On May 15, the Dominican Republic held its general elections for presidency, vice presidency, congress, and municipal leaders. But not all Dominicans of voting age were allowed to vote. In spring and summer of 2015, the Dominican government’s plan to deport and expel tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent gained international attention and condemnation. By the end of the year, the Dominican government deported thousands of people to Haiti, some of whom qualified as Dominican citizens, and today many Dominicans of Haitian descent who live in the Dominican Republic cannot vote because they are denied documentation. I recently sat down with Ana Maria Belique, an internationally recognized human and civil rights advocate and a founder and leader of Reconoci.do, an organization that advocates for full citizenship for Dominicans who have been stripped of or are at risk of losing their citizenship because of their Haitian ancestry. I asked Ana Maria about developments in the country, in particular Dominicans of Haitian descent’s movement for full citizenship.
Before diving into the interview, below you can catch up on the complicated circumstances and recent events leading to the current situation in the Dominican Republic. If you’re up to date, skip to the interview after the jump:
In 2013, after decades of having their citizenship and civil rights limited in practice by structural racism and discrimination and curtailed in law by modifications to the Dominican constitution, over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent had their citizenship stripped by a court ruling from the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Tribunal. Local and international outrage and activism along with intense negative media coverage pressured the Dominican government to enact Law 169-14 to address statelessness in the country. The law categorized Dominicans of Haitian descent into two groups. Group A were those born in the Dominican Republic who had been registered in the Civil Registry, and therefore had birth certificates. Group B were those born in the Dominican Republic before 2010 (when the Dominican constitution was modified to from jus soli to jus sanguinis) who had not been registered in the Civil Registry and therefore had no documentation.
The new law mandated that the Dominican government’s agency in charge of documentation, the Junta Central Electoral (JCE), conduct an audit of the approximately 60,000 people in Group A to determine who were citizens. The JCE completed the audit last summer, and while about half of those audited were in theory given full citizenship—in practice local government agents can determine who does or does not qualify as a citizen—the other half were confirmed as Dominicans but had their identities transferred from the Civil Registry to a new registry created by the Junta Central Electoral, leaving their ultimate citizenship status in question.
Effectively fighting racism in Dominican society begins with education.
Law 169-14 required that people in Group B register with the Dominican government in a Naturalization Plan, which would give them status as foreigners living in the country for two years before they could undergo a future, undefined process to become citizens. Submitting the application to the Naturalization Plan was free, but the intermediate steps to complete the application, which included traveling to various government offices, notarizing documents, and paying fees at government offices, made the process expensive for most Dominicans of Haitian descent, who have limited economic opportunity in the country because of their lack of documentation. As a result, only 8,755 of the tens of thousands of the Dominicans who qualified as Group B applied successfully to the Naturalization Plan, and even though we are 15 months past the application deadline, thousands of those 8,755 applicants have not received identity cards that allow them to live in the country legally.
What is the current situation in the country after Law 169-14 and the Naturalization Plan? What is happening for Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic?
Law 169-14 hasn’t fixed the problem of statelessness in the Dominican Republic. People in Group A on the JCE’s [audited] list can get their documentation, but those who aren’t can’t. I think there are more Dominicans of Haitian ancestry who are not on the list than who are, and if you aren’t then there’s very little you can do to get documentation. In some ways, the issue has continued in a more subtle way because now some people have documentation, but it’s [documentation that] doesn’t have a legal base that supports it; The JCE is putting people in a new civil registry, and suing in the courts to remove Dominicans of Haitian ancestry from the Civil Registry, so that they only remain in the second registry. And the second civil registry isn’t something that’s based in the law; it was created in the imagination of Roberto Rosario [the president of the Junta Central Electoral] because Law 169-14 doesn’t create this other registry. It’s essential to make Dominicans of Haitian ancestry understand that their documentation is fragile, that they need to have a copy of their documentation because it could disappear.
In addition, there’s another issue, which is that January 15 was the deadline to get your cédula [national idenity card] to register to vote. This is an election year, and all citizens who don’t have their cédulas won’t be on the voter rolls and won’t be able to exercise their right to vote. There are many people in Group A who received their documentation after January 15, so they aren’t eligible to participate in the electoral process. Not being able to vote is not their fault because it’s one thing to not get your cédula, but very different to have so many obstacles to get documentation as a Dominican of Haitian ancestry.
What are the other challenges that arose because of Law 169-14, and what can Dominican civil society do about it?
We are worried about people in Group B because the government has possibly taken away their right to be Dominican. Registering in Plan B of Law 169-14 doesn’t guarantee citizenship. Now, the challenge is whether the Dominican government will comply with its word and give nationality to those who registered. But also we want to know how. According to lawyers’ analyses, obtaining citizenship through the naturalization law will be practically impossible for those who registered in Group B because they have to present identification from their country of origin. What is the country of origin of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry who registered in Group B as foreigners? How can they show a passport? They don’t have an entry date, or a visa. They didn’t come from any other country! What will this process be?
The police detain you for having a suspicious profile. What is a suspicious profile? Black and disheveled, poorly dressed.
We are very worried, and right now no one wants to talk about the issue because the country was completely focused on elections. The state doesn’t want to talk about citizenship. Legislators won’t talk about it, not even if they’re running for office. In other countries, you see how candidates look to ingratiate themselves with minority sectors, but in the Dominican Republic it’s the opposite. Everything stays on the same official, nationalist line. Speaking about denationalization is like speaking about women’s rights or the LGBT community. People prefer not to touch the issues; it can make you lose supporters and votes. But we’re looking for ways to position citizenship to make it part of public discourse so candidates have to discuss the situation. A platform, Poletica, was recently created, which articulates demands of different groups, and citizenship is one of them. Our goal is to bring the issue into political discourse so we can ask candidates what they think and what are their proposals regarding this issue.
How is Reconoci.do involved with this work? Tell me a little about the organization and what your goals are right now.
Reconocido began with people who had documentation but were limited in their ability to use it. Now, we understand the need to engage people who are in Group B. We want to create a movement like Reconocido, or possibly within Reconocido, of people in Group B. They need a voice, because it’s not the same for me to stand and speak for them when they are not recognized by the Dominican state. We want to try to work with them to empower them, to help them create and articulate a new vision for themselves. It is difficult because people in Group B are extremely vulnerable—with fewer access to your rights your vulnerability increases. Not having documentation means access to education is very low, access to employment is very low. These are challenges faced down through generations, so one of our goals is to work with this group of people.
The mission of Reconocido isn’t just documentation, but completely integrating Dominicans of Haitian ancestry into Dominican society. We can have documentation and still suffer the effects of racial discrimination. We have to continue working to understand how our country is shaped and the effects of discrimination. Many people discriminate without even knowing it because they aren’t educated about the issue. They don’t understand that what they’re doing or saying is discriminatory. For many people, saying “Haitiano el diablo” [Devil Haitian] doesn’t mean anything. Or they say, “Mira, tu negrita.” When you complain, they’ll say, “No, it’s a term of endearment.” There can be terms of endearment but sometimes the way you say it can indicate discrimination more than affection.
When we learn to recognize that we aren’t just Spanish or African but a mix, we’ll be able to see the world from a different point of view.
The recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights spoke at length about structural discrimination in the Dominican Republic. And it isn’t discrimination only toward Dominicans of Haitian ancestry or Haitians specifically but more toward anything black. The police detain you for having a suspicious profile. What is a suspicious profile? Black and disheveled, poorly dressed. And what is poorly dressed? The issues of hair and blackness and buena presencia, they contradict the parameters of what we as Dominicans consider beautiful, or what is white. Whom do the Department of Migration agents detain in the street? Not the white person who appears American or European, but the black person that seems Haitian to them. There’s a pattern of discrimination in the Dominican Republic that unfortunately Dominicans aren’t aware of. We continue reproducing this discrimination in a spontaneous and natural way and it’s something we have to change.
I agree that combating racism in the country is very important, but this isn’t easy in any American country dealing with the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy. How can this be done in the Dominican Republic?
Effectively fighting racism in Dominican society begins with education. Principally, we need to recognize that we are part of a multiethnic society, a society that doesn’t have one perspective, one dimension, but rather has different roots within it. When we learn to recognize this, that we aren’t just Spanish or African but a mix, we’ll be able to see the world from a different point of view. It’s necessary to start this process, especially in the schools, because the schools are a space where they teach history that doesn’t allow us to value the contributions of our African culture and heritage.
Recognizing our African culture and heritage means understanding that people were enslaved, and that they fought for freedom. Today we can say that we are free—that slavery doesn’t exist—thanks to so many men and women who fought against slavery. This isn’t taught well in the schools, which doesn’t allow the people to see history with pride. It’s seen shamefully instead of with pride and valor that should motivate us to continue fighting to achieve more than what our ancestors achieved.
Before concluding, I want to return to the topic of elections because it’s something you’ve mentioned briefly twice, and I would like to hear more. What is the importance of these elections for Dominicans of Haitian descent?
Unfortunately, the JCE has insisted on limiting many Dominicans of Haitian ancestry’s access to documentation. But many politicians haven’t realized that the population of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry is large and those that can vote can determine candidacies and elections. We did a study looking at past elections when the winning candidate’s margin of victory was very small, in some instances with a difference of only one vote. In these communities, you can find more than two hundred Dominicans of Haitian ancestry of voting age. So imagine a community where you have two or three hundred voters of Haitian ancestry that can make the difference between first and second place in an election for mayor or deputy. What happens? Documentation is determinant. Because of this, I think that what we are experiencing as Dominicans of Haitian ancestry isn’t random; it’s related to this issue [voting]. The state has wanted to limit our ability and possibilities to aspire for office, but we need people to look after our rights. In the recent elections there were various Dominicans of Haitian ancestry who took the risk to run for office in different positions. When I read about the civil rights movements in the United States and South Africa—it wasn’t easy; no one said it would be easy—but blacks were claiming positions of power to represent their populations. We need Dominicans of Haitian ancestry openly recognizing who they are and holding public office, not only to represent their people, but also to represent all of Dominican society as Dominicans of Haitian origin who legislate to help those of Haitian ancestry. The movement for civil and political rights begins there.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English. It has been edited and condensed.