Does Focusing on Race in the Dominican Republic Impede Positive Change?

The Dominican Republic's September 2013 court ruling that stripped citizenship from over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry sparked deserved outrage. Media coverage and protests highlighted racism in the country to explain the discriminatory decision, and many used terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing" to describe the government's deportations last summer. There were also calls to reinstate citizenship for everyone affected by the court decision, which would have been a just response to the mass denationalization. Yet despite the rallies, the op-eds, the calls for boycotting Dominican tourism, and more, we are over two years past the court ruling, and all the attention has failed to bring about lasting change.

In the Dominican Republic, ultra-nationalist, bigoted power brokers exert undue pressure on moderate politicians, strengthening a widely accepted narrative that many Dominicans of Haitian ancestry are Haitian and not Dominican. The international community needs to acknowledge this political and social reality and understand that the Dominican government will not give citizenship to everyone in the country who is entitled to it. Commentators and activists who focus only on the racial component of exclusion and demand sweeping reform undermine the people and institutions working for a more just Dominican Republic: effecting change in the country will require understanding racism on the island, but also focusing on practical steps to help the Dominicans who are trying to make their country more inclusive.

Over the past two months, international media have overlooked important efforts that have pressured the Dominican government to better comply with its own citizenship laws. In December, U.S. Ambassador James Brewster and E.U. Ambassador Alberto Navarro threatened to oust Roberto Rosario from his presidency of the Junta Central Electoral, the government agency in charge of documentation. The ambassadors used their diplomatic clout because the JCE failed to comply with Law 169-14, created after the 2013 court ruling, which stipulated that 55,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry--categorized as Group A because they had received Dominican birth certificates--should receive full citizenship. In early January, Dominican civil society and international institutions met with government leaders to apply more pressure; afterward, the JCE committed to providing citizenship to the 55,000 people listed as Group A. Civil society organizations report that over the past month, hundreds of people who had struggled for years to obtain their identity documents and citizenship have been receiving them at local JCE offices. This is an important step in the right direction.

To be clear, there are still many obstacles that keep thousands of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry from obtaining their citizenship. First, some in Group A are still being denied documentation. Additionally, Law 169-14 categorizes people born in the Dominican Republic who never received a Dominican birth certificate as Group B. The denationalized in Group B--estimates run from a few tens of thousands to over 150,000 people--had to register in the government's byzantine and expensive Naturalization Plan to avoid threatened deportation; only 8,755 did so successfully, and the government is temporarily categorizing them as Haitian during a two-year waiting period before their citizenship supposedly will be recognized by the state. Nationwide, tens of thousands of people in Group A and Group B are at risk of never getting their Dominican citizenship because of these government shortcomings.

The complex situation makes the actions of Dominican civil society and Ambassadors Brewster and Navarro regarding Group A commendable: they focused on results, and their strategic pressure could produce documentation and citizenship for many thousands of people. These advances, and the limitations that come with them, point toward steps civil society and international institutions should take to effect lasting change.

First, civil society needs to consistently follow up with members of Group A to make sure they receive their documents, and apply pressure--with diplomatic help if necessary--to make sure the JCE complies with Law 169-14. Civil society must also identify everyone in Group B to ensure that over the next few years, these Dominicans obtain their citizenship. Urgent action should be taken to better report abuses by military and police, who are not held accountable for rampant extortion of the under-documented and undocumented.

While these immediate steps are essential, in the long-term, civil society and international institutions must help Dominicans create a more inclusive country. Dominicans of Haitian descent--who often come from marginalized, impoverished barrios and bateyes--need help overcoming the numerous barriers that prevent them from getting an education and finding work beyond the informal agriculture and construction economies. The organization I co-founded, Yspaniola, is focused on this key outcome: supporting Dominicans from marginalized communities and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry so they can receive a quality education, graduate from university, and be advocates for themselves, their families, and their communities. Beyond improving educational access, educators and policy-makers need to strengthen the country's education system, which consistently ranks as one of the worst in the world, and to create curricula and programs that emphasize inclusivity and tolerance. Finally, despite the setbacks that resulted from strategic litigation after 2000, lawsuits on behalf of Dominicans being denied documentation could someday be successful when the country's social and political institutions have changed, and when improved rule of law, due process, and accountability for Dominican government institutions would make a court ruling enforceable.

There are no easy fixes to the citizenship and human rights challenges on Hispaniola, especially if Haiti's economic situation does not improve and migrants continue heading to the Dominican Republic for work. But there are steps to be taken beyond lamenting the racism in the country. The international community, intergovernment institutions, philanthropists, and foundations would do well to find and support organizations that are focusing on solutions. These solutions should be informed by race and racial politics, but if all we can do is talk about racism in the Dominican Republic, we will never see or support the people who are working to combat it.