(Miami Herald, July 16, 2010)
After the quake, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have a smoother, but fragile, relationship
Hailed for its aggressive response to the Haiti quake, the Dominican government also has been criticized for denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants born there.
By FRANCES ROBLES
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- It wasn't so long ago when the president of the Dominican Republic visited neighboring Haiti, protesters blocked his motorcade by burning tires and hurling rocks.
That was 2005, when Haitian laborers in the Dominican Republic were being lynched, deported, and their shacks burned to the ground. Called a racist and a murderer, President Leonel Fernández canceled scheduled visits to Port-au-Prince and didn't return -- until January, when a massive earthquake toppled parts of the Haitian capital and killed enough people to populate a medium-sized city.
When he showed up by surprise 36 hours after the tremor in a helicopter, he was the first head of state to arrive. Dominican civil defense authorities were already scrambling to send rescue crews, the Department of Health had activated mobile clinics, and the Dominican Red Cross was in place.
Six months after the Jan. 12 quake, everyone agrees that the Dominican Republic stepped up in the critical days immediately following the disaster, when international response was slow and disorganized.
``The Dominican Republic has never responded better to a difficult situation; they responded better than they have to natural disasters in the Dominican Republic,'' said Bridget Wooding, an expert on Dominican-Haitian migration.
The aggressive response came despite bitter tensions between the two nations, fueled by centuries of animosity. And it came just two weeks before a change to the Dominican constitution that denies citizenship to the children of undocumented workers -- virtually all Haitians -- born in the Dominican Republic.
So while Santo Domingo dispatched government civil engineers to fix the electric grid and design roads for Port-au-Prince and invest $40 million in a new university for Haiti, experts say hundreds of thousands of Haitians who were born here decades ago are suddenly stateless.
``It's hypocritical, a complete paradox,'' said Amos Andrada, a journalist of Haitian descent who was refused a national I.D. card recently. ``Leonel Fernández has emerged as the great protector of Haiti. One thing is what he's doing for the state of Haiti and another what he is doing to us, who are Dominicans.''
While the U.S. government's management of the Port-au-Prince airport came under heavy criticism for turning back much-needed aid, the Dominican government launched quick and efficient cargo routes by land and sea. The United Nations in Santo Domingo flew aid and people using some 30 choppers and planes donated by the Dominican businesses.
Although they were not permitted to linger after their surgeries, about 4,000 injured Haitians were treated in Dominican hospitals. Many more were fed and taught in projects launched by the First Lady. One Dominican woman became a celebrity when she left her own babies at home to breast feed Haitian infants in Santo Domingo hospitals.
Bridget Wooding, an expert on Dominican-Haitian migration, was in Port-au-Prince during the quake kicking off the French translation of her book about Haitian migrants: Needed but not Wanted.
``I remember being on the border at 10 p.m. on my way back to Santo Domingo,'' she said, ``and Leonel was personally ringing journalists who work for his foundation to find out whether mobile clinics were operating.''
Haiti's prime minister says relations have not been better in 200 years. But experts worry that the goodwill sown between the two nations in the months since the quake will quickly dissipate, as recovery stalls and more Haitian migrants cross illegally into the Dominican Republic.
While the Dominican Republic is being lauded for its response, the nation -- and its president -- clearly has interests of their own. The Dominican Republic does a half-billion dollars in trade each year with Haiti; plus many Dominicans fear a stampede of quake survivors will descend on the neighbor country. It's also no secret that Fernández enjoys playing the role of regional leader in times of international crisis.
``Sometimes altruism parallels a nation's interest,'' said Florida International University Prof. Eduardo Gamarra, one of Fernández's political advisors. ``It's not that Leonel Fernández woke up on Jan. 12 and realized there was a Haiti. He's been working on this for a long time.''
Gamarra calls the tense relationship over migration issues ``one of the legacies of the past'' and admits that it must be addressed.
Fernández was traveling to Washington this week meeting with President Barack Obama and was unavailable for an interview. Officials at the Department of Interior, the first lady's office and the Foreign Affairs Ministry declined or did not respond to repeated interview requests.
The struggles between Haiti and the Dominican Republic date back hundreds of years, when the island they share was ruled by different colonial powers, the French in the west and the Spanish on the east.
Haitian slaves booted their colonial masters and established their own nation, eventually occupying the entire island. An occupation that was at first welcomed soon soured, and the Dominican Republic to this day celebrates its 1844 independence from Haiti.
In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to slaughter tens of thousands of Haitians. That didn't stop the Dominican Republic from signing contracts with thousands of Haitians to work in sugar cane fields.
By the 1960s, agricultural communities called bateyes were filled by Haitians. They settled and had children.
According to the constitution, the children of people ``in transit'' were not entitled to citizenship. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling backed up a migration law defining anyone who lacked legal residency as ``in transit'' -- regardless of how many decades they had lived in the country.
In January 2010, two weeks after the quake, a new constitution took effect denying citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
The grown children of Haitian immigrants say the government has applied the new constitution retroactively, denying papers to anyone whose parents did not have legal residency. In Latin America, a recently certified birth certificate is required whenever anyone marries, goes to college, or requests a passport.
``You know what that is that you grow up going to school being told you live in a democracy where there are rights and then they say, `well, actually, starting tomorrow, you are not Dominican, and there is no democracy,' '' said Altagracia Jean Joseph, 24. ``Talk about breaking dreams, hopes and illusions.''
Jean Joseph graduated from high school four years ago and has been unable to register for college or get a formal job. When she tried to register for nursing school, she was turned away.
Siany Jeans Yudel could not apply for a law license. Pedro José Adames could not sign a contract to play baseball. Felipe Siriyan, 27, lost a university scholarship and now works a few days a week in construction.
The issue has been the subject of lawsuits in the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights. One landmark case ruled against the Dominican Republic, saying a migrant cannot be considered in transit for decades and migration status cannot be inherited.
But the cases caused such a backlash here that the laws being disputed as unconstitutional led to the recent permanent changes to the constitution.
``My parents left Haiti in 1957. My daughter is third generation Dominican, and she cannot get the national I.D. card she needs to go to college,'' said María Camilise, who has spent years tackling bureaucratic red tape for her two daughters.
``My youngest is 20 years old and says to me, `Why did I bother going to high school?' It seems the government wants Haitian women to be prostitutes and the men to be delinquents.''
Her daughter Martha Cuba has only been to Haiti once: as a volunteer after the quake.
Dominican authorities say the only people having trouble are a tiny minority whose Haitian parents held fraudulent I.D. cards when their children's births were registered.
Vice Admiral Sigfrido A. Pared Pérez, the director of immigration services, acknowledged that the government's immigration reform plan that would have offered residency to long-time migrants and their children was shelved when it confronted opposition.
``There are no people who are in legal limbo,'' he said. ``They are in waiting.''
He stressed that all deportations were suspended after the quake and migrants were allowed to visit Haiti to check on their families and return.
``No other country in the world did that,'' he said. ``No other country shares a border with the poorest country in the hemisphere.''
Santo Miguel Román, an immigration service attorney who defended the Dominican Republic in the InterAmerican court, said Haitian descendants should go to the Haitian embassy and register as citizens and then apply for a visa.
``They say we are racist,'' Román said. ``This is a country of black people. My grandmother was black.''
He whipped out her photograph from his wallet to prove it.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said immigration will be among the leading points of discussion at the bilateral commission Haitian President René Préval and Fernández restarted two weeks ago.
``We don't want to address the constitutional issues, but we do want to address the case of the Haitians working to consolidate the Dominican economy,'' he said. ``They are working there, they are recognized as working there . . . But they don't want to legalize them for some technical issue. We have to resolve that.''
In the meantime, Jean Joseph, the would-be nursing student, tried to register her birth at the Haitian consulate, 24 years late.
``The guy there said to me, `You think if the Dominican Republic does not recognize you as Dominican, and we have no record of your birth or know who you are, that we will consider you Haitian?'' Jean Joseph said. ``Entire communities are in this situation.''