Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Spanish
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic), syncretic African religions
The majority of the population (around 70 per cent) are of mixed African and European (Spanish) descent, with the remainder black (around 16 per cent) and white (14 per cent). During the early colonial period indigenous Taíno-Arawak communities were also part of the overall population.
Haitians, who together represent a substantial minority of up to a million people, form a distinct cultural and linguistic group within the Dominican Republic. Although many Dominicans have Haitian ancestors and connections, anti-Haitian xenophobia is rife. This is partly a legacy of the two countries’ troubled history and also a reflection of Haitians’ low economic status. This population includes hundreds of thousands of Dominico-Haitians, born in the country and in many cases resident for generations, who have valid claims to Dominican citizenship as well as hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants, both documented and undocumented.
Despite the African and indigenous ancestral backgrounds of much of the population, Dominicans perceive themselves and Dominican culture as essentially urban, modernist, Catholic, Spanish-European and superior. In contrast, Haitians and their culture are perceived as being rural, backward, animist, African with a French veneer and inferior. Although both societies are Roman Catholic, most Haitians practise the syncretistic African-based religion of Vodou, which Dominicans look down upon.
Few government officials acknowledge the existence of this prejudice; they regularly and publicly assert that there is no discrimination against Haitians or other persons of dark complexion.
Updated: May 2018
The Dominican Republic struggles with a legacy of colonialism and racial discrimination that still divides its society today. The history of slavery in the Dominican Republic and neighbouring Haiti, as well as the protracted and brutal campaign against Haitians in the Dominican Republic pursued by the dictator General Trujillo from the 1930s, contributed to the creation of exclusionary notions of ‘dominicidad’ that have privileged ‘European’ culture and ancestry over ‘African’ heritage and influences. While the majority of the population of the Dominican Republic is of mixed African descent and many Dominicans have Haitian connections, anti-Haitian feeling is rife.
Haitians themselves represent a substantial minority of up to 1 million people within the Dominican Republic, and form a distinct cultural and linguistic group. They include a substantial population of native Dominico-Haitians, born in the country or present for multiple generations, as well as a significant population of documented and undocumented Haitian immigrants. Many are employed, frequently in exploitative conditions, as cheap labour in Dominican sugar plantations and other poorly paid sectors. Widespread poverty and abject living conditions have been exacerbated by social stigmatization and official crackdowns.
In particular, many Dominico-Haitians have frequently faced bureaucratic hurdles to accessing documentation, despite valid claims to citizenship – a situation that only worsened with the Dominican Constitutional Court’s judgment TC/0168/13 in September 2013 that retroactively stripped hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their Dominican nationality. While Dominican authorities subsequently issued Naturalization Law No. 169-14 in 2014 order to address the situation created by the judgment, in practice many Dominico-Haitians have yet to have their citizenship decided. As a result, the country hosts a sizeable stateless population that estimates suggest may include at least 133,770 individuals.
In the meantime, an official campaign of mass deportations has seen thousands deported to Haiti, including not only Haitian immigrants but also Dominico-Haitians with valid claims to citizenship who have never lived outside the Dominican Republic. The latter are now trapped in Haiti, a country many have never even visited, with limited means of securing a path to Dominican citizenship. While the Dominican government implemented a temporary 18-month moratorium on deportations in December 2013 to allow foreign undocumented migrants to regularize their status, mass deportations resumed in June 2015. Since then tens of thousands of Haitians have been forced to return, with more than 4,000 Haitians deported and another 5,000 denied entry from Haiti in September 2017 alone. This official crackdown has been accompanied by widespread popular xenophobia and outbreaks of anti-Haitian violence by vigilantes that has encouraged many other Haitians to leave the country.
Updated: May 2018
The Dominican Republic comprises the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean; on the east by the Mona Passage, which separates it from Puerto Rico; on the south by the Caribbean Sea. On the west it shares a 360 km frontier with Haiti. It has a total land area of 48,734 sq km.
The original inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti/Dominican Republic) were the indigenous Taíno, an Arawak-speaking people who began arriving by canoe from Belize and the Yucatan peninsula between 6000 and 4000 BC. Hispaniola is now recognized as the main cultural centre of the Taíno-Arawak, who also colonized most of the Caribbean islands in conjunction with indigenous people who sailed up from the Orinoco/Amazon region of South America.
Along with Ay-ti, another of the original indigenous names for the island was Quisqueya (or Kiskeya). It was re named La Isla Española (The Spanish Island) by Christopher Columbus when he first arrived in 1492. This later evolved into the name Hispaniola.
At the time of the Spanish arrival an estimated 1 million Taínos lived on the island. Spanish attempts to use enslaved Taínos in gold mining after 1501 did not prove profitable. There was continued resistance and the Taíno-Arawak who were not killed disappeared into the inaccessible mountains.
Taíno-Arawak communities under the leadership of warrior chief Enriquillo carried out hit-and-run raids against the Spanish until 1534, when a peace treaty was signed. Over the following centuries the remaining indigenous Taíno-Arawak increasingly became intermixed with the African and European colonial populations and ceased to exist as a distinct population.
African slaves began arriving on Hispaniola in 1503, and in 1510 the first sizeable shipment, comprising 250 Black Ladinos, landed from Spain. Sugar cane was introduced from the Canary Islands, and the first sugar mill in the New World was established on Hispaniola in 1516. This led to a sharp increase in the importation of African slaves.
The first major slave revolt in the Americas occurred in Spain’s colony on Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) in 1522, when enslaved West Africans (Muslim Wolof) led an uprising. Many of the insurgents escaped to the mountains and formed the first independent African Maroon community in the Americas.
Sugar cane increased Hispaniola’s profitability but increasing numbers of imported Africans kept escaping into the island’s interior, linking up with residual pockets of indigenous Taíno-Arawaks. By the 1530s, escaped Maroon groups had become so pervasive that large armed escorts were required for travel outside of the plantations.
Spanish interest in Hispaniola declined with the discovery of precious metals in South America, and new imports of enslaved Africans ceased. The colony sank into poverty and in 1697 Spain ceded the western end of the island (which became known as Saint-Domingue, now Haiti) to France.
On the eastern, Spanish side, called Santo Domingo, Spanish colonists, Euro-indigenous mestizos and free as well as enslaved Africans lived in a relatively flexible cattle-ranching environment where class and caste distinctions were more relaxed. This resulted in a population of predominantly mixed Spanish and African descent.
After 1700, the population of Santo Domingo was bolstered by additional emigration from the Canary Islands. The northern part of the colony was resettled, tobacco was planted in the Cibao Valley and the importation of enslaved Africans renewed.
The population of the Spanish colony grew and by 1777 it was estimated to be around 400,000, with a large proportion being of mixed background: it was calculated as Europeans (100,000), Africans (70,000) European/indigenous mestizos (100,000) African/indigenous mestizos (60,000), African/European mestizos (mulatos) (70,000).
Compared to the French forced labour plantation colony on the western side of the island, which had become the wealthiest in the New World, the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo remained poor and derelict.
With the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the rich urban families associated with the Spanish colonial bureaucracy fled the island, while most of the rural hateros (cattle ranchers) chose to remain.
In 1801, Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture arrived in the eastern side of the island and proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Santo Domingo. Soon after Napoleon dispatched an army to subdue the rebellion and reintroduce slavery but these forces were overwhelmed by Haitian revolutionary forces.
Even after the French defeat, a small army contingent remained in control on the Spanish side of the island. Slavery was re-established and many Spanish colonists returned. The French held on to the eastern part of the island for nearly two decades more, until they were expelled by the Spanish-speaking inhabitants, many of whom were cattle ranchers.
In November 1821 the Spanish lieutenant governor proclaimed Santo Domingo’s new status as the independent state of Spanish Haiti (Haiti Español). Nine weeks later Haitian forces, led by Jean-Pierre Boyer, entered and united both sides of island.
The 22-year Haitian occupation definitively ended slavery in the eastern part of Hispaniola. However, unification also brought imposition of compulsory military service, restrictions in the use of the Spanish language and large-scale land expropriations.
Spanish colonial landowners – who as Europeans were forbidden to own property under the Haitian Constitution – were forcibly relieved of their holdings. Most emigrated to Cuba, Puerto Rico or Gran Colombia. Furthermore, the Haitian regime associated the Roman Catholic Church with the French slave-owning class and confiscated all Church property, deported all foreign clergy and made the remaining Dominican clergy sever ties with the Vatican.
In an effort to prove that Haiti could be the equal of any other nation and with France demanding reparations for the loss of their plantations before granting diplomatic recognition, Boyer introduced the compulsory production of export crops. However, Afro-Dominicans who had just won their freedom resented being forced to grow cash crops under Boyer’s Code Rural.
Furthermore, the elimination of some local customs like cockfighting in conjunction with the other reforms contributed to the tendency of Dominicans to see themselves as culturally different from Haitians in language, ethnicity, race, religion and customs.
The payment of reparations to France by Haiti crippled the Haitian economy; consequently, Haiti imposed heavy taxes on the Spanish-speaking part of the island. Furthermore, a diminished national treasury made it difficult to maintain troops on the eastern side. This made it easier for Dominicans to declare independence from Haiti, on 27 February 1844.
The first president of the independent state was Pedro Santana, a powerful cattle rancher, who served for three terms between 1844 and 1861. The fact that between 1844 and 1856 Haiti launched five unsuccessful invasions to re-conquer the eastern part of the island prompted the clergy and the wealthy elite to seek protection from foreign powers.
In March 1861, Santana gave the Dominican Republic back to Spain. However, the return was short lived. Spanish discrimination against the African/European mulatto majority population, coupled with restricted trade and other reforms, led to rising resentment.
In 1863 it prompted a national war of ‘restoration’. Fearing a Spanish re-imposition of slavery on the eastern side of the island, Haitian President Fabre Geffrard provided the Dominican rebels with arms, sanctuary and a detachment of the best military fighters. The guerrillas triumphed and the country regained its independence in March 1865.
From 1865 to 1879, there were 21 changes of government and at least 50 military uprisings. In the south, the economy was dominated by cattle-ranchers and mahogany exporters while in the Cibao Valley, on the nation’s richest farmland, smallholder peasants grew subsistence crops supplemented by tobacco grown for export, mainly to Germany.
Out of the national turmoil emerged Gregorio Luperón the dark-skinned mestizo leader of the tobacco farmers who assumed the presidency. He enacted a new Constitution that set a two-year presidential term limit and provided for direct elections. Under this government the seeds were sown for the eventual deep involvement of Haitian migrant labour in the Dominican Republic.
After 1879, Cuban sugar planters moved to the Dominican Republic to escape the turmoil of the anti-colonial war on their island. The Cubans settled in the south-eastern coastal plain, and, with assistance from Luperón’s government, built the nation’s first mechanized sugar mills. Immigrant Italians, Puerto Ricans (of German origin) and Americans later joined them. Together they created the Dominican sugar bourgeoisie and under their management the Dominican Republic became a major sugar exporter.
An 1884 slump in sugar prices led to a labour shortage. The gap was filled by English-speaking Afro-Caribbean migrant workers (cocolos) from the Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Antigua. They were often the victims of racism and xenophobia but many remained in the country. By 1897 sugar had surpassed tobacco as the leading export and some 500 km of private railway had been built to service the sugar plantations.
General Ulises Heureaux
The emerging sugar interests found an ally in the person of General Ulises Heureaux when he came to power in 1882. Given the attitudes to ‘blackness’ in Dominican society it is significant that Ulises Heureaux was born of a Haitian father and a mother from St Thomas (Virgin Islands).
For over two decades Heureaux brought unprecedented stability to the Dominican Republic. The Heureaux government helped set up sugar mills, developed the army and undertook a number of modernizing projects, including the electrification of the capital, and introducing telephone/telegraph services and other infrastructure improvements. He borrowed heavily from European and US banks to get this done.
When sugar prices plunged sharply in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the government was unable to repay its foreign loans. In 1899 Heureaux was assassinated by disgruntled tobacco merchants. He left a large national debt.
Dominican indebtedness provoked some European nations to threaten gunboat intervention. In 1906, alarmed at the increasing European influence in the region, the United States under Roosevelt assumed responsibility for the Dominican Republic’s debt and took control of the country’s administration and customs management under a 50-year treaty.
In November 1916, after a decade of internal disorder, a coup d’état by the then Minister of War Desiderio Arias provided the pretext for US Marines to invade and establish their own military government. As in neighbouring Haiti, the US reorganized the tax system, expanded primary education and built up infrastructure.
Problems arose in the 1920, when US authorities enacted a Land Registration Act that dispossessed thousands of Dominican peasants in the south-west, near the border with Haiti, and transferred land ownership to the sugar companies. Followers of a Dominican Vodu faith healer named Liborio in the San Juan valley resisted the US occupation and aided counterpart rebels (cacos) in Haiti in their own war against the Americans (see Haiti).
As in Haiti, a national police force was created and used by US Marines to help fight the various guerrilla groups. Also, as in Haiti, this US-trained militia would later play a major role in local politics.
This police force which was later renamed the Guardia Nacional Dominicana became an important instrument in the rise of General Rafael Trujillo. His actions would go a long way towards defining Dominican attitudes toward ethnicity and to the migrant Haitian population.
US corporate dominance
By end of 1921 the rise in international sugar production had glutted the world market, causing prices to plummet once again. This bankrupted many local sugar planters, thereby allowing large American conglomerates to enter and dominate the Dominican sugar industry.
By 1926, 12 US companies owned more than 80 per cent of the 520,000 acres of land under sugar cultivation. However, unlike the Cuban immigrant planters who preceded them, the US corporations did not invest in the country but repatriated their profits, causing local resentment.
As prices declined, the US-owned sugar estates increasingly began to rely on imported Haitian labourers. This was partly brought about by a series of pay-related strikes by the migrant Caribbean-born cane cutters organized by Marcus Garvey’s international black worker rights movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
In addition, the land acquired via the Land Registration Act had led to a growth of sugar production in the south-west, near the Haitian border and created an increased demand for labour.
The US-run military government greatly facilitated Haitian migrant worker involvement in the Dominican sugar industry by originating the system of regulated contract labour aimed at importing Haitians as sugar cane workers for the US-owned estates.
US occupation ended in 1924, under president Horacio Vásquez. General Rafael Trujillo was elected president in 1930 with 95 per cent of the vote. Trujillo, who was the commander of the Guardia Nacional Dominicana, used this militia to harass and intimidate electoral personnel and potential opponents.
Trujillo professed an admiration for European fascist dictators and developed the Guardia Nacional into one of the largest military forces in Latin America. He forcibly eliminated all opposition, repressed human rights and acquired absolute control over the Dominican nation.
For 31 years Trujillo and his family established a near-monopoly over the national economy. By the time of his death the Trujillo family owned 50-60 per cent of the arable land in the country. He also exploited nationalist sentiment to purchase most of the Dominican Republic’s sugar plantations and refineries from US corporations. Moreover, the drastic anti-Haitian population purges were initiated during the Trujillo era.
With the sugar estates increasingly needing workers for seasonal labour, many Haitian migrant workers began settling permanently in the Dominican Republic.
During the mid-1930s, General Trujillo introduced a policy called the ‘Dominicanization of the frontier’. This involved changing place names along the border from Kreyol and French to Spanish, outlawing the practice of Vodou and imposing quotas on the percentage of foreign workers companies could hire.
Trujillo ordered the army massacre of between 15,000 and 30,000 unarmed Haitians living on the Haitian-Dominican border, justifying the action as a reprisal for Haiti’s supposed support for Dominican exiles plotting to overthrow his regime.
These acts drew international criticism but not much more. Despite the massacre, up until the late 1980s successive Haitian governments continued to sign contracts with the Dominican authorities that allowed the recruitment of Haitian cane cutters in return for a per capita fee.
Some argue that the 1937 massacre of Haitians needs to be viewed in the larger context of Trujillo’s and Dominicans’, as well as the Haitian mulatto elite’s attitudes towards ‘blackness’, dating back to the colonial period.
While cleansing the dark-skinned Haitians from the frontier, during this same period Trujillo sought to increase the number of light-skinned people in the Republic. Trujillo enthusiastically promoted the policy of blanquismo or whitening which had long been practised in postcolonial South America.
This involved inviting immigration from Europe to ‘improve’ the population mix as a means of stimulating national development. Trujillo therefore welcomed refugees from European conflicts and promoted the idea of the Dominican Republic as a European-modelled society dedicated to modernization, material progress and continued economic expansion.
The Organization of American States (OAS) finally took action against the regime in 1960 but not specifically because of the 1937 massacre or general treatment of Haitian migrants. The resolution called for a break in diplomatic relations with the country. Then, in May 1961, a group of Dominican dissidents, armed and trained in the USA, assassinated General Trujillo.
The persistence of discrimination in the post-Trujillo era
Following some years of instability, the Dominican Republic managed in the ensuing decades to establish a relatively stable democratic politics. Nevertheless, the country wrestled with periods of inflation and the decline of its sugar industry, long the bulwark of the country’s economy. Notwithstanding these challenges, migration from Haiti continued well into the 1980s.
While the threat of killings and mass violence has reduced in decades, old fears of a ‘Haitian invasion’ have persisted, reflected not only in social attitudes but also in increasingly draconian government policies that have sought to redefine citizenship in increasingly narrow terms. This included the passing in August 2004 of the new Migration Law No. 285-04, legislation that cast foreign workers and migrants as foreigners ‘in transit’, preventing their children from gaining Dominican citizenship and also establishing a separate registry for children born in the country of foreign mothers without a regular migration status.
Tens of thousands of Haitians continued to be deported every year, with occasional crackdowns triggered by security concerns or violent incidents attributed to Haitian nationals. In this context, the legitimate citizenship claims of many long term Dominico-Haitians were obscured or denied. Further restrictions served to undermine their position within the country. This included, in March 2007, the Central Electoral Board’s decision to stop issuing birth certificates and copies of birth certificates to Dominicans born in Dominican territory to foreign parents, followed by its creation in April of a new registry described under Migration Law No. 285-04, commonly called the ‘Book of Foreigners’.
In January 2010, a new Constitution was approved in the Dominican Republic. Besides including severe provisions on a range of rights and freedoms, from abortion to gay marriage, it also developed additional barriers for its Domino-Haitian population to access citizenship. For the first time in the country, the Constitution denied the automatic acquisition of Dominican nationality to children of irregular migrants. While since then, amid widespread international condemnation, there have been some steps forward – for example, in October 2011 the Central Electoral Board began reissuing birth certificates – in other areas authorities continued to push large numbers of Dominico-Haitians into statelessness. The Dominican Constitutional Court’s judgment TC/0168/13, issued in September 2013, retroactively deprived hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their Dominican nationality (covering the period 1929 to 2010), leaving them without citizenship.
The Dominican Republic’s National Congress consists of the 32-member Senate and the 183-member Chamber of Deputies. Members of both chambers serve four-year terms. President Danilo Medina Sanchez was re-elected in May 2016. He first came to power in August 2012, succeeding three-term president Leonel Fernandez Reyna. A constitutional change in 2015 allowed Medina to seek reelection.
The right to nationality is guaranteed in numerous human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 15), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 7), and the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 20). While states can regulate the acquisition and retention of nationality, they must respect fundamental human rights norms in doing so. With regard to the Dominican Republic, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Expelled Dominicans and Haitians v. Dominican Republic, explained that, when regulating the granting of nationality, states must avoid rendering persons stateless, and they must not discriminate in the enjoyment of the right to nationality.
On 23 September 2013, in judgement TC/0168/13, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic retroactively stripped more than 200,000 persons of Haitian descent of their Dominican nationality. Pursuant to the Inter-American Court’s holdings in the case of the Girls Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic and in the case of Expelled Dominicans and Haitians v. Dominican Republic, by targeting persons of Haitian descent, making the migratory status of a person’s parents a condition for nationality, and depriving people of their nationality in a retroactive manner, the judgment violated the prohibitions on discrimination in access to nationality and on arbitrary deprivation of nationality. Moreover, the judgment entailed a risk of statelessness for hundreds of thousands of persons, as the Dominican Republic had not proven that those affected could obtain Haitian nationality. This is contrary to the object and purpose of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, of which the Dominican Republic is a signatory.
In 2014, the government of the Dominican Republic introduced Law No. 169-14, which purports to offer a path towards ‘naturalization’ for those affected by judgment TC/0168/13. According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Expelled Dominicans and Haitians v. Dominican Republic, by treating as alien persons who had the right to Dominican nationality since birth, the law continues to violate the right to nationality and the right to equal protection of the law.
Updated: May 2018
Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés (Haiti)
Instituto de Investigaciones, Documentación y Derechos Humanos
La Red de Encuentro Dominico Haitiano Jacques Viau
Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas (MUDHA)
Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados y Migrantes
[Jesuit Refugee Service]
Solidaridad Fronteriza (SJRM)
[Service for Cultural Promotion]