RFK Center Completes Advocacy Trip to the Dominican Republic

  • Posted on: 6 July 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Stateless in the DRKerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Justice and Human Rights recently completed an advocacy mission to the Dominican Republic.  The racism against those with darker skin can be so intense that travelling there feels like going back in time.  Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent are routinely denied citizenship, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.  While meeting with government officials, Kennedy urged them to work with local human rights defenders such as Sonia Pierre, who despite winning the 2006 RFK Human Rights Award, has been treated not as a hero, but a threat.  Her trip summary is copied blow.  


Dear Friend,


I'm on Jet Blue, heading home to New York having spent the last several days in the Dominican Republic with RFK Human Rights Award Laureate Sonia Pierre. Sonia is the country's leading advocate for Dominicans of Haitian descent, the largest and most afflicted minority in the land.


Saturday morning was sizzling, and the 100 percent humidity increased the oppressiveness of the burning heat. We arrived at a cheerfully painted pastel green schoolhouse, devoid of air circulation of any type beyond the makeshift paper fans waved futilely by the 50-plus people who gathered to tell the RFK Center delegation their grievances at the hands of a callous -- some would say racist -- bureaucracy.


Since 2004, the Dominican government has instituted a series of "reforms" that have effectively stolen the nationality of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Like the U.S. Constitution, the Dominican Constitution says that all people born on its soil are automatically citizens. But over the past five years, the government has attempted to exploit the exception for those "in transit" -- an exception intended to cover children of diplomats or tourists on vacation.


The Dominican government claims that Haitian workers, who spent decades in the fields, were actually "in transit," and so their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren are suddenly no longer Dominicans, but rather citizens of Haiti, a country which the vast majority have not visited for generations.


Civil registries are regularly denying and withholding the identity documents of Dominican citizens because of their Haitian ancestry. Without proof of nationality, people are denied an array of fundamental rights and basic services, including education, adequate housing, health care, property, freedom of movement, the right to vote, social security, employment, and access to credit.


The resulting marginalization has created a tinder box of frustration, anger, and dire poverty affecting up to 1 million of the 9.2 million people living in the Dominican Republic.


And it gets worse. The Dominican government has instituted a terrifying policy of massive deportations. Military buses roam the streets of the Dominican Republic, seeking those whose dark skin color doesn't match the perceived standard for "real" Dominicans. One hundred fifty people per week who cannot produce satisfactory identification on the spot are dragged to a waiting vehicle, driven up to six or seven hours, and summarily dumped in Haiti.


Throughout our time in the Dominican Republic, we were told terrifying stories of late night disappearances. In one case, preschoolers were separated from parents and placed on buses with different destinations in Haiti. In another case, three children under ten who were shining shoes on a street corner were picked up, dumped in Haiti, and managed to hitchhike home in just two weeks -- an incredible journey. And I heard the shocking story of a twelve-year-old, last seen in the back of a military vehicle three years ago, whose distraught and brokenhearted mother has never heard from her beloved again.


We met people of all ages being denied identity documents. Ancient men, (one was rumored to be 100), their backs bent from years of hard labor cutting cane in government work programs, are deprived of social security and retirement benefits. Middle-aged parents, born and raised in the Dominican Republic, are threatened with deportation and stripped of their jobs. Youth are told they cannot attend college or start a career and are left to work in dead end jobs, vulnerable to exploitation or even slavery. The youngest victims, born over the past five years, are denied any nationality at all, making them ineligible for basic services like health care and an education.


Along with RFK Human Rights Award Laureate Sonia Pierre, RFK Center for Human Rights Director Monika Kalra Varma, RFK Advocacy Director Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, and RFK law clerk Ellie Happel, we brought these concerns to the Dominican Vice President, the Minister of Labor, the Minister of Interior, the Director of Migration (who oversees the mass expulsions), and the President of the Junta Central Electoral (which is in charge of issuing identity papers). Every official agreed to work with the RFK Center to address the litany of human rights abuses


Just before we left, we held a press conference at the Santo Domingo Hilton. Someone asked how we dared presume to address the issue of undocumented workers in the Dominican Republic. Why, he fumed, aren't we addressing that problem in our own country? I was proud to be able to speak about the work the RFK Center has done to successfully secure wage increases for tomato pickers from McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell and many others. And I spoke about our work in New York state, advocating for the Farmworkers' Fair Labor Practices Act.


Another question was far more haunting. "Do you think what you have done here will make a difference?"  To that I said "Yes. I think it does make a difference to raise the issue, to show that Sonia is not alone, to demonstrate that we care." And I believe that the RFK Center model -- working with our defenders intensively for a six-year period to help them achieve their social justice goals and increase their capacity to do so -- works. Why? Because I have witnessed the success of that model in Poland, South Africa, El Salvador, Liberia, and beyond.


I often remember the words of Robert Kennedy in his last interview. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he quoted Camus, saying he'd like to be thought of as someone who decreased suffering.  Thank you for helping us carry forward Robert Kennedy's unfinished work, and thank you, especially, for decreasing the suffering.


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