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Venezuela, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic: A Depiction of Border and Race Dynamics

Food shortages. Violent protests. People running out of medicine. The collapse of the middle class. These stories dominate the news coming out of Venezuela, a country in a state of crisis following its economic crash, extreme hyperinflation, and borderline civil war with two rival politicians claiming to be the legitimate president. Similar stories flew out of Haiti, the nation taking up the western side of the island of Hispaniola (or Quisqueya, in the pre-colonial Taino language), following a massive earthquake in 2010.

The UN estimated in March 2019 that 94% of Venezuelans are living in poverty, unable to buy or even find basics such as food and medical supplies. The dire situation has led to a mass exodus, as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that around 4.5 million Venezuelans (15% of the population) have left their country since the crisis heightened with the 2015 drop in oil prices. Around 3 million of these migrants have migrated to Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Haiti’s long history of crippling foreign debt, corrupt governance, and widespread poverty came to a boiling point in 2010. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake with an epicenter 16 miles from the capital of Port-au-Prince caused at least 52 aftershocks, 100-160 thousand casualties, and destroyed up to 90% of all structures in affected towns, resulting in approximately $8 billion in damages. Adding to the disaster, poor sanitary conditions and water contamination believed to be brought in by UN Peacekeepers deployed to the country led to the deadliest modern Cholera outbreak, killing nearly 10,000 people. Despite the extent of the crisis, as of 2012, only an estimated 43% of pledged aid had been delivered for recovery. Only a small portion (as low as 1%) of international humanitarian aid was given directly to the Haitian government or Haitian organizations; most was delivered to foreign contractors.

Border crossing between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Haitians cross the border to participate in the binational market. (European Union)

The Dominican Republic (DR) is a meeting point for these two humanitarian crises, and the subsequent influx of migrants and refugees. While the response of the Dominican government to both populations has been unwelcoming in terms of visa and asylum processes and social support, the societal integration of Venezuelan arrivals in a very short period of time, compared to the historically hostile treatment of Haitians, is staggering and merits analysis.

Two Stories of Arrival and Integration

The Dominican Republic has served as a receiving country for thousands of people, many refugees, and eligible asylum seekers, fleeing the conditions in both Haiti and Venezuela. However, the conditions of their arrivals often differ enormously. Haitians are largely considered economic migrants, rather than refugees, while it is generally recognized that Venezuelan migrants are forced to do so, rather than willing to. Venezuelans arrive by plane; Haitians by foot. Until December 2019, Venezuelans could enter the DR without obtaining a visa prior to their arrival; they were only required to pay for a 30-day tourist card upon entering the country and pay a fee upon exiting for overstaying it.

Compared to Haitian migrants, Venezuelan early arrivals encountered relatively easier systems of entry and integration. Many could open bank accounts in a limited number of banks, allowing them to find employment, and register on health insurance plans. Many Venezuelans have achieved higher skilled and paid jobs similar to middle- and upper-sectors of the Dominican economy, including as teachers, psychologists, and IT specialists. They are, however, often contracted on a part-time or informal basis, leading to lower wages and fewer benefits than those of Dominican counterparts. People of Haitian descent, on the other hand, have contributed to the DR’s rapid economic growth over the past decades and continue to sustain the economy by providing labor to the agriculture sector, historically, and more recently in construction and commerce. Persons of Haitian descent or direct Haitian migrants largely work for lower wages and protections due to their informal documentation and/or employment status.

In contrast, most Haitians cross the 224-mile land border into the DR by foot, often under the watchful eye of military personnel prepared to negotiate their entry for cash. Along some border communities, such as Dajabón, Dominican military personnel allow cross-border movement without visas or passports, assuming those crossing intend only to spend the day on the Eastern side to sell their goods (often deriving from foreign donations). If migrants attempt to leave border communities to move further into the country, they risk getting caught at one of the many military checkpoints along all roads leaving from the border. In order to enter the DR legally, Haitians are required to receive a physical visa from a Dominican consulate in Haiti prior to crossing the border. These visas are not easy to come by and those that are able to obtain them often face prohibitive costs to renew their visas annually. Even Haitians with legal residency in the Dominican Republic, and Dominicans of Haitian descent whose families have lived in the DR for several generations, face attempts to revoke their residency and citizenship.

A change in the DR’s constitution in 2010 and subsequent ruling by the Constitutional Court in 2013 reinterpreted the definitions of nationality in the country, establishing that all individuals born in the DR after 1929 to parents without legal residency in the country were not entitled to Dominican citizenship, as they were born while their parents were “in transit” in the country based on current legal interpretations. Because of the change and ruling, hundreds of thousands of individuals, primarily of Haitian descent had their citizenship annulled. Activists, international human rights organizations, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the ruling as a violation of the right to nationality and as discriminatory against Dominicans of Haitian descent.

This is the bridge that works as the official entry point at the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the largest border crossing. (European Union)

Beyond legal and migratory policy differences, the Dominican people have overwhelmingly welcomed the Venezuelan newcomers. This is in stark contrast to centuries of disdain towards people of Haitian descent that occurs regularly on the streets and in public transit, as well as in more formal settings such as the workplace and in the government. Barriers to education for Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants are fueled by documentation requirements for school enrollment, verbal and physical abuse, and the representations of Haiti and blackness in textbooks. As this is fundamentally discrimination based on race, not nationality, it is important to note that not only people of direct Haitian descent receive such treatment, but also dark-skinned Dominicans.

Perhaps the most palpable evidence of disparity is right in Dominicans’ palate. Venezuelan cuisine has become a staple in Dominican towns, skyrocketing past “trendy foreign food” status to being a commonly requested lunch or dinner option. “Arepas” (corn flour-based breads), “chachapas” (sweet corn flour pancakes), and “empanadas venezolanas” (fried corn flour turnovers) are common lingo now, served everywhere from tables on sidewalks to trendy food trucks and storefront restaurants. By contrast, there is only one well-known Haitian restaurant in all of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital (I use my personal experience of having lived in the country for 1.5 years to support this point).

The Disparity’s Historical Roots

The Haitian-Dominican relationship is a much longer and complicated one than that of Venezuela and the DR. Indeed, Haitians have been migrating to and integrating in the DR for centuries. The Dominican Republic gained independence from Spain in 1821. Seeking stability following years of economic decline in the colony, stagnant population growth, and their split from Europe, Dominicans considered joining Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia) or Haiti, with many favoring Haiti and its unifying 2nd president, Jean-Pierre Boyer. Haiti had recently achieved the world’s only successful slave rebellion from France, but were indebted to compensate for the former slave owners’ losses. Thus, for Boyer, unifying the island meant expanding and maintaining the freedom of the former slaves, as well as a much-needed opportunity for economic growth.

Though Boyer’s integration of the island under one government has been described as peaceful and productive, having “not come into this city [Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital] as a conqueror but by the will of its inhabitants,” many modern Dominicans still define this time as the “Haitian invasion,” an attempted annexation by the former French slave nation for complete control of the island. The national Dominican Independence Day is celebrated on February 27th, the day in 1844 when the East side of the island gained independence back from Haiti. This is unlike all other Latin American countries’ independence days, which mark their split from their colonizers, Spain, the UK, Portugal, or the Netherlands.

Haitian-Dominican relations have not eased since the re-division of the island. During dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship from 1930 to 1961, he strived for a national identity based on European descent, beginning with his own family history; Spanish-European roots, rather than French-European. The most violent display of anti-Haitian sentiment came in October 1937, when Trujillo ordered and oversaw the killing of an estimated 12 to 20 thousand people of Haitian birth and descent, an event nicknamed the Parsley Massacre as many Haitians were identified by their accented pronunciation of the word “perejil,” or parsley in Spanish. Little to no reparations for this six-day genocide have been attempted.

A national identity based on skin color

These centuries-old tensions, along with colonial notions of beauty and power integrated within the national mind frame, have produced a national dilemma regarding race and skin color in the eastern island nation. As Sheridan Weddington noted, in the eyes of the populace, if you are dark-skinned or “moreno,” you are not considered to be truly Dominican; you are Haitian. The words “immigrant,” “foreigner,” and “Haitian” have similarly merged into one. Dominicans without direct Haitian roots identify as “Indian,” or Taino (the native peoples of the island, most of whom either died or inter-married at the time of colonization), therein claiming their European roots as well; a perfect hybrid of indigenous and European.

Venezuelans are perceived on the opposite side of the skin color scale: though generally mestizo mixes of Spanish colonists and native peoples, most Venezuelans are perceived by others and themselves as “white.” This national image has been globally deployed by the predominantly light-skinned actors in Venezuelan telenovelas (soap operas). Venezuela also holds a rich immigrant history. The country is home to people of Lebanese to Croatian and Chinese descent, differentiating them further from blackness or Afro-descendance. Afro-Venezuelans make up 3.4% of the population.

The discord in treatment of these racially-different migrant populations is just another in a global string of populist-leaning governments prioritizing migrant “skill” and “societal burden,” thinly veiling their racist priorities. Trump’s most recent migration plans favor highly-skilled migrants who speak English and preferably hold PhDs in their field, leading to the majority of eligible people originating from European nations, or socioeconomically privileged situations. Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit policy is shaped on the same principle, creating an even tighter sample group among EU citizens who may be eligible. These policies ignore the importance of varied skillsets to sustain a varied economy. Haitians and Venezuelans both bring skillsets to the Dominican economy: Haitians are involved in more low-skilled labor that allows for infrastructure and agricultural development, and Venezuelans bring white-collar skills and experience. Immigrant participation in the Dominican economy has not been shown to lower wages or have a large effect on job opportunities for native-born workers. Migrants of Haitian origin or descent have the highest rates of active economic involvement: 77% are actively involved, compared to 53% among migrants of other origins.

More and more, concepts of borders, gatekeepers, and migration in the era of globalization and mass global crises have become linked to conceptions of race, nationality, and economic status; who “belongs,” who is welcomed, and who is not. In the case of the border cutting the island of Hispaniola, centuries of migration have been met with sustained economic discrimination based on race. While the Dominican government has not maintained an unrestricted policy for Venezuelans fleeing poverty and scarcity, it is undeniable that this group of recent migrants have received a more welcome embrace from Dominican society than that received by the DR’s immediate neighbors. In an environment where two humanitarian crises have merged, doors are only open to some.