Yole Derose, one of the most beloved folk singers in Haiti, wrote a song called "Koupe Kann" ("Cutting Sugar Cane").
"Cutting sugar cane. You’re going to cut sugar cane. I’d rather much you cut sugar cane here at home. But they don’t want you to stay here. They sold you like an animal."
A woman pining for a lover sold into the Dominican bateyes (sugar cane plantations). I was young and couldn’t grasp the depth of her lyrics but the melancholy in her voice conveyed pain. Decades later, that song is more relevant than ever.
By now you’ve heard of the long-standing conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It’s complicated, steeped in a tense and at times bloody history, but it’s not new. There are several films that can assist in getting some understanding of the situation. Movies that dissect 1) the issue, 2) its origins, and 3) the events that triggered the spate of deportations.
1. The Issue: "The Price of Sugar"; "Birthright Crisis"; "Purgatorio"
In a briefing on Capitol Hill in 2011, human rights laureate, the late Sonia Pierre, recalled the case of a 9 year old girl who was kidnapped from tourist destination Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic. The 9 year old was raped and murdered by a 53 year old man. Her blood soaked clothing was retrieved from the murderer’s home. Her younger brother witnessed the horror and at 5 years old, was able to identify the murderer. Her mother was unable to secure her birth certificate. A judge ruled that since there was no birth certificate, the victim did not exist. Her murderer went free.
This is statelessness.
“They are not Haitian. They are not Dominican. Under the law, they do not exist,” says a sugar cane cutter in the documentary "The Price of Sugar." Within the first thirty minutes of the film, we bear witness to human trafficking at the border between the two countries. Under the cover of darkness, Haitians are lured to the border with promises of good paying jobs, stripped of their Haitian documents, then loaded onto trucks and taken to the bateyes to cut sugar cane. The bateyes are plantations, much like the ones in the U.S. during slavery. Those who work the land in the bateyes are subject to arrest and deportation anywhere in the Dominican Republic, except on the plantation. Plantation owners provide living quarters, makeshift shacks with bunk beds. Workers are paid in vouchers which can only be used at the plantation-owned store to purchase marked up goods. They are beaten, malnourished, mistreated and receive no healthcare. They no longer have their Haitian documents and officially, they do not exist.
The film goes on to chronicle a near ten-year battle for bateyes workers to get some basic human rights. With the help of priest Christopher Hartley, whose life was threatened on numerous occasions, the workers scored some victories. A food center opened to provide meals. Some doctors arrived to assist with urgent medical cases. Nevertheless, children born in the bateyes begin work in the fields at an early age. Generations of people have been born and have lived in those conditions.
"Look around and you will see cane that has been fertilized by the blood of Haitian men," says Christopher Hartley in the documentary. Indeed, the Dominican Republic has a thriving sugar industry, thanks to a lucrative preferential deal with the United States. According to the film, the U.S. imports sugar from the Dominican Republic more than any other country. The film focuses primarily on plantations owned by the Vicini family, one of the biggest plantation owners in the Dominican Republic, powerful members of the elite who seemingly own everything including media outlets. This last tidbit is important as it explains how they spread anti-Haitian propaganda and so called nationalism to pit poor Dominicans against even poorer Haitians.
Initially, the Dominican constitution did grant citizenship to anyone born on Dominican soil (jus soli), except those born in transit, a term generally reserved for those in the country for ten days or less. Over the years, through a series of administrative and court rulings, the terms “in transit” were redefined to mean anyone who entered the country illegally. “In transit” was further refined to mean anyone who entered the Dominican Republic illegally.
So this crisis is not new. The short documentary "Birthright Crisis" makes that evident from the outset. Produced by Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, the film explains why the same conflict we are witnessing today flared up years ago. In 2004, two mothers sued on behalf of their minor children (Jean and Bosico) who were denied birth certificates. In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that the Dominican Republic violated international laws, ordered it to issue a public apology and to reform its birth registration system. The country refused to comply.
That same year, two Haitians were wrongfully accused of killing a Dominican couple. The violent retaliations were swift and merciless. Three were burned alive. One was decapitated. Tens of thousands were dragged and thrown across the border into Haiti. At the end of the film is a concise timeline explaining further what has occurred since then:
- 2005, After the Jean and Bosico case, the Dominican Supreme Court ruled that children of migrants are not eligible for citizenship.
- 2007, The Electoral Commission began applying the law retroactively, using it to seize birth certificates of citizens.
- 2010, The Dominican constitution was revised to deny citizenship to anyone born of undocumented parents.
- 2011, The Dominican Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to de-nationalize citizens and thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent became effectively stateless.
- 2013, The Constitutional Court stripped citizenship from all immigrants born to undocumented parents since 1929.
That’s right, 1929. Four generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent lost their nationality after the ruling.
Since September 2013, the Dominican government has stepped up its efforts to physically remove Dominicans of Haitian descent from the country. Dominicans of Haitian descent have been persecuted, beaten and killed with impunity. I made a short narrative fiction titled "Purgatorio" about a year and a half ago. The aim was to bring attention to this looming crisis before it was too late. In the film, Rosa Jean-Louis, a Dominican of Haitian descent is unceremoniously stripped of her documents and deported to Haiti. Rosa received some semblance of due process. Countless others do not.
Last year, Haitian-American actor Jimmy Jean-Louis ("Heroes", "Extant", "Toussaint Louverture") wrote an essay detailing his experience in the Dominican Republic. He was there on business and was stopped at every turn. On countless occasions, Jimmy was forced to “show his papers” and prove he had the right to be in the country. It was a very frustrating experience for him. It is a deadly one for others.
2. The origins: PBS’ "Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided"; "Haitian Revolution: Toussaint Louverture"
“ … the Dominican Republic’s elite has a tendency to want to whitetify their heroes,” says a Dominican anthropologist in the PBS piece narrated by Henry Louis Gates. If you’ve seen any image of Sammy Sosa lately, you’ll understand the disdain some Dominicans have for their African heritage. Of course, skin bleaching is not unique to the Dominican Republic. What is peculiar is some Dominicans’ blind allegiance to the Spanish that colonized them. The PBS segment shows the stark contrast between these neighboring nations - one embracing its African heritage, the other choosing its Spanish colonizers instead. It gets into the island’s complex and nuanced history. From Christopher Columbus and enslaved Africans brought to cut sugar cane, to Spanish rule on one side of the island, and French on the other.
When the sugar cane trade shifted to other colonies, the Spanish began cattle ranching in the Dominican Republic while the French continued their sugar cane trade. Cattle ranching was a less brutal form of slavery and allowed enslaved Africans and masters to ride horses side by side. Eventually, the Spanish left and that part of the island became independent. Though the Dominican Republic had claimed its independence, the Haitian side, having defeated Napoleon’s army, advanced into Santo Domingo, took over and occupied it for over twenty years. Psychologically, Dominicans never recovered from this. The PBS segment does not explain why Haiti took over, though some historians say that it was out of fear that the colonizers would return as they had done before.
When the Dominicans pushed the Haitians out, they rejected anything Black, Haitian and African. Anti-Haitian sentiment was taught everywhere and successive governments reinforced it. The racism against the ‘Blacker” side of the island was spurred on by the its colonial heritage.
The most notorious anti-Haitian president, happened to be a man of Haitian descent himself. In 1937, Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of anyone who looked Haitian (i.e. who was Black) and couldn’t roll their 'r's and pronounce the word perejil as a native Spanish speaker would. Fifteen thousand people were slaughtered.
"Haitian Revolution: Toussaint Louverture" has a singular subject: Toussaint. Ironically, during the French colonization, enslaved Africans endured a brutal plantation system yet the country was the crown jewel of France, the most prosperous of the colonies, the pearl of the Antilles. All of that changed when Toussaint Louverture led the uprising. It was brutal, bloody and necessary. Eventually, Toussaint was tricked, arrested and died in a French prison. When the French attempted to take over again, Dessalines was the one who fought them and gained the country’s final independence in 1804. Of course, Haiti paid for this dearly. From having to pay over $1 billion in reparations to France, to the U.S and European countries refusing to acknowledge its existence, out of fear that slaves from around the world would follow suit.
After 1804, everything that was a reminder of slavery was rejected and destroyed, including the plantation system, the sugar/indigo industry, and even the coffee industry. As a consequence, Haiti suffered through a series of economic embargoes, blockades and U.S. occupations. It never stood a chance.
Unsurprisingly, Haitians headed to the neighboring Dominican Republic seeking more stability. Ironically, Haitians rejected anything that reminded us of sugar cane plantations in Haiti, yet we went to the neighboring Dominican Republic in great numbers to basically work as slaves on sugar cane plantations.
3. The triggering event(s) for this latest spate of deportations: "Deadly Assistance"; "Lakay"; "Chronique d’Une Catastrophe Annoncee"
So now in 2015, why are there mass deportations and violence against Dominicans of Haitian descent again? That’s a complicated question. Different sources will give you different answers, but it’s been on the horizon for some time. Still, some say the Dominican Republic wanted to protect itself from an influx of Haitians after the 2010 earthquake.
Raoul Peck’s documentary “Fatal Assistance” puts the earthquake front and center. Though the film’s singular focus is the disappearance of over half a billion dollars in aid that was meant for quake victims, it still goes into the heart of Port-au-Prince and shows not just the torn down buildings and the loss of life, but also the staggering number of NGOs (nearly 10, 000) that set up camp in Haiti. Long before the viral NPR and ProRata articles on the Red Cross and its whopping six houses, Raoul Peck had denounced aid organizations and politicians for mismanaging monies meant for quake victims.
“Lakay" is a documentary that takes us into Port-au-Prince in the days following the earthquake. The film follows two brothers who head to Haiti in search of their loved ones. Director Tirf Alexius narrates as he walks the familiar streets of Port-au-Prince, visits hospitals and torn down buildings. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when the filmmakers arrive in tent city and discover a makeshift daycare where children dance, play games and sing. In the midst of chaos, it’s the only place where these children can be children.
"Chronique d’Une Catastrophe Annoncee" is another fantastic short film that depicts the moments immediately after the earthquake. Director Arnold Antonin narrates and describes buildings collapsing like houses of cards. He zooms in on a wall spray painted with the words "200, 000 deaths. The results of the criminal negligence of all of our leaders for the past 50 years." Port-au-Prince in the days immediately after the quake was a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but as always, Haitians are resilient. Our Dominican neighbors were the first on the scene to help those in distress. Of note, the filmmaker himself took part in a discussion years before the earthquake to remind Haitians that the country was vulnerable to a major earthquake similar to the one that destroyed one of our major cities two centuries ago. The film ends on a hopeful note, that perhaps this catastrophe is Haiti’s opportunity to start over and get it right.
Be sure to complement these films with essays from acclaimed writers Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz (who has been labeled a traitor and has received death threats). Both have weighed in on these issues extensively. None of the films mentioned makes reference to labor agreements signed between the two countries, which were lucrative for the elites, but fly in the face of international laws and leave vulnerable Black bodies in limbo and without recourse. None of them discuss people like Jacques Viau, a staunch supporter of equal rights for Dominicans of Haitian descent or politicians like the late Pena Gomez, a Dominican of Haitian descent who is one of the most prominent Dominican political figures of the 20th century. None discuss the Inter American Court of Human Rights’ finding of numerous human rights violations in the Dominican Republic. None bring up the anti-Haitian propaganda leading to mass hysteria, causing some Dominicans to wrongfully fear an impending Haitian invasion, and warning them of the consequences of “Haitianizing” their country.
Ultimately, this is not just a conflict between two countries. Blackness and Afro-Latino identity, immigration rights, due process, human rights, indeed the right to exist, are all on trial.
"Cutting sugar cane. You’re going to cut sugar cane. I’d rather much you cut sugar cane here at home. But they don’t want you to stay here. They sold you like an animal. If only you knew how much I hurt when I see what Blacks do to other Blacks. It’s worse than the Whites of yore.”
Martine Jean is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter at @MelangeMedia.