Over the past several weeks, thousands have gathered in Santo Domingo to defend a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Court that has led to the revocation of nationality of four generations of Dominicans who were born to foreign parents.
“No merger is possible between Dominicans and Haitians,” read one placard that was carried on a recent protest by a supporter of last September’s ruling. “Dominican Republic is for Dominicans,” read another.
Proponents of the decision believe that the wave of migration of Haitians from across the border has been nothing more than a silent invasion that could eventually result in Haitian-Dominicans emerging as leaders of the country and holding sway at the ballot box. Closing off that possibility by enforcing the court’s ruling is viewed by conservative sectors as protecting Dominican national sovereignty.
While the nationalistic movement and an anti-Haitian discourse began under the dictatorship Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1930-1961), it was during the 1990s when discrimination against Haitians swelled. Anti-Haitian prejudice had also been present during the 1990 presidential campaign when José Francisco Peña Gómez unsuccessfully took his first stab to capture the presidency.
“I love my country, my people. Throughout my lifetime I have paid a price for this. I have been the victim of ferocious attacks, sometimes to my face, other times they have been more subtle like now. But I have forgiven everyone. My adversaries can count on my support as well as my forgiveness,” said Peña Gómez said in a television spot during his last campaign as Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate.
Peña Gómez was born in 1937 in Valverde province and had been adopted that same year by a family of rural workers after his Haitian parents fled back to Haiti when Trujillo ordered massacres of Haitians on the border. His origins and race were the subject of criticism by those inside and outside his party throughout his political career.
He served as mayor of Santo Domingo from 1982 to 1986, and unsuccessfully ran for president in 1990, 1994 and 1996.
In 1994, he obtained a majority of votes over octogenarian President Joaquín Balaguer, who was seeking re-election, but the race was marred by violence and irregularities. Balaguer was forced to form a pact with the opposition, and called new elections in 1996, which included a constitutional reform which, among other things, prevented presidents from running for consecutive terms and established a second round of votes in presidential elections.
In 1996, Peña Gómez obtained 47 percent of the votes in the first round, but was defeated in the second vote by the Patriotic Front – a coalition formed by Balaguer’s conservative Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) and the social-democratic Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), whose leader, Leonel Fernández, became president.
This neo-nationalist discourse is going to be more present in Dominican politics”
Fernández governed from 1996 and 2000 and between 2004 and 2012, and continues to remain the real powerbroker in the current presidency of Danilo Medina.
“From that moment on , Dominican politics made a U-turn. The PLD became a conservative party and focused on a nationalistic drive. Little by little Leonel Fernández began to adopt this line as his own,” explains Wilfredo Lozano, director of the Center of Research and Social Studies at Santo Domingo’s Ibero-American University.
“Initially, he was at the center of the political spectrum but later he began steering more and more toward the right until he became a neo conservative,” Lozano says in an interview with EL PAÍS.
The sociologist explains that Fernández believes that traditional Dominican politics is rooted in conservative values.
“This neo-nationalist discourse is going to be more and more present in Dominican politics and will also block the possibilities of an open, pluralist democracy. We have already seen it in the ruling, which is aimed at excluding political-electoral rights to voting masses who normally would not vote for conservative parties,” Lozano says.
The leaders of the country’s main parties – including Peña Gómez’s PRD – have unconditionally supported the Constitutional Court’s decision. This ruling, which revokes the nationalities of all people born in the country of foreign workers since 1929 – many of them sugarcane workers contracted by the state in 1915, who are now considered to have been “in transit” -- will affect four generations of Dominicans.
Thousands of Dominicans with national identity cards and who have voted in past elections will no longer be considered citizens. And the ruling won’t just affect the cane cutters who live in bateys, or huts constructed in the cane fields, but also lawyers, politicians, physicians and activists.
The Electoral Council has begun issuing “temporary identification cards” after purging thousands of names listed as Dominican citizens from the roll books. In the future, these people can still apply for Dominican nationality but they will never be able to serve as president or vice president as established in the Constitution.
“In the current climate, to admit that one is Haitian in the Dominican Republic has its consequences,” says Antonio Pol-Emil, a lawyer and founder of the Dominican-Haitian Cultural Centers in San Pedro de Macorís. “Every party has Dominicans of Haitian descent, but they won’t admit it in public.”
Since the Constitutional Court handed down its sentence, those who are against it ask daily on radio and television talk shows what would have become of historic leaders such as Gómez Peña, who died in 1998, and Balaguer, whose grandmother Rosa Amelia Heureaux was Haitian.
Ten years after Peña Gómez’s death from pancreatic cancer, Santo Domingo international airport was re-named in his honor. However, many still refer to it as Las Américas International Airport.