Stateless Dominicans?

This past Tuesday (October 29), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) requested that the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) examine the recent decision of the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court that stripped thousands of their right to Dominican citizenship.

The ruling threatens to deprive the descendants of foreign nationals —the lion’s share of whom are of Haitian descent—of their nationality. It also poses a serious threat to the economy of the Dominican Republic given that the thousands of Haitian immigrants and their children currently living and working in the Dominican Republic make up a large and important portion of the Dominican labor force.

Dominican businesses benefit from cheap labor, provided by people looking to escape poverty. Because an estimated 80 percent of Haiti’s population lives in absolute poverty, many are willing to accept the $4 per day wages offered by Dominican businesses. As a result, Dominican coffee growers employ more than twice as many Haitians as Dominicans.

Despite a lack of conclusive evidence that Haitian immigrants depress the incomes of unskilled Dominican natives, nationalist tensions between the Haitians and Dominicans have intensified in recent years. These tensions are believed to be the driving force behind the Court’s September ruling.

What are the political and economic implications for the Dominican Republic and the now stateless Dominican-Haitians?

Q1: What are the roots of the tensions between the two countries?

A1: The present day tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, principally nationalist in nature, date back to the colonial era.

The Spaniards colonized the eastern half of the island, with the French taking control of the west. The different economic paths followed by the two rival colonies resulted in distinct demographic patterns: the French colony, a major sugar producer, was heavily populated by African slaves. The Spanish side, in contrast, was inhabited primarily by people of mixed race, who dwarfed the black population in number.

Racial demographics are, to some extent, central to these early tensions.

Then, in 1822, Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic, occupying the entire island of Hispaniola for 22 years. Already on the rise, anti-Haitian sentiment skyrocketed when Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer attempted to secure his control through policies that aimed to suppress Hispanic culture.

Though the Dominican Republic had regained its independence in 1844 and fought off continued invasion attempts for the next 11 years, the conflict reached new levels of violence in 1937, when Dominican president Rafael Trujillo ordered an attack on Haitian immigrants living in the border region. Over 20,000 Haitians were massacred.

The new ruling from the Dominican Constitutional Court, then, continues a long and storied history of tensions between the two countries—tensions that remain central to Haitian-Dominican relations.

Q2: Why do Haitians continue to immigrate eastward?

A2: By and large, Haitians move eastward because of poor living conditions at home.
With a weak government prone to internal power struggles and among the poorest economies in the world, Haitian infrastructure and social services are lacking—and were only damaged more by the catastrophic earthquake of 2010. Despite the country’s troubles, the Haitian population continues to grow at a rapid pace, further straining the country’s ability to sustain the status quo.

While Haiti’s labor force is huge, jobs are far from plentiful. Though the government continuously seeks greater international investment, more than two-thirds of the Haitian labor force remain unable to find jobs in the formal sector. Of those, 40 percent are unemployed, and the rest are undercutting the formal sector’s potential by turning to informal activities.

The extremely limited economic opportunities—coupled with low standards of living, with most Haitians living on less than US$1.25 per day—have prompted many Haitians to seek work in the Dominican Republic, with most immigrants and their descendants working in Dominican sugar, coffee, and cocoa plantations, construction, and the domestic sector.

Q3: Why does the Constitutional Court’s ruling matter, and what are its likely implications?

A3: The United Nations defines nationality as one of the most basic human rights, and it is this issue that is most central to this new controversy.

Last month’s ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court deprives the children of undocumented immigrants of this right—and, subsequently, of access to the social services they would be entitled to as citizens: health care, employment, and education. Moreover, it makes these stateless individuals vulnerable to exploitation.

In addition to complicating the political situation in the Dominican Republic, the ruling will also give rise to major economic challenges. Without Haitian immigrants and their descendants, the Dominican Republic faces the prospect of massive labor shortages in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors.

The Haitian labor force has provided the needed cheap labor to sustain Dominican agriculture. Haitian labor has also proven pivotal in other sectors of the Dominican economy—among them commerce, construction, and tourism—given their demand for low-cost labor.

While many Dominicans accuse Haitian workers of taking jobs away from native Dominicans, these immigrants and their children often accept hazardous, poorly compensated positions that Dominican employers struggle to fill.

And even if the Haitian labor force, by providing cheap labor, has kept wage rates low, the industries they fuel—and, as a result, Dominican productivity—would suffer without them. These Dominican industries are able to compete in the global economy in part because of low production costs. An exodus of Haitian labor would only jeopardize the Dominican Republic’s prosperity moving forward.

Conclusion: Although many in the international community have condemned the ruling, it cannot be appealed. The Dominican Republic now faces the political challenge of figuring out what will become of the 210,000 Dominican-born people of Haitian descent—who, according to Dominican law, are now neither Haitian nor Dominican citizens. While members of the government have pointed out that this group can still apply for Haitian citizenship through jus sanguinis, critics counter that most lack ties to Haiti, or even speak the language. For many, living in Haiti is not a realistic option.

Ultimately, this ruling has only highlighted what was already clear: there is a real need for a comprehensive Dominican state policy to deal with its relationship with Haiti—and such a policy will only prove successful if its underpinning addresses the challenges and opportunities the two countries face moving forward.

Though their relationship has long been one characterized by tension and hostility, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have too much in common—and, thus, too much to lose—to remain at odds. Their shared development, economic, and security concerns, among others, are key to the two countries’ future cooperation.

The situation is in many ways analogous to our ongoing debate over Mexican immigration here in the United States. As with our relationship with Mexico, if the Dominican government hopes to move forward in its relations with its closest neighbor, it cannot avoid retooling its perspective.
By focusing on the countries’ interdependence and the prosperity both stand to gain should they cooperate, Dominicans and Haitians face a real opportunity. Will they seize it?

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Laura Solano, intern scholar with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Carl Meacham