Monday, February 10, 2014

“lo que mal empieza, mal acaba” -- What Starts Bad Ends Bad!

Credit: REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas 

I am a long time coming to this post. I began on November 17, 2013 when I listened to and then read a report produced by Christopher Woolf for Public Radio International (PRI). The gist of this report was a glimpse at the historical antecedents to a ruling by the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic. The ruling and the subsequent government decree (Decreto 327.13) put into effect a “Plan nacional de regularización de los extranjeros ilegales radicados en el país” (National Plan for regularization of illegal aliens residing in the country) mandated by constitutional revisions in 2010. This “regularization” requires that people living in the Dominican Republic who were born after 1929 and who do not have documentation of legal residency or at least one parent of Dominican blood are to be declared either in the country illegally or “in transit” (which allows residency for only a 10-day period). This decree potentially affects as many as one-in-ten Dominicans, who are originally from Haiti or of Haitian descent. Many of these people are 2nd and 3rd generation residents.

What!?! So, I was off to try and connect the dots on how this could ever have become an acceptable possibility.

I contributed to the tourist economy of the Dominican Republic once. Once was enough. I went to an all-inclusive resort on the beaches of Punta Cana. There were people from all over the world there, and the beach was a string of one resort after another forming a chain of “guests only” warning signs.

The resort workers lived beyond commute distance and so they stayed at the housing provided by their employers in shifts that might extend to 2 weeks before having 3 days off, mostly spent traveling home and back. Touring the Dominican side of the island outside of the resort enclaves produced the expected American culture shock, even when one works hard to just experience and not compare. And being me, I soon found myself in conversation with one of the guides about all things politics in the Dominican Republic.

We talked about education and how even in a 1-room elementary school house,”no uniform, no shoes, no service.” Education was not free and for some families that meant that one sibling attended a morning session, then traded uniform and/or shoes with another sibling who attended an afternoon session.

We talked about land use and how difficult it was for Dominicans to own land without the threat of imminent domain capitalized on by foreign business interests.

We visited a community beach, full of misuse, uncollected trash, and limited vistas in contrast to the resort areas, and so we talked about how Dominicans were denied the natural resources of their own country.

And, we talked about Haitians. This young, college-educated, practicing Catholic explained to me that Haitians were a race apart. They were without moral values and practiced “voodou,” a term he literally spit out. With that, we talked about religion (always a mistake) and he was not well-pleased with me, to say the least.

The entire experience left a sour taste in my memory. How did this antipathy between Dominicans and Haitians develop? As usual, it’s a long story.

Beginning in the 15th Century, European nations embarked on a 300-year period of exploitation (oops, Freudian slip) exploration to find trading partners, new goods and new trade routes. The contemporary history taught in the U.S. most often presents the explorers of this period as noble and courageous beings seeking adventure, but even more so, seeking knowledge. But, as always, a fuller understanding is served by following the money. Begin with Prince Henry “the Navigator” of Portugal.

Prince Henry directed the development of the caravel, a ship that was lighter than what was then typical and thus able to sail further and faster than heavier ships. As a young man, Prince Henry participated in the capture of the Moorish port of Ceuta in North Morocco. The Moors had used the port as a staging point to raid Portuguese settlements and enslave the residents, adding them to the traffic in African captives.

As governor of Algarve, Prince Henry repopulated a village on the Sagre Peninsula, which provided access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. He received funds from his various positions as governor and was awarded all profits for areas he “discovered,” as well as holding a monopoly on vital resources and permissions. His motivating goals were to stop pirate attacks and to learn the source of the west african gold trade, but in addition, he also received a portion of the profits from the sale of slaves at the nearby market in Lagos.

Moreover, Prince Henry desired, as did the other European nations of his day, to find a new route to access the spice and silk trades within Asia. These trades had been severely limited, along with access to North Africa and the Red Sea, by the Ottoman Empire when it took control of Constantinople in 1453. The expeditions that Prince Henry sponsored established colonies in the Madeira and Azores Islands and succeeded in circumventing the Muslim controlled land-based trade routes. Soon gold and slaves began arriving in Portugal. Thus, the Age of Exploration Began. It might also be said that thus, an age of imperialism began.

While the Portuguese focused on sailing along the coasts of Africa to access the eastern trade, Christopher Columbus marketed a different idea, to sail west across the Atlantic. Columbus found Portugal and England disinterested in his ideas. However, Spain proved much more receptive (well, initially anyway). Columbus wanted fame and fortune, as did the monarchs of Spain. And, there was another motivation. Spain had just accomplished its “Reconquista,” expelling Jews and Muslims out of the kingdom after centuries of war. Ferdinand and Isabella now focused on the exportation of Catholicism to lands across the globe. In 1492, with a promise that he could keep 10% of whatever riches he found, and, receive a noble title and the governorship of any lands he should encounter, Columbus set sail under the Spanish flag. Just over two months later, he arrived in the Caribbean and proceeded to sail from island to island in search of the wealth he had promised to the Spanish crown. In March of 1493, Columbus left 40 men on the island he had named La Isla Española (now called Hispaniola) and returned to Spain.
LANDING OF COLUMBUS, John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

It was here that I found myself distracted by all manner of things: Why was Columbus spurned by Britain and Portugal? Why did the Ottoman Empire restrict European trade rather than take advantage of tariffs or other income sources from that trade?  Where were slaves taken and for what purposes? What is the story of Africans enslaved into Europe during this period? How did slavery as an institution integrate into the various European cultures? How were slaves differentiated from serfs? Not to mention wanting to know more about why the Fall of Constantinople marked the end of the 1,500 year reign of the Roman Empire AND how fleeing scholars sparked the Italian Renaissance. Anyhoo …

Columbus’ dream of wealth did not end well, but in 1496, his brother built the first European settlement in the western hemisphere, the city of Santo Domingo. The Spanish then proceeded to develop a plantation economy on the island and used Santo Domingo as a headquarters as they expanded their presence in the “New World.” Over the next 200 years, the Spanish decimated the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola through forced labor, disease and intermarriage, while at the same time establishing the encomienda plantation system that gave rise to an elite social class and the internalization of racial and religious biases.

Initially, those considered “slaves” in Hispaniola were servants brought from Spain to serve the Spanish elite. Known as “Ladinos,” these servants were people of African descent who had been born in Spain and who had accepted Christianity.  However, with the establishment of the first sugar mill on the island, there rose a demand for labor that was filled by enslaved African workers, and the importation of Africans increased substantially.

In the absence of the isolation control patterns that were to be established in the American system of slavery and that have come to be accepted, in the U.S. at any rate, as norms of the African Slave Trade, the Africans who arrived in Santo Domingo were often from the same geographical areas. This provided the opportunity to  communicate, organize, and to flee, which they did - repeatedly. These rebellions established an African presence in the mountains and eastern section of the island, and created intermarriages between the native Tainos and Africans, who were now known as Maroons. By 1530, the Maroon population had increased to the extent that they had established a level of control over the mountainous central and northern sections of the island.

After the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas and amidst the various wars in Europe (here again, I found myself distracted as I encountered European conflicts that I had never heard of before, but which hold considerable significance in a wide variety of subsequent contexts), Spain shifted its attention to securing Spanish presence and claim to the riches of the Americas. In 1697, Spain ceded the western area of Hispaniola to France as part of the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended a 9-years war wherein France fought against an alliance composed of England, the Netherlands, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the North American Provinces.

Now named Saint-Domingue, the French colony became extremely wealthy through coffee, sugar, cotton, and indigo plantations and the labor of enslaved Africans, who represented 90% of the colony’s population by the end of the 18th Century. In 1791, enslaved Africans, joined by free people of color enacted the revolution that gave rise to the leadership of Toussaint Bréda. Early in the conflict, Bréda renamed himself Louverture. 

The story of this period in Haiti’s history is a distraction in and of itself. As I researched the events, I recognized that being American, I have an internal image of the historical African slave as bereft of politics and the military trappings of politics. Yet, following an increased and indiscriminate demand for plantation workers as the colony’s wealth developed, the majority of the male Africans who found themselves enslaved in Saint-Domingue were captured from the same region, soldiers sold and exported to eliminate an opposing force. These were trained military men, familiar with the weapons and strategies of war in that period. Was it the violent victory of the initial moments in their revolution that nurtured the fears that led plantation owners in the United States to heightened barbarism and oppression as they institutionalized slavery into the birth of the American way of life? Or, were their fears fanned into the obsessive passions that haunt the U.S. to this day by a recognition that the strength so prized in labor and the intelligence witnessed (yet disallowed) could as easily be turned to revolution?

European empires and the newly formed United States shared a common commitment to slavery, but they all coveted one another’s Caribbean territories. With the revolution underway in Saint-Domingue, England and Spain looked to take over the tremendous wealth of the colony. The Spanish offered the insurgents weapons and commissions in the Spanish military, thinking to again have the whole of the island. Louverture accepted the weaponry and subsequently used it to drive the Spanish from Saint-Domingue. The English offered like-minded planters the preservation of slavery in the face of French leanings toward abolition.

As a counter, French Republican commissioners offered freedom and citizenship to any who would fight on the side of France. When there were holdouts, Louverture among them, the commissioners abolished all slavery in the colony. A delegation of elected representatives was sent to France to win the approval of the National Convention. Their success was in itself revolutionary. In 1794, by decree, "the Convention declare[d] the slavery of the Blacks abolished in all the colonies; consequently, all men, irrespective of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution." The decree created the legal foundations for the first multiracial democracy in the “New World.” Hearing of this decree, Louverture rallied to the French side. Subsequently, he was named Governor General of the colony by the French government. 

In 1795, Santo Domingo and Saint-Domingue were joined when Spain ceded their territory to the French as part of the Peace of Basel that ended the War of the Pyrenees. ($50 to anyone who can follow European war history!) Again, more distractions: Louverture’s designs to make Saint-Domingue independent mirrored the former plantation structures - after all, that way lay the established patterns of income. However, whatever the elite or the government might have wanted, the people were vehemently against plantation structures. This was the beginning of independence, but it was also the beginning of a lasting societal schism for the whole of the island. 

In 1799, the French Revolution came to an end with a military coup d’etat. Napoleon Bonapart took power in France. He centralized all power in his own hands as First Consul for Life and just as quickly moved to return Saint-Domingue to the pre-Louverture colonial order. After Louverture created a separatist constitution for the colony, Napoleon, who considered the constitution a personal insult, negotiated with the European powers for the safe passage of his ships into the Caribbean and moved a massive military expedition to Saint-Domingue.

What followed is an intricate and phenomenal tale of war, intrigue, and betrayal that saw the fall of Louverture - he would die in a French prison in 1803. In that same year, Louverture’s successors were victorious over the French and created the independent nation of Haiti. Two years later, Haitian troops under the command of general Henri Christophe invaded Santo Domingo so violently that it engendered an animosity between Haiti and what would become the Dominican Republic that echoes into the present day.

In 1808, following the now Emperor Napoleon’s invasion of Spain (he crowned himself in 1804), a Britain/Haiti, coerced, alliance returned Santo Domingo to Spanish control. In 1821, José Núñez de Cáceres, who had been the top colonial administrator, declared Santo Domingo to be independent of the Spanish crown. Cáceres had looked to join Simón Bolivar’s republic of Gran Colombia, but just nine weeks later, Haitian forces under Jean-Pierre Boyer, invaded and prevailed, again joining the island into one sovereignty.

Under Boyer’s occupation forces in the Dominican Republic, slavery was abolished and most private property nationalized, including much Church property and all property belonging to the Spanish Crown. Other changes impacted which crops would be grown, reformed the tax system, and allowed foreign trade. Oddly, education collapsed at every level, and the conscripted Dominicans in the occupation troops were unpaid and left to forage among the Dominican people. Then, Boyer was ousted and in 1843, The Dominican Republic declared independence from Haiti. As with Haiti, the next decades were anything but stable within the Dominican Republic, which also had to fend off multiple renewed, though unsuccessful, Haitian invasions.

Okay, so wouldn’t you think that Haiti and the Dominican Republic would have looked to join forces against outside intervention? At different points, both countries looked to align themselves with other republics and regimes in the region, but never on their own island. Haiti and the Dominican Republic seem to have continually seen each other as enemies. The animosity has been complicated by conflicts over religion, skin color and class that is an inheritance of the racial and economic biases of American and European imperialism.

So, where are we? The ongoing internal political upheavals in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have shackled the aspirations of the people of both countries. It is dizzying to attempt to follow the string of revolts and the perpetually failed leadership. A condition nurtured by the dominant nations of the world. As the struggle for world dominance continued, America and the European nations jockeyed for position, supporting Haiti and the Dominican Republic in turns of neglect, threats, aiding and abetting the enemy of the moment, and pilfering as much wealth from the island as was possible.

There were decades in which the world refused to recognize the newly independent Haiti as a sovereign nation. This was the lynch pin of a history of poverty and debt for an area where the resources should have continued to provide abundance.  So much of the wealth of nations has come from the resources of the “New World” and African slaves. European thought developed extensive religious and intellectual justifications for slavery. These attitudes of superiority remain the bane of global society. In some ways, it is the naturalization of these attitudes among the oppressed that have allowed them to persist. Even the varied abolitionist movements though opposed to slavery, were unprepared for and unaccepting of difference in dress and mannerisms, particularly for those with darker skin. The existence of Haiti threatened the systems of thought and behavior that grounded America and Western European wealth acquisition.

As a result, Haiti found itself turned away from a seat at the international table, again and again. When recognition was finally granted, it came with a level of debt that paralyzed the country. In 1825, France agreed to halt further attempt to retake Haiti and to grant recognition of Haitian independence in exchange for a payment of $150 million francs (later reduced to $90 million francs) which was supposed to represent the value of property lost by French planters as a result of the Revolution. This payment was borrowed from French banks and came with considerable terms of interest.

It is debt that was used to justify various foreign interventions into Haiti, ultimately resulting in America taking control of the national bank in 1914, sending in the marines to remove all assets, and establishing an occupation the following year that lasted nearly 20 years.

As for the Dominican Republic, it also struggled under massive debt incurred by a series of corrupt and self-serving governments. In 1902, it agreed to a 50-year arrangement with the U.S. under which America would administer Dominican customs (its major source of income), using these funds to repay Dominican foreign debt and also assuming responsibility for said debt. In the following 14 years, the Dominican Republic was engulfed in political intrigue and civil war. Such that in 1916, U.S. President Wilson ordered the occupation of the Dominican Republic. Big distraction here: Wilson's actions were so hypocritical. It makes you want to spit.

Between 1916 and 1922, the United States of America occupied all of the island of Hispaniola.

In 1930, General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was elected President of the Dominican Republic (unopposed after the violent elimination of any challengers). During what would be a long and iron-fisted regime, lasting until his assassination in 1961, Trujillo accomplished economic growth and progress in healthcare, education and transportation with a building program of hospitals, clinics, schools, roads, harbors and housing. Under Trujillo an undisputed border with Haiti was negotiated and the customs agreement with the U.S. was ended in 1941, instead of the original 1956 end date. The Dominican Republic was debt-free in 1947. Trujillo‘s accomplishments were accompanied by absolute repression, where any opposition was met with murder, torture, and terrorism. They were also accompanied, or perhaps enabled, by the United States and the Dominican elite. It is notable that in 2013, 3 Dominican families maintain ownership of 75% of the land of the Dominican Republic.

Haiti’s occupation by the U.S. ended in 1934. However, Haiti’s debts were still outstanding and the American Financial Advisor-General Receiver continued to handle the Haitian budget until 1941. The occupation ended, but, political disorder remained. From 1957 until his death in 1971, Dr. François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” was President of Haiti. He was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled until his ouster in 1986.
For both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the hallmark of political leadership appears as an unrelenting and violent oppression of both the populace and any political opponents by what are essentially military dictatorships. The dictators grow rich, along with their foreign cronies, while the people suffer.

The 2005 Annual Report of the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Development in the Dominican Republic, ranks the country No. 71 in the world for resource availability, No. 79 for human development, and No. 14 in the world for resource mismanagement. These statistics emphasize national government corruption, foreign economic interference in the country, and the rift between the rich and poor.

In Haiti, the struggle to escape the control systems of plantation-, and now factory-, based control continues. Following the devastation of the earthquake in 2010, Haiti was able to clear its massive, ever-present debt, but quickly raised it again to nearly $1 billion. Did I say ever-present? The story of the current Haitian President is yet another epic tale of U.S. interference and one that makes the push from the Clinton Foundation for an industrial park (funded by U.S. taxpayers), whose first and main tenant, a South Korean company, will pay workers $3.65 per day, just a bit suspect. I can see how this might serve the South Koreans, but I’m not at all sure about the benefit to the Haitians. I hope the U.S. is getting something more than bargaining leverage with South Korea, but I guess we’ll have to wait for Wikileaks to tell us what that might be. Just seems odd to me.

On the other hand, since 2012, Haiti has recognized Kreyol, along with French, as official languages. In this lies hope that the majority of Haitians will finally be able to follow what is going on in their own government.

An interesting comparison between all-things Haitian and all-things Dominican can be found at the Index Mundi website,

Only time will tell what will ultimately result from the enforcement of the Dominican Decreto 327-13.

So why has this post taken me so long to produce? Quite frankly, my mind is still reeling.

I see the historical pathways. I see the contemporary status. In the struggle between Haiti and the Dominican Republic lies a personal revelation about the struggles of both the oppressed (read “poor”) and the majority (read “workers,” “middle class,” “undereducated degree holders,” etc.) in a capitalistic, plutocratic world, who have integrated the attitudes (read “racism,” “gender dominance,” “sexism,” “elitism,” “classism,” “religiosity,” etc.) and aspirations (read “wealth,” “privilege,” “entitlement,” etc.) of those in power, such that there is no impetus for a vision of some other way. As I apply the implications to me and it hasn’t been easy - sometimes you just don’t want to look,… Well, it’s been months of exploring just how much of the kool-aid I’ve ingested all these years.

So? What do you think? Never can tell. At any moment, someone will be saying that the U.S. minimum wage should be thought of in terms of per diem, and those in power will be selling people, “Don’t worry. This will only impact ‘those’ people. Drink up!”


  1. I have a Haitian "brother" that currently attends a university in the Dominican Republic. He has experienced much of what you have described and worse.

  2. Policy takes effect in 2 days!

  3. Very lucid, pertinent, truthful and powerful telling! Will read it several more times. I know and comprehend this reality. Thanks Noreen!!!