relations with the United States -- both political and business relations -- and I think that Obama will be better for that." "I have family in the United States, as do many Dominicans," he said. "This country receives a lot of money from the United States, both in trade and in money that is sent home." Remittances from Dominicans who live abroad usually account for 10-12 percent of the annual GDP. Although there are Dominicans in many European countries, primarily Spain, the majority of the Dominican diaspora, of 800,000 to one million people, live in the United States, concentrated around greater New York City, Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island.

Predicting that the majority of Dominicans would vote for Obama, Jedeon Santor, who serves as a governmental advisor on Central America, observed: "Dominicans feel more comfortable with the Democrats in power. The Democrats have more tolerance, both for immigrants, racial minorities, and cultural differences."

"Latinos also believe that when the Democrats come into power, they grow the economy from below, increasing incentives, lowering taxes, and better redistributing the wealth, more aid goes to immigrants and minorities," Santor said. He noted that this is a contradiction for Dominicans since the Dominican Republic was twice invaded and occupied by Democratic U.S. presidents, first from 1916-1924 under Woodrow Wilson and then again briefly in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson. A group of police officials said that they had been invited to learn about the U.S. electoral process. One of them said: "There is a feeling in people to imitate the positive in the United States. So this shows us that things are possible and that the democratic system works. This shows that the democratic system holds the key to resolve our differences, that the people can simply vote. This is a very important lesson." He noted that the electoral process is different in the United States than here in the Dominican Republic. While this nation has had five different presidents in the past 44 years, one of them, Joaquin Balaguer, served for 24 years.

The ambassador from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, Fritz Cenas, was also in attendance. "I cannot speak officially as the ambassador, since in that post I represent the government," he said. "And of course, the government of Haiti will work with any American president who is elected. But personally, I can say that I support Obama."

"However, I can say that historically for Haiti, as the world's first independent Black nation, the fact that the United States may have a Black president is thrilling to us," he added.

The results of the mock vote were announced even before the state of Ohio was called for Obama. There was one write-in vote for actor Jack Nicholson, two for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, three for Hillary Clinton, 53 votes cast for John McCain and 448 for Barack Obama.

1 comment:

Celucien L. Joseph said...

This post is enlightening concerning the issue of race and identity in the USA, especially in the Dominican Republic.