Human Rights and Tourism: Why I Will Not Visit the Dominican Republic

The Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic recently revoked the citizenship of one of the most influential Dominican politicians of the 20th century. Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez was a long serving mayor of Santo Domingo, and ran for the presidency numerous times, including the contested election of 1994 -- which he narrowly lost. Though he passed away in 1998, Dr. Peña Gómez left a strong legacy as a supporter of human rights, an advocate of the urban poor, and was the leader of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano -- historically the strongest opposition party in the country. Dr. Peña Gómez was also born to Haitian parents in the 1930's and therefore, due to a change in Dominican law, can technically no longer be considered a Dominican.

In late September, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic called for a review of all birth records in order to strip the citizenship of children who were born to non-registered foreign parents in the Dominican Republic after 1929. This ruling originated in the case of a young Haitian descendent -- born and raised in the DR -- who could not continue her academic studies due to her inability to receive the appropriate government documentation. There are articles that explain the extent of the citizenship ruling and what some of the possible consequences are for the estimated 200,000 to 500,000 people affected. None of the outcomes will be particularly good. There is a yet undetermined and unexplained pathway to citizenship for those caught in limbo, but it is hard to see how this will not result in the continued marginalization of primarily Haitian descendant Dominicans, or at the worst, mass deportations.

The Dominican Republic is a sovereign country with a right to legislate, and maintain a judiciary to interpret the constitution. The decision to revise the Dominican Constitution in 2010 to no longer grant birthright citizenship was unfortunate, but is the right of an independent government, and did not in my opinion warrant an international response. However, retroactively stripping the citizenship of generations of people who have contributed to the economy, built lives and started families in the Dominican Republic is intolerable.

I find it ironic that the same Dominican Government offers incentives for foreign investment in tourism and real estate. Foreign investors are granted exemption from income tax, local and municipal taxes, exemption from legally establishing a company, construction taxes, and a 50 percent exemption on property and mortgage taxes for 10 years. The Foreign Investments page on the website of the Ministry of Tourism even states, "You wouldn't be the first person who decided to stay". I have also heard some Dominicans in the United States wonder if this citizenship ruling will apply equally to the Dominican descendants of European immigrants, in contrast to the continued discrimination that Haitian Dominicans face.

However, no group of people has fought more, or will fight more for economic and racial equality in the Dominican Republic than Dominicans themselves. Most of the local Dominican community members who I have spoken with are against this ruling and supportive of their fellow compatriots. The Dominican media has actively followed the story and a group of protestors even confronted President Danilo Medina about the matter. Many immigrant groups were brought to the DR to work in agriculture when the Dominican economy was still based on farming -- before the tourism boom in the 1980's. In the past 30 years, thousands of Dominicans have left as immigrants to Puerto Rico, the mainland US, and Spain. They have at times faced similar anti-immigrant or racial discrimination (to my knowledge NYPD does not have a category for "moreno", "prieto" or "indio" when recording a 'stop and frisk').

As an American citizen, I also feel that it is important to examine the influence that United States foreign policy and international economic policy has had in both Haiti and the DR. United States military intervention, along with the adoption of economic austerity and trade liberalization during political or economic crisis is a reoccurring theme in the history of both countries. Agriculture is an important source of employment in Haiti, but many crops have become unprofitable due to the elimination of domestic trade barriers which allowed subsidized crops from the US to flood the Haitian market. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, former President Clinton even apologized for forcing subsidized Arkansas rice exports on the Haitian economy in the 1990's, realizing the harm it caused by exacerbating unemployment. These international trade policies have been a powerful push factor to send Haitians to work in the Dominican Republic. In addition to humanitarian issues, Americans should truly think of economic alternatives to Federal spending to subsidize agriculture.

I've wanted to visit the Dominican Republic as a tourist for years. The idea came to me when I worked for a community based organization in a predominantly Latino school in Washington, DC. There is large Dominican community in the area, and many of the parents and students look forward to their yearly summer trips back to the DR. I was playing as a musician in a merengue band at the time and one of the parents joked that I should take a trip if I liked Dominican culture so much. For now, this visit is no longer in my plans because the Dominican Government has decided to treat a group of its people in a manner that I can't ignore.

I'm not discussing my vacation plans as an exercise in narcissism or personally taking offense to laws in another country. I'm writing because tourism accounts for roughly 8 percent of the Dominican economy. I think it is important as a person of conscience, as the child of immigrants, and as a person of color to think twice before visiting the DR. Tourism might be the most effective tool for foreigners to condemn the actions of the Dominican Government. I sincerely hope this situation improves and that the Dominican Government will overturn this law. Because of my interest in 'merengue urbano', I would love to board a flight and land in Santo Domingo at the "Aeropeurto Internacional Las Américas-José Francisco Peña Gómez".