Hispaniola: The tense border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti


Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s “Hispaniola: The tense border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti” is an excellent study tracing the history of the ongoing social and political tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The complete article is available through issue 3 of Stranger’s Guide (which centers on the Caribbean—also see previous post Strangers Guide Issue 3: Dedicated to the Caribbean). Here are excerpts; please read the full article at Stranger’s Guide.

High in the steep, green mountains of central Hispaniola, near the long and porous border that divides the island where Columbus’ New World ventures began, and which is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, lies a hamlet called Las Petacas. Set amid mist-shrouded stands of coffee and maize, its dirt-floored shacks are far closer to the capital of Haiti—Port-au-Prince is less than 40 miles away—than to Santo Domingo. Along mountain trails here, one is as likely to hear workmen murmuring to each other in Haitian Kreyol as chatting in tuneful Caribeño Spanish. But as its Castilian name suggests, Las Petacas (“the humps”) lies on the border’s Dominican side. A few years ago, this place witnessed events that showed just how entwined—and perilous—relations have long been between these two nations.

In the dim pre-dawn of November 21, 2013, José Méndez and Luja Encarnación were set upon in their home by unknown assassins. The couple was in their 70s and subsisted as do most cafeteros here: by picking coffee beans and roasting them over a covered cook-fire in their yard, to sell to wholesalers in the nearby larger town of Neyba. They also raised chickens and pigs, and nine kids. “My parents were simple people,” said their daughter Dominga, when months later I found her living nearby. “They had nothing.” This didn’t stop Méndez and Encarnación’s killers, apparently convinced these grandparents had some extra beans worth taking, from stealing into their shack with machetes and sticks. When their daughter came to call on the pair later that morning, Dominga spotted her mother’s body first: the woman was lying face down, sprawled on her threshold. Her common-law husband was a few feet away. His own bloodied body, at the edge of the forest into which he’d perhaps tried to flee, was missing its head. Dominga’s screams were heard by neighbors a half-mile away.

A few years ago, this place witnessed events that showed just how entwined—and perilous—relations have long been between these two nations.

“We knew who did it,” one of those neighbors later told me. “Haitians.” Within a few hours of the couple’s deaths, thirty or so neighbors and kin sought vengeance. This “multitude,” as Dominican newspapers called the lynch mob, didn’t have to go far. By early afternoon, a Haitian national named Andre Pierre but known as “Coito Pie”—he’d lived in Las Petacas for years—was dead. Two hundred and forty-four other Haitians, fearing for their lives, turned up at a Dominican military base in Neyba, seeking protection. According to Haitian human rights groups, many hundreds more fled the Dominican Republic along the same hidden trails they’d used to enter a country whose leaders speak of “securing the border” but whose farms and foremen have long depended on their labor. Some were seasonal migrants who would have made this return trip when the coffee harvest was done. Others had never crossed the border over which they were forced to flee by the mob.

In a poor country where justice can be as much a matter of communal action as judicial writ, these events were in some ways unremarkable: there’s no urban bidonville or rural colonia, on either half of Hispaniola, where one can’t hear tales of rogues or pederasts “dealt with” by extrajudicial parties. But what drew my attention to this episode in Las Petacas—and what made international news organizations pick up the story—was its timing.

A few weeks earlier, on September 23, 2013, the Dominican Republic’s highest court issued a ruling that made headlines worldwide: thenceforth, according to Sentencia 168-13 of the Tribunal Constitucional, the full rights and responsibilities of Dominican citizenship would be extended only to people who could prove that every one of their forebears, reaching back to 1929 (the date of an obscure change in the country’s constitutional law), were Dominican nationals, too. Prompting reasoned fears that up to 250,000 people—most of them of Dominican-born Haitians, or “Haitians of Dominican descent”—would be rendered stateless, the sentencia also placed the Dominican government in violation of several international treaties to which it is a signatory (including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which names “the right to a nationality” as one of its precepts). For the many parties that decried the ruling, from neighboring governments to non-governmental organizations, the sentencia’s potentially more immediate effects—whether in the form of mass deportations or a violent climate—were even more worrying. And now, from the border province of Neyba, came reports that everyone feared: murder, mob violence, and state collusion. When those 244 fearful people turned up at the Neyba military base, its soldiers had neither checked work permits nor sought to secure their safety in situ, but rather loaded them onto trucks (without belongings and unable to notify kin), driving them to the nearest official border crossing and summarily expelling them from the country.

Soon after these events, some of the more extreme reports on the internet—one claimed that some 35 more Haitian nationals had been killed as they fled—were based more on rumor than fact. But the readiness of Haitians, especially, to believe such tales (some I spoke with months later still did) underscored the climate of fear and the power of the past’s ghosts along a mutable border whose modern lines were fixed only in the 1930s. That’s when the longtime Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, as Junot Díaz wrote in his enduring novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, “inflicted a true border on the two countries, a border that exists beyond maps, a border that is carved directly into the histories and imaginations of a people.” The historical moment to which that line refers is the dark season of Trujillo’s perejil massacre—a spate of violence launched in response to reports of cattle thieving (“To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, I have responded, ‘I will fix this,’” Trujillo said) but in fact undertaken to bolster a dictator’s power using that most à la mode tactic in 1937: xenophobic race war. Asking their Haitian neighbors to pronounce the word perejil (parsley), machete-wielding soldiers and civilians embraced the leader’s bidding: if their neighbors’ replies betrayed a French or Kreyol accent, their fate was death. No one knows exactly how many were killed—estimates range from 5,000 to 25,000 people. But by the time the killing stopped, the waters of an aptly named stream that forms part of the border here—the Massacre River—ran red with the blood of Haitians’ bodies dumped from its banks.

This episode, in a border region said to be populated by boogie men and zombies, birthed perhaps more ghosts than any other. Yet it also comprises but one modern chapter in a history of violence that reaches back to these nations’ founding, when the erstwhile Spanish colony of Santo Domingo won its independence not from Spain but from the black leaders of Haiti. After expelling their French masters from Hispaniola’s west, during their heroic revolution of 1791–1804, those leaders leveraged Madrid’s weak hold on the island’s eastern half to take over Santo Domingo, too. Which is why, when the Spanish creoles who lived there moved to win self-rule, they did so by waging war against their neighbors at battles like the 1844 clash in Neyba—the year of the DR’s founding—now recalled as the “baptism of blood.” Never mind that many members of this new polity were as dark-skinned as any Haitian (or that the vast majority of modern Dominicans possess African blood): the Dominican Republic was forged in antagonized opposition to the black nation next door. This history’s lasting effects, and those effects’ current expression, have brought me to Hispaniola time and again to see how the sentencia of 2013 has played out on the ground. [. . .]

[Photo above (cropped detail)—Haitians on market day, waiting at the border gate to enter Dajabón—by Mirissa Neff.]

For full article, see https://strangersguide.com/articles/hispaniola

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