Why you should boycott the Dominican Republic

(Reuters/Ricardo Rojas)
(Reuters/Ricardo Rojas)
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This post has been corrected.

The lure of sunny weather and beautiful beaches has made the Dominican Republic a popular vacation destination for many Americans. But beneath the promise of an island paradise is an ugly reality. Thousands of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent are no longer welcome in a country they have called home since birth.

An estimated 250,000 people will likely be stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless in the next few months if the nation continues with its plan to implement a racially discriminatory ruling that targets Dominicans of Haitian descent. All of this is happening against a backdrop of anti-black racism that has often characterized the Dominican Republic’s treatment of its neighbor, with which it shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Last week, a group of Dominican youths publicly set fire to a Haitian flag. A day later, a Haitian man was lynched in a public square in the Dominican city of Santiago.  Although it is not clear who committed this heinous act, it is a gruesome reminder of the history of racial oppression, division, and violence in the Americas.

Although the Dominican Republic has long recognized individuals born in-country as citizens, Law 169/13, passed in 2013, retroactively withdraws citizenship from people born after 1929, mostly those of Haitian descent, who have lived and worked in the country all their lives. As a result of the law, anti-Haitian sentiment is rising; and access to jobs, health care and other social services are becoming increasingly difficult for Dominicans of Haitian descent to procure.

To address international concerns, a new citizenship law, 169/14, offered a path to restore citizenship to a small fraction of those affected by the original ruling— allowing individuals born between 1929 to 2007, whose births were officially registered, to apply for a residency permit to remain in-country, and to eventually be considered for citizenship.

Several Caribbean nations and human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have criticized the rulings amidst concerns about the humanitarian crisis that will likely unfold if a quarter million Dominican citizens are forced to leave the country. According to Amnesty International, many have no ties to Haiti and are the children and grandchildren of Haitian migrants who have been steadily arriving in the republic since the 1940s through agreements between the two nations—exchanges that provided a cheap, Haitian labor force for Dominican and foreign-owned sugarcane plantations. Historically, the children of these migrant workers were recognized as Dominican citizens and granted birth certificates and identification cards. These laws ultimately aim to erase their Dominican nationality, stripping them of their rights and dignity.

Red tape and other barriers have made it difficult for many affected by the new law to register in time to meet the February 1, 2015 deadline for residency permits. Regardless, several deportations were processed ahead of the deadline, and only a small fraction of people entitled to register had done so. International pressure forced Dominican lawmakers to extend the registration period to June. But the deeper problem lies not with bureaucracy, but with the law itself, and the extent to which the nation is willing to go to skirt human rights conventions in order render some of its own citizens stateless.

Last year the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an autonomous body of the of the Organization of American States (OAS), ruled that Law 169/14 violated the American Convention of Human Rights, of which the Dominican Republic is a signatory state. In response, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic declared unconstitutional the nation’s previous 15-year acceptance of the court’s jurisdiction. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), also part of the human rights protection system of the OAS, has noted that “the Constitutional Court’s judgment has no basis whatsoever in international law, and therefore it can have no effect.”

The same statement, issued by the IACHR in November, includes important background on the systematic mistreatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. According to the IACHR, the rejection of the court ruling “took place in a context in which the Dominican Republic has failed to comply with several of the inter-American system’s decisions, especially those related to human-rights violations that result from structural discrimination against persons of Haitian descent who live in the country.”

One example of this systemic discrimination is the practice of denying Dominican citizens of Haitian descent copies of their birth certificate. In a case dating back to 2005, in which two mothers fought back against not being able to obtain birth certificates so that their children could attend school, the Inter-American Court determined that the practice was racially discriminatory.

In response to the law, many are calling for a boycott of the Dominican Republic. I fully support this effort. Being of Haitian descent, and someone who cares deeply about human rights and racial justice, I cannot in good conscience spend my dollars in a country, or purchase its goods, when it is woefully violating principles that I hold dear. Many of my friends and colleagues have made the same the decision.

If the Dominican Republic is not willing to adhere to international standards of human rights, the international community should respond accordingly. This response cannot be left solely to human rights organizations, but is a responsibility of people who have a voice, through their wallets and other mechanisms, to stand up to the injustices that are being inflicted against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Years ago, when the international community decided that apartheid was no longer tolerable, economic boycotts—including decisions not to travel to South Africa—had a tremendous impact, and served as a catalyst to end state-sanctioned racial discrimination. Today, South Africa is better for it—arguably maintaining Africa’s most vibrant economy and ethnically diverse society.

Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti are striving for sustainability and economic growth. So it is not without these considerations that many of us have decided to boycott the Dominican Republic. Martin Luther King Jr’s. 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” provides important wisdom that should inform the current debate: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In this global community, in which we are all increasingly interconnected, no longer can we travel as “tourists” who turn a blind eye to reality as we rush to private beaches and gated resorts that separate us from the living conditions of “the locals.” We are all connected, not only in a global economic system, but by our humanity. If more people begin to register their objections toward the Dominican Republic’s racially discriminatory, anti-Haitian policies on social media, by not traveling to the country, and by being discerning when purchasing its goods, perhaps a wave of dissent may change the tide.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified the initial ruling stripping 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of Dominican citizenship as Law 169/14. The correct ruling is Law 168/13, to which Law 169/14 was passed in response.