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Dominican Republic Makes Racism the Law

Posted on Jan 6, 2014
AP/Manuel Diaz

Juliana and her daughter Maria are two of many who were born in the Dominican Republic but may now lose their citizenship, and the rights that go along with it, because of a recent Constitutional Court decision.

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What is to become of a quarter of a million stateless Dominicans? The government is not clear on its intentions but one of the important lessons of the Nazi Holocaust is that the first step to genocide is to strip people of their right to citizenship. They are legally helpless.

The ruling will make it difficult for these Dominicans to register for school; to work in the formal sector of the economy; to pay insurance; to pay into pension funds; to get married legally; to register children; to open bank accounts; to make purchases; to receive inheritances; and even to leave the country that now rejects them because they cannot obtain or renew their passport.

There are already reports from Puerto Rico of small boats attempting to cross the wild white-capped dangerous sea of the Mona Passage where the Atlantic rushes into the strait between the two islands.

But this is not such a grave crisis, the Dominican government keeps insisting, because the Haitian constitution guarantees citizenship to anyone with Haitian parents. Aside from the fact that this claim is neither as certain nor as automatic as the Dominican government suggests, it would be like saying that American Jews can be stripped of their citizenship because, after all, they have the right to Israeli citizenship.

But why would the Dominican government be doing this? It has been suggested that as elections get tighter each round, this would be a way for the ruling Dominican Liberation Party and President Danilo Medina to disenfranchise black voters who seldom support them. Or it could be an attempt to whip up waning enthusiasm among their base.


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But it could also be a political mistake because it appears to have mobilized the opposition. One group, the Solidarity Committee, has collected letters from 500 prominent citizens including jurists, artists, journalists, writers, community activists and civic leaders protesting the court ruling. The two out of 13 judges on the high court who opposed the decision have been outspoken. Eddie Olivares, a member of the Central Electoral Board that has been charged with counting the “illegal” Dominicans, has questioned the legality of the order.

There always have been a large number of Dominicans who opposed racist policies, possibly even a majority. In 1996 more people voted for Peña Gómez than Balaguer.

According to the U.S. Census, 1.5 million people living in the United States consider themselves Dominican. Slightly less than half of them have U.S. citizenship yet nearly all of them, even those born in the U.S., have the right to Dominican citizenship and they find it odd and unjust that some of their fellow countrymen born and living in the Dominican Republic are losing theirs. Silvio Torres-Saillant, a Dominican-American professor at Syracuse University, said of the ruling, “It redefines Dominican nationality in a way that makes Dominicanness a shameful thing.”

The fear is that this ruling is only the beginning. Poet Rhina Espaillat, whose family fled the Trujillo regime in 1939 when she was a young girl, said,    “Witnessing, for several weeks now, the progress and aftermath of the Dominican Constitutional Court’s Sentence 0168-13, and the bitter divisions to which it has given rise in my native country, as well as the condemnations it has rightly earned from the international community, I have what I can only describe as that 1939 feeling.”

A number of international organizations including the 15-nation pan Caribbean Community and the United Nations have already denounced the ruling, with the U.N. claiming it was in violation of its Declaration of Human Rights. Opponents want a decision from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

If the issue moves to international venues, if the Dominican political situation becomes tenser, if a huge refugee crisis is created, it is going to become difficult for the United States not to get involved.

If this Caribbean nation less than 800 miles from our shore has an odd and troubled history, it is one with which the United States is intertwined. The U.S. government once considered annexing the Dominican Republic but the Senate rejected the proposal. The U.S. military has twice invaded and occupied the country. We have deposed elected presidents, installed dictators and had them killed—in the case of Trujillo, both.

And the U.S. is already involved as a key player in the Dominican economy, originally because of sugar and today because of tourism. The 4 million people who visit the country annually are a mainstay of its economy; more than half are American. The Dominicans have built resorts along their coastline and constructed nearby airports so that tourists can fly in, spend a week and fly out without seeing or even considering the Dominican Republic. Perhaps this citizenship ruling will make them start thinking about it.

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