How history has been distorted to justify the Dominican deportations

Over the past two years, a legal nightmare has grown in the Dominican Republic. Taking aim at Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling in September 2013, made retroactive more than eighty years, stripping citizenship from anyone who cannot prove “regular” residency for at least one parent. Legislation passed in May 2014 allows for a limited and incomplete path to naturalization for some; it amounts to “citizenship by fiat.” The rulings mark a drastic setback for as many as several hundred thousand residents of the Dominican Republic, threatening them with expulsion, statelessness, detention, and abuse. Individuals have already suffered the impact of the new laws. With the rulings, larger-scale detentions might begin tomorrow, overseen by the Dominican armed forces and the U.N., among other groups.

In analyses of the crisis over the past two years, English-language press and Dominican right-wing nationalists have often been in simplistic consensus: they argue that the two countries have been in constant conflict. Scholars, activists, and other voices have made repeated admonitions to amplify and complicate this “fatal-conflict model,” as well as to eschew sensationalism in favor of concrete language. Nevertheless, one so-called truism emerges again and again in the U.S. press: that Dominican “animosity and racial hatred of Haitians dates back to at least 1822,” when Haitian rule extended over the whole island. Dominican supporters of the 2013 ruling, also, invoke the nineteenth century freely in a very similar manner. Commentators often talk of a supposed pacific invasion” of Dominican soil at present, repeating the one that allegedly took place in January 1822. Images of Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the authors of separation of the two countries two decades later, populate demonstrations in support of the current rulings.

The nineteenth-century narrative is an abject falsehood, repeated often. Unification between the two countries came at the invitation of numerous Dominican towns. It brought the end of slavery. All of the citizens of the island enjoyed and defended their independence for decades and decades, long after the countries formally split, as their nearby neighbors remained colonized (and hundreds of thousands, still enslaved). They did so, precisely, together. These facts were as immediately obvious to elite commentators seeking separation as they were to the great majority of the island’s residents, who manifested profound and dynamic interconnection. Decades after unification ended, Dominican-Haitian collaborators helped to win Dominican independence, for a second time, in 1865. The Dominican constitution changed that same year to jus soli citizenship; a handful of reformers called for dual citizenship across the island. Without much documentation, however, the popular foundation of these struggles was muted even as it unfolded. The island’s residents continued to defend their independence, but xenophobic, racist, and hostile voices on and off the island continued to marginalize them. With the U.S. occupations, outside hostility became even more concrete.

Even more casual outside observers tend to know about the massive anti-Haitian intellectual production of the Trujillo dictatorship (1930-1961). Perhaps the ten concurring Tribunal members were purposely trying to sidestep its shadow when they chose, against all precedent, to extend their ruling to the year before he took power. Fewer outsiders know of Dominican resistance to these narratives during Trujillo’s regime, or of later efforts to reimagine the history of the nineteenth century completely. Haiti and the Dominican Republic were siblings in a struggle for freedom in these new accounts. Colonial powers, old and new, were the common enemy. Juan Bosch was one such politician-historian. He managed seven months in office before a coup overthrew him. Trujillo’s one-time aide, also a prolific history writer, replaced him. The contest for nineteenth-century narratives began all over again.

Thousands and thousands of the so-called “repatriations” or “deportations” that loom are really expulsions. The state language of law and order, more generally, is a violent and capricious fiction. Organizations like MUDHA, Solidaridad Fronteriza, reconoci.do, and others recognize this essential and obvious fact. The current crisis is not, however, the product of timeless, essential, or isolated conflicts. Haiti and the Dominican Republic face a common international economic and political context (and policies). Nor is the Dominican state’s aspiration for marginalization and control of a whole population by creating a legal breach is particularly unique. As statelessness, deportation, and violence threatens, those organizing in opposition to the Sentencia have an expansive view of the task at hand. As MUDHA describes their mission, they are organizing against sexism, racism, and anti-Haitianism and in support of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and human rights simultaneously. Relentlessly facile and misleading narratives about the past are not useful as they and their allies hope, with great urgency, to reinvent the immediate future.

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Anne Eller

Anne Eller is Assistant Professor of History at Yale University, where she teaches courses on Latin America, the Caribbean and the African Diaspora.

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