Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column
Editor’s Note: November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We will address this issue in next week’s column.
Last week’s column by Dominican economist Miguel Ceara-Hatton addressed the controversial September 23 ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic, which threatens to strip citizenship status from hundreds of thousands of predominantly Dominicans of Haitian descent.
At a conference on Regional Integration held at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica this past October, CARICOM Secretary-General Ambassador Irwin La Rocque, in response to an impassioned question from the floor about the silence of CARICOM in response to the ruling, stated that sometimes the absence of a public statement does not mean that quiet diplomacy is not at work.
The audience was deeply dissatisfied, wanting the regional integration organization to forcefully declare its opposition to the ruling. A communiqué was finally issued in mid-October registering the Caribbean Community’s concern with the ruling, noting with regret that the court ruling goes against “pronouncements of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)” and calling “on the Dominican Republic to adopt measures to protect the human rights and interests of those made vulnerable by this ruling and its grievous effects.”
A far stronger position was taken by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who sent two letters to Dominican President Danilo Medina, and who has called for the Dominican Republic to be suspended from CARIFORUM and PetroCaribe, and not be considered for CARICOM membership. But PM Gonsalves’ call has not been taken up by CARICOM or any other CARICOM governments so far.
Dissatisfied with the belatedness and general tentativeness of CARICOM’s response (a concern echoed elsewhere in the region, most notably in an October 18 editorial carried in the Jamaican Observer), on October 31 a letter was circulated from Guyana for signatures. An initiative which began with two women activists quickly snowballed. In Jamaica, women collected signatures. Dynamic young activists from Guyana and a network called Groundation Grenada volunteered to get the petition from Concerned Caribbean Citizens online at http://chn.ge/HsSTLD, titled simply ‘CARICOM: Defend the children, women, and men of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic against this latest assault on their rights.’ They ensured that each signature would generate an automatic e-mail sent directly to the CARICOM Secretary-General and each of the 15 CARICOM Heads. The intention was clear: To ensure that the voices of Caribbean people, in the region and her diasporas, were heard.
This petition is just one of the actions taking place across the region, despite the fact that there has sadly been little consistent coverage of the Constitutional Court Ruling, and of the fear and anxiety that is produced among a group of people whose Dominican roots go back as far as 1929, but where the badge of blackness or having a name that sounds French rather than Spanish is to be targeted as not belonging, or as a second-class citizen at best. There have been a few exceptions. The Jamaican Press has carried several articles and editorials. A radio show out of Trinidad and Tobago called Indaba (on 91.1fm Talk City), and hosted by Shabaka Kambon and Vanessa Herbert has held several discussions, including with Andaiye, Danuta Radzik and Charlene Wilkinson from Guyana. Journalist Jabari Fraser has visited the Dominican Republic since the ruling and has written a two part article for the Trinidad Express titled ‘Sin Estado: Stateless in Santo Domingo.’ Veteran journalist Rickey Singh and regional columnist Ron Sanders have weighed in on the issue. Stabroek News has carried two diaspora columns, both from Dominicans deeply opposed to this ruling. But online media has done a far better job than mainstream newspaper, radio and television. There is excellent information on a website called Reconoci.do (the hompage says simply, “I am Dominican and I have rights”), which began as a campaign a few years ago to advocate for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent. The Pan-Caribbean blog, 1804caribvoices.org has dedicated a section of its site to assemble stories and opinions under the heading ‘The denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian Descent.’
On November 6th Jouvay Ayiti (an arts group based at the University of the West Indies) presented a petition with some 800 signatures calling for a trade embargo and other sanctions to be placed on the Dominican Republic, to the Dominican embassy in Port-of-Spain as well as to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. PM Persad-Bissessar’s response was that she would be consulting with the CARICOM Secretary-General and the CARICOM Bureau (she is the current head) on how to move forward. Today there will also be a forum at the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, on ‘the implications of the recent ruling of the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic that would render stateless, thousands of person of Haitian descent.’ Speakers include Norman Girvan, Andy Knight, Anthony Gonzales, Mark Kirton & Sunity Maharaj.
Back in Guyana, on November 14th a teach-in, organized mainly by students, was held at the Education Lecture Theatre at the University of Guyana. It was a capacity audience with standing room only, and included high school students from President’s College, St. Joseph’s and Bladen Hall Multilateral School. The Concerned Caribbean Citizens petition was again circulated for signatures.
Given that CARICOM’s headquarters are in Guyana, the decision was taken to present the petition to the Secretariat in the week of November 18. By this time, it had been announced that a CARICOM Bureau meeting would be convened in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday November 19 with the Secretary-General and Bureau members, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and President Michel Martelly of Haiti (this meeting was postponed to Tuesday of this week). Ambassador LaRocque received the petition on November 19 from a group made up of activists and several University of Guyana students representing those who had signed. It consisted of the original letter, a list of 1664 signatories, and a copy of all of the comments that were posted to the petition site. Among some of the reasons people gave for signing were:
“This is clearly an extremely racist ruling and one that will severely restrict the rights of people of Haitian descent. As a proud citizen of the Caribbean, and someone who cares deeply about Haiti and the Haitian people, I find this ruling by the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic appalling. It is unacceptable and MUST be reversed. Until then, I will not be travelling to or spending any money in the Dominican Republic or on goods produced in the DR and I will encourage all my acquaintances to join this boycott as well.”
“Because there is no way a child can be born in this world and be illegal as they exit the womb. Especially as this law goes back 3 or 4 generations, that means a child whose grandparents are born in the Dominican Republic [is] now being told that they do not belong. No one is born a Child of a Lesser God. One Caribbean. One Love.”
“If Haiti blocks the border to these ex-Dominicans without Haitian identity papers, there will be a refugee crisis along the Dominican border. If Haiti takes them in, there will be a socio-economic crisis in the North, Plateau Central and Port au Prince regions of Haiti. The decision of the Constitutional Court is reprehensible…[for] hundreds of thousands of descendants of workers the Dominican State mostly brought to the country itself, in order to provide cheap labor for the Dominican oligarch over the past 100 years”.
“I am Canadian, born in Haiti of Haitian parents. My daughter has a Canadian father, born in Switzerland. She is married to a Dominican. It seems to me that we are all in each other’s countries. It’s time we learned to live together.”
“I have friends who are losing their identity because of this. This is a clear violation of human rights. All children need to know who they are. This is such a disgrace for the Dominican Republic. I am a Dominican by birth and I cannot imagine if my identity was taken away from me. Do the right thing and repeal this horrible act.”
In Trinidad and Tobago, the office of the Prime Minister issued a release to the media acknowledging receipt of the Jouvay Ayiti petition. Contrast this with the complete absence of any press coverage of the handing over of the Concerned Caribbean Citizens petition to the CARICOM Secretariat. But this time the media is not to blame. In fact the delegation was actively discouraged by the CARICOM Secretariat from inviting the press. In no uncertain terms, the Secretariat underlined that their press office would handle everything, that the media was not to be invited by the delegation, and that the room where the handing over was to take place could only accommodate about a dozen persons. They wanted to call the shots, and they made sure that the press was not allowed to participate freely in the brief event.
We are still waiting for an official acknowledgement that CARICOM has received the petition. We know it was handed over. We also know that the Secretariat received over 1500 individual e-mails, representing each of the online signatories. And we know that their press office is working. On the CARICOM website, there have been three press releases since the handover, on PANCAP, on the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and on Staff Talent Celebrations at the Secretariat. But there has been absolutely nothing on the petition. One initiator of the petition says that ”this must be the last time we hand over the right of the CARICOM people to be informed to the CARICOM Secretariat.”.
At the October Regional Integration Conference in Jamaica, Ambassador LaRocque himself raised popular participation within CARICOM as a critical issue that needed to be addressed, rhetorically asking, ‘Where is CARICOM’s constituency?” Indeed. Yet when members of that constituency mobilize a regional effort, start a petition, gather signatures calling for CARICOM to take action, show up in person to present it, what they meet up with are a set of bureaucratic, top-down protocols that render them utterly invisible.
Who ultimately pays the price for this silencing are those under persecution, since their best hope for redress is a groundswell of popular action, and for groundswell to happen it must be fed by information. Meanwhile, at least one newspaper has reported a statement from the Dominican Republic’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs César Dargam that “Many of these things we’re seeing on the international stage are noise and smoke, we saw how [the] Dominican Republic was threatened to be taken before a meeting of Caricom where we would’ve been penalized. Neither Caricom’s meeting took place, nor was [the] Dominican Republic punished.” Will CARICOM continue to drop the ball on this urgent matter? Or will it endorse the strong position taken by PM Gonsalves? The Bureau meeting takes place tomorrow. We are waiting to see, and we must continue to mobilize in support of those whose lives have been affected by this ruling, and those in the Dominican Republic organizing to challenge it.