Issue Date: September 15, 2006
The shadow of Trujillo
By JOHN J. McLAUGHLIN
In a town called Liberty, in the Dominican Republic, a sinister past is being resurrected.
Yuly Ramírez Estafa, born there in 1984, found herself ensnared by the shadow of that past last year, and has yet to slip completely free. Yuly is an attractive, reserved woman with her mothers smooth cheeks and tireless work ethic. When shes not studying to finish high school, she helps run a womens cooperative and enjoys experimenting with new braids for her sisters hair.
Before dawn on May 13, 2005, she and approximately 700 other residents of her community, Batey Libertad, were arrested without warning, thrown into military trucks and transported at gunpoint to a nearby prison. Many of the detained were Haitian immigrants, some with visas, some without. Many others were, like Yuly, legal Dominican citizens, children or grandchildren of Haitian immigrants, entitled to full nationality through jus soli. Yuly was one of 13 Dominican students arrested, despite the fact that she presented her cédula (national ID) to the soldiers. As this document was destroyed before her eyes and the soldiers broke down door after tin-shack door, she was told that it was time for her to go back to Haiti.
Yuly, preparing to finish 11th grade at the time, was guilty of a terrible crime in the eyes of the Dominican government: Black and poor, she has the audacity to claim the rights of citizenship that the Dominican constitution guarantees her.
Forty-five years ago, on May 30, 1961, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, one of the most brutal dictators Latin America has known, was assassinated in the capital city of Ciudad Trujillo (the erstwhile Santo Domingo, renamed to please El Jefe). His death ended a 31-year reign, which began shortly after U.S. Marines concluded their first invasion (and eight-year occupation) of this country and groomed Trujillo to lead the newly established National Guard. Upon his death, the capital regained its former name, as did many towns, streets, even mountains; Yulys fathers community of Batey San Rafael, founded during Trujillos reign and thus with no name to which to revert, opted for freedom, Libertad.
Reality has never quite lived up to the name, however. Residents in this community -- originally created in 1957 as a work camp to quarantine Haitian braceros (sugar cane workers) -- have never been free from poverty or systemic negligence. Since the vast majority of them are, like Yuly, dark-skinned, they have never been free from blunt, institutionalized racism, a policy that has shifted subtly over the years, but that still bears the mark of Trujillo.
About 50 miles from here, a river once flowed with blood. Since the earliest days of his presidency, Trujillo, who was known to powder his face to whiten it, was obsessed with the so-called Haitian threat. He institutionalized a racist historical amnesia, creating the official label of Indian for Dominicans to distinguish them from Haitians, who were black. In October 1937, under the pretext that he was defending the patria against an invasion of poor black Haitian peasants, Trujillo ordered up his own pogrom based on the parsley test. He sent soldiers to the border region with bayonets, machetes and sprigs of parsley, with orders to ask, Whats this? If the answer of perejil lacked a sufficiently trilled r and aspirated j to prove Spanish as their native tongue and thus their Dominican-ness, they were hacked to death. Blades were used to give the impression that Dominican peasants had acted in self-defense. In one months time, between 12,000 and 25,000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent -- many of whom had lived in the region for generations -- were slaughtered, their bodies dumped into the border river known as Rio Masacre. Like his contemporaries Hitler and Stalin, Trujillo employed this massacre to build domestic political capital by demonstrating his unassailable power and to establish terror as the cornerstone of his regime. And it worked: Though the incident caused international scandal, it barely merited a peep in the Dominican press.
In May 2005, in the wake of an alleged murder of a Dominican woman by a Haitian man in the northwestern town of Hatillo Palma, some sectors of Dominican society publicly called for the second Dominicanization of the border. The army raided communities throughout the Cibao and border region, including Batey Libertad. All told, more than 3,000 Haitian immigrants were repatriated; in addition, at least 50 Dominican citizens -- including Yuly -- were deported because they appeared to be Haitian.
Relatively speaking, Yuly was one of the lucky ones. She knew her cédula number by heart, and with the help of a Jesuit-run nongovernmental organization, she was able to secure a copy of her ID and return home. Her picture appeared on the front page of a major Dominican daily, and her story, at least for that day, was known.
Certain sectors of Dominican society, however, including the current government, would like to kick Yuly out again. And not just her.
The alleged murder in Hatillo Palma served merely as a pretext to hurry up a massive deportation campaign that was already in the works. President Leonel Fernández, less than a year into his second term at the time, has played the Trujillista card of the Haitian scapegoat to great effect throughout his presidency. Though his tactics have been denounced by international organizations, few domestic officials have offered any resistance.
On Aug. 15, 2004, the day before Fernández reassumed the presidency, outgoing president Hipólito Mejia approved a new migration law that effectively disenfranchised all descendants of undocumented Haitian immigrants. Previously, the constitution guaranteed full citizenship to all persons born on Dominican soil via jus soli; the only exception was for children of people in transit: diplomats, airline crews and Haitian braceros. The new law strangled jus soli by casting the net of in transit over all undocumented immigrants, whether or not they were braceros -- untold thousands of Haitians whose dirt-cheap labor props up the Dominican economy.
This racist law is not retroactive. If it were, Yuly would suddenly be a non-citizen, since her grandparents were undocumented immigrants generations ago. But in effect, her citizenship is in flux, as last years raids and this years elections prove. Yulys return home last year was easy because she carried her documents in hand. Thousands of other deportees lacking papers were forced to fork over life savings, either for new work visas or to smugglers who trucked them back to the Dominican Republic. Some of this money is inevitably pocketed by Dominican military and migration officials, who turn a blind eye to the constant stream of immigrants coming across the border -- until its time to conduct the next raid or run for office.
During the recent midterm election campaign, Yuly saw candidates from all major parties visit her humble community. All promised the same thing: a better life -- schooling, health care, sanitation -- for all Dominican citizens, including her.
But now that the elections have passed, Yuly knows that Trujillos shadow will cover her once again. I was Dominican for a few months, to them, she said, shaking her head. But now Im Haitian. And thats how Ill be for a while. Thats the business of life here.
John J. McLaughlin is the director of Education Across Borders in Seattle, which works with Haitian and Dominican communities in the Dominican Republic.
National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006
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