A report from the University of Essex’s Human Rights Center blog.
In May 2012, the Dominican writer Junot Díaz published ‘Monstro,’ a science-fictional short story which depicts the post-apocalyptic scenario of a mysterious viral outbreak in Haiti and its repercussions on the island of Hispaniola as a whole and in the Dominican Republic in particular. We will not provide a full analysis of the short story itself here — for more on ‘Monstro’ in the wider context of Hispaniola border relation see Fumagalli’s On the Edge: Writing the Border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (LUP, 2015; 2018)– but, since Díaz’s dystopic future clearly resonated with the present of his 2012 readers and anticipates aspects of our current predicament, we will use it as a springboard to provide a quick snapshot of a ‘life as we know it’ to which, post-Covid-19, the island of Hispaniola cannot and should not return.
Taking place in a non-specified point in the future where most of the beaches of the Dominican Republic are submerged and the countryside is deserted because of the ‘Long Drought,’ ‘Monstro’ suggests that this lethal viral outbreak is concomitant, possibly even directly connected with environmental degradation and what is no longer possible to call ‘natural’ disasters since they are provoked or made much more severe by human action and political choices. ‘Monstro’ then informs us that the first Haitians to be infected are the ‘poorest of the poor,’ foregrounding the pernicious correlation between health and wealth and indirectly denouncing how political neglect increases the vulnerability of those who are not in a position to protect themselves. These poor, in fact, are housed in unspecified ‘relocation camps,’ a reference which evoked the precarious life conditions of those who were relocated in relief camps created in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and affected millions. These camps were still open when Díaz published his short story two years after the earthquake and, distressingly, on the tenth anniversary of the earthquake in January 2020, the Director of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Haiti lamented that 30,000 earthquake survivors were still encamped in Haiti, without access to promised housing.
In the Dominican Republic, Haiti is used as the negative foil in anti-Haitian, racist, and ultra-nationalistic discourses which offer a simplified artificial picture which posits the two countries and peoples sharing the island of Hispaniola as different and incompatible (i.e. Dominicans are white or mixed race; Haitians are black; Dominicans are Catholic, Haitians practise Voudou), demonize Haitians, and disenfranchise Dominicans of Haitian descent. In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, these discourses, capitalising on the strategically fomented fear of a Haitian invasion which (allegedly) perpetually threatens the Dominican Republic, warned that the Dominican apocalypse was impending due to the imminence of a stampede of desperate Haitians crossing the border into the country. This stampede, which never happened in reality, is represented, in Diaz’s ‘Monstro,’ by a horde of Haitians who, infected by the virus and turned into an unmanageable, bloodthirsty, and homogenous mass of murderers and cannibals, are ominously moving in unison towards the border with the Dominican Republic.
When the Haitian horde reaches the border, Dominican authorities decide to close it and instruct the army to meet the “invaders […] with ultimate force’ to prevent the viral infection spreading to the Dominican Republic. Similarly, when faced with the 2011 Haitian outbreak of cholera which was to kill thousands of Haitians, the immediate answer of the government of the Dominican Republic was, as it is the case in Diaz’s ‘Monstro,’ to close the border, (allegedly) to prevent the spreading of this potentially lethal disease. This pathologization of Haiti and the Haitians was not a novelty: in the early 1980s, for example, Haitians were classified by the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a ‘risk category’ and HIV-carriers based on an erroneous identification of Haiti as the point of origin of AIDS.
In ‘Monstro,’ the spreading of this mysterious virus in Haiti is facilitated by international neglect: since “it was just poor Haitians types getting fucked up,” Díaz’s narrator explains, “once the initial bulla died down, only a couple of underfunded teams stayed on” to try to better understand the virus and mitigate its consequences. Haiti had begun its long battle with the cholera epidemic only a year before the publication of ‘Monstro,’ but it was already becoming clear (staunch denials on the part of the UN notwithstanding) that the epidemic had been introduced in the country by a Nepalese contingent of the United Nations mobilised to assist the population after the earthquake. In May, in a letter to the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, thirteen UN rights monitors strongly criticised the UN for its “deeply disappointing” failure to make amends for having brought cholera to Haiti. After highlighting the inadequacy of the UN response to the Haitian crisis, the lead signatory of the letter, Philip Alston, the UN monitor on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded that the UN’s reprehensible conduct could only be understood by accepting that “racism” must have played a part.
In a move that reveals how racism and colourism also go hand in hand with anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic, the popular name of the epidemic which, in Díaz’s short story, begins to manifest itself by making Haitians blacker, is ‘Negrura.’ We are informed that Haitian–Dominicans and Haitians living in the Dominican Republic began to be ‘deported over a freckle,’ a comment that openly criticises the way in which, over many years, the Dominican government has been using arbitrary deportations (often targeting dark-skinned individuals regardless of their legal status) as a means to control and regulate ‘Haitian’ immigration, and, more specifically, of the resumption of deportations after the cholera epidemic as a ‘prophylactic’ measure.
Sadly, deportations continued to be used also after the publication of Diaz’s story in 2012. On the 23rd September 2013, a ruling of the Dominican Constitutional Court ordered all birth registries from 1929 had to be audited for people who had been (allegedly) wrongly registered as Dominican citizens, de facto denationalizing over 133,000 Dominicans, mainly of Haitian descent. The 2013 ruling was supported by the same well-established Dominican anti-Haitian racist ultra-nationalistic discourses which in the post-earthquake and post-cholera scenarios –but also on a myriad of many other occasions– had fomented hatred and paranoia, and demonized or pathologized Haiti, Haitians, and Dominicans of Haitian descent. A moratorium on deportations of Haitians with irregular migration status in the Dominican Republic took place during the eighteen months while a national regularization plan for foreigners was operated up until the middle of 2015, when registration for the plan lapsed. Deportations started up again in earnest. Unfortunately, the mix of euphemistically labelled “spontaneous returns” (often motivated by anti-Haitianism whipped up by elite nationalists), extra-official deportations and official deportations evidenced many of the shortcomings seen earlier in the process of deportations, when expulsions of Haitians had happened, en masse, from the Dominican Republic. The humanitarian crisis derived from this intense cross-border movement is perhaps best exemplified by the camps established on the Haitian-Dominican border, such as the Parc Cadeau complex, where scholars suggest that, from a bio-politic prism, this forced displacement could be included in the “death zones of the world.”
Ironically, in 2020, before the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Haiti, it was the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse who unilaterally closed the land border with the Dominican Republic, mindful of the country’s long struggle against cholera which was only controlled in January 2019. Paradoxically, Haiti had its lock-down first in the Americas before the arrival of Covid-19 and is one of the last countries assailed by the pandemic in the western hemisphere. In the final months of 2019, in fact, Haiti was in lock-down, or peyi-lok, a creole epithet which alludes to the nationwide political and economic protests which, precipitated by anticorruption scandals revealed in mid-2018, paralysed the country. The Haiti-Dominican Republic border was not closed but most schools and businesses were shut down.
It is evident that the Covid-19 emergency constitutes a huge challenge for the island of Hispaniola, where health services in both countries are far from fit for purpose and containment and control will likely consist in a long haul. Haiti will be hard put to deal with coronavirus, due to a notorious lack of installed health services capacity and social distancing will be virtually impossible in urban areas because of overcrowded housing and informal labour patterns. Similarly, health services are weak in the neighbouring Dominican Republic and containment measures have not been uniformly applied despite a state of emergency having been decreed. On top of that, legislation adopted in the Dominican Republic in 2014 to restore the documents of denationalised persons has been unevenly and timidly applied, such that most of those affected by the operation of the law do not have their Dominican ID, hence have limitations on realising their rights to health and education and have been absent from ongoing social protection measures in place prior to the pandemic. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants have, since 2014, engaged with the state in a regularisation programme only to find that they currently have a fragile or out-of-status legality. In these circumstances there is little incentive for them to come forward and stake claim to humanitarian aid from the authorities because they may fear deportation when the health crisis subsides.
The Dominican Republic and Haitian authorities have been correct in leaving a certain flexibility with the land border, enabling some 50,000 Haitians to return home since the pandemic was declared. However, there is the danger that once more the border area between the two countries becomes instrumentalized as a temporary humanitarian corridor for the duration of the health crisis and the long term demands of cross-border workers may be yet again overlooked.
Despite all the challenges that it presents, however, the pandemic also provides opportunities to improve border relations and finally address the predicament of segments of the populations in precarious legality like Haitian migrants and denationalised Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. Social protection mechanisms activated by the Dominican authorities for humanitarian assistance and those made unemployed by the health crisis, in fact, do not cover persons living and working in the country without a Dominican ID document. In order to be effective in the Dominican Republic, which has the worst mortality rate in the insular Caribbean, in fact, the Coronavirus response has to include those who have been routinely marginalised and neglected.
We have engaged, since 2013, in the development of artistic and literary projects (i.e. public talks, book launches, workshops, concerts, photographic exhibitions, artistic performances, publications in English, French, and Spanish, YouTube video) aimed at foregrounding and enhancing social and cultural unity in order to counter dominant discourses and pernicious racist and discriminatory practices which deny the existence of collaborative linkages and cultural continuities between the peoples and countries sharing the island of Hispaniola. We are therefore fully alert to the notion that a post-Covid-19 return to ‘life as we know it’ whereby anti-Haitianism, deportations, and denationalization are the status quo, is to be firmly resisted and avoided and, as many other activists on the ground, we believe that policy advocacy must support different ways of sustainably including these side-lined groups, often ostracised because of their ethnicity, in order that they may fully belong in Dominican society, benefiting from risk management both now and in the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Maria Cristina Fumagalli is Professor of Literature at the University of Essex. She is the author of On the Edge: Writing the Border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (2015; 2018), the first cultural and literary history of the region, and, more recently, of the chapter “‘When Dialogue is No Longer Possible, What Still Exists Is the Mystery of Hope’: Migration and Citizenship in the Dominican Republic in Film, Theatre and Performance” in Border Transgression and Reconfiguration of Caribbean Spaces. Moïse, Myriam & Fred Réno (Eds). NY: Palgrave MacMillan (2020). She is Investigadora Asociada of Observatory Caribbean Migrants (OBMICA), Santo Domingo.
Bridget Wooding is a researcher, advocate, writer, trainer, and expert witness on migration related issues. She coordinates the Observatory for Caribbean Migrants (OBMICA), based in Santo Domingo (www.obmica.org), since 2009. She is the author of numerous publications, including books and articles on nationality matters and the migration dynamics affecting the Dominican Republic, the island of Hispaniola, the insular Caribbean, and respective Diasporas. She is the author of the chapter “The seeds of Anger: Contemporary issues in forced migration across the Dominican-Haitian border” in Border Transgression and Reconfiguration of Caribbean Spaces. Moïse, Myriam & Fred Réno (Eds). NY: Palgrave MacMillan (2020).