Reporting from Haiti

I spent half of August in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and I reported from the camps of displaced people near Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti. In the hot, dusty camps I was struck by how many people told stories of harassment and abuse from Dominican civilians. My reporting turned into an article that the American Prospect published last month.

Following this story for the past few months, I’m actually pleased with the coverage the story of the displaced people has received. There’s been a lot of thorough reporting.  I hope that my article contributes to this body of work by pointing out the extent to which this crisis has its roots in the long history of racism in Haitian-Dominican relations. There’s been good reporting on the extent to which Dominican institutions are to blame for the current situation, and I think it’s important to supplement this with a look at the extent to which widespread antihaitianismo in the DR is also to blame.

Here are some photos The Prospect wasn’t able to publish:

Félis Jacques, 69, stands in front of a structure he made of cardboard and branches. Before fleeing, he had lived in the Dominican Republic since 1966.

Orel Guerrer fled the Dominican Republic on June 7th. He was one of the first people in this camp.

Parc Cadeau, near Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti.

Maslyne Barthélemy (in yellow) with her family. Barthélemy said Dominican civilians threatened her when she lived in the Dominican Republic.


Why the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti Matters Today

An American patrol in Haiti/photo-Wikimedia Commons

An American patrol in Haiti/photo-Wikimedia Commons

Why the occupation means we should think about Haiti in terms of rights, not charity.

Yesterday marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the American occupation of Haiti, a brutal 19-year affair that was largely put into place to protect U.S. business interests. In all, 50,000 Haitians were killed during the occupation.

Smedly Butler, a U.S. marine who served in Haiti and went on to lead the Marine Corps, famously described his role in Haiti as helping to prop up a “racket.” “I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in,” he wrote. “I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street.”

Today, the American occupation of Haiti barely exists in the consciousness of Americans. The fact that this chapter of Haitian/American history has no bearing on how Americans see Haiti today speaks volumes to the nature of our relationship with the country. To be clear, Americans feel sympathy for Haiti — Americans donated billions to earthquake relief, after all. Haiti is a place we feel bad for and want to help, but we don’t have much of a connection to Haiti.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Imperialism  

Well before the New Deal and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote Haiti’s constitution. In his position as assistant secretary of the Navy during the occupation of Haiti, Roosevelt proposed a new system of laws for Haiti that got rid of the Haitian prohibition on foreigners owning land in the country. This cleared the way for American sugar companies and other profiteers.

FDR embodies how imperialism is more than just a dark chapter in America’s otherwise triumphant history. I think it’s useful to think of imperialism the same way Ta-Nehisi Coates would have us think about racism. It’s not that America is a good country with a race problem. Racism is a fundamental part of American history. In this same way, you can’t separate out the history of the United States from the history of the United States’ imperialism.

It is common to gloss over America’s history of imperialism, and this has real world consequences today.

Marco Rubio and How to Help Haiti 

A couple weeks ago, Marco Rubio held a hearing on the State Department’s role in Haiti. Rubio’s introductory statement included an illustrative sentence in which Rubio (or the staff member who wrote the statement) attempted to sum up the historical context for Haiti’s situation today. “Haiti has struggled to overcome its centuries-long legacy of authoritarianism, extreme poverty and under-development,” Rubio said.

In this way of see things, Americans think about Haiti as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” (another Rubio line from the hearing), and Haiti needs to overcome its “legacy” of its own problems. There is obviously no mention of the American occupation, the subsequent history of American meddling in Haiti or the previous history of France forcing Haiti to pay French banks backs for the “damages” of the 1804 revolution. Instead, Haiti is a country mired in its own “legacy” of deep problems.

As Rubio’s hearing progressed, Thomas Adams, the State Department official revealed another key aspect of how Americans think of Haiti. In describing how it is possible that the American Red Cross managed to waste hundreds of millions of dollars in its rebuilding efforts following the 2010 earthquake, Adams said, “it’s not easy to get anything done in Haiti.” In this commonly-held way of thinking about Haiti, Haiti is a quagmire. We’re doing what we can to help the place, and it’s a great victory if our charities or our government money succeeds in improving the country even marginally because Haiti is such an exceptionally messed up place. This feeds into what the seminal scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot termed “Haitian exceptionalism” — the idea that normal rules don’t apply to Haiti.

In this perspective on Haiti — so clearly articulated by Adams — not only is Haiti a charity case, but there are very low expectations for how much we can even help the country.

A Rights-Based Approach to Poverty 

FDR in Haiti

FDR in Haiti/photo-creative commons

If one considers the American occupation of Haiti and Haiti’s history more generally, there is another way of relating to Haiti. Instead of seeing Haiti as a separate entity, one could see the United States and Haiti as linked. If we think about a connection to Haiti, we are more likely to think about how Haitians have rights. We shouldn’t help Haitians only out of charity; we should do what we can to help Haiti because Haitians (and all humans for that matter) have rights. Especially if the United States is complicit in the history that took away these rights, we should work to make sure these rights are protected.

Adopting a rights-based approach has important practical implications. As the journalist Jonathan Katz points out, one of the biggest problems with aid today is that there is virtually no accountability in how organizations work abroad. Just as long as NGOs or development agencies don’t grossly mismanage funds, there are few consequences for failure. Approaching development as something people deserve would add a new seriousness to our relationship with places like Haiti.

Fact Checking the Dominican Ambassador to the U.S. in the New York Times

Supporters of the Dominican government have been reacting loudly to reports about the humanitarian crisis on Hispaniola, and I’ve partaken in a few back and forths on Twitter with some of these advocates, including the ambassador of the Dominican Republic to the United Kingdom, a very active Twitter user.

There’s a lot to say about the Dominican government’s PR response to the crisis — including that the Dominican Republic has hired high-end DC lobbyists — but I do want to say from the outset that some of my Twitter exchanges with Dominican activists have been fruitful.

Nevertheless, I want to zero in on one of my exchanges that casts serious doubt on a key fact in the Dominican ambassador to the United States’ letter to the editor in the New York Times today.

In the letter, Ambassador José Tomás Pérez claims that, “We [The Dominican government] are working with the International Organization for Migration and have registered over 350,000 people.” He also writes, “The reality is that in 2015 hundreds of thousands of people will have documentation and rights in our country that in 2013 they did not have.”

These numbers seemed very high to me, so I asked the ambassador of the Dominican Republic to the U.K. and another Dominican activist with whom I’ve been tweeting where this number comes from.

I got the following response:

It turns out that the lion’s share of the 350,000 figure comes from the 288,486 people who fall under the “National Regularization Plan Decree 327-13.” A little research reveals that this figure refers to the number of people who have applied for legal status. In fact, one report notes that a Dominican official “warned that registry [under decree 327-13] doesn’t mean that a foreigner’s file is complete, ‘so that we’re clear on that.'”

I asked the Dominican ambassador the UK about that, and I got this response:

The Dominican ambassador to the U.S. was therefore taking some significant liberties when he claimed in the New York Times that more than 350,000 people have been “registered.”

The vast majority of these people have only begun the process of obtaining legal status, which in many cases was stripped from them in 2013. With the difficulty many of these people will face in obtaining documents and reports of intimidation and Dominican officials not following the law, there is absolutely no guarantee these people will be able to stay legally in the Dominican Republic.

Haiti and the DR Jockey For The Pope’s Support in the Refugee Crisis

Pope_Francis_at_VargihnaSince the refugee crisis began two years ago, Dominican leaders have been walking a public relations tightrope. It’s difficult to spin 30,000 refugees and hundreds of thousands more facing deportation, but President Danilo Medina knows his country depends on international trade, aid and tourism.

Now Dominican leaders face a new challenge: convincing Pope Francis to stay out of the fray.

The leading newspaper in the Dominican Republic reports that the Dominican Foreign Minister Andrés Navarro met today with the Vatican’s secretary of state to explain the extent to which the Dominican Republic is “respecting human rights.” The foreign minister repeated familiar talking points that forced deportations have not begun and that illegal immigrants were given time to register with the Dominican government.

Meanwhile, Haitian President Michel Martelly is spending the next few days with the Pope in Ecuador.  Martelly has been slow to speak out on the refugee crisis, but he condemned Dominican policies in strong terms on Friday and will presumably seek the Pope’s support on the refugee crisis.

Pope Francis is already seen as a friend of Haiti — he appointed the country’s first ever cardinal last year. In these two predominantly catholic countries his opinion could be very important.

Medina has been mindful of the optics of the refugee crisis since the Dominican Supreme Court stripped away the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans two years ago. He responded to the first round of international pressure two years ago by giving people stripped of their citizenship a year and a half to register with the government. The current spin is that Haitians are voluntarily leaving the country on comfortable government-sponsored buses.

July 3 News Digest: Conflicting Reports on Forced Deportations as the Crisis Grows

Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul with a refugee from the Dominican Republic

Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul with a refugee from the Dominican Republic on the night of July 1

 Here is a news digest on the Dominican Refugee Crisis for July 3:

  • The Dominican director of migration announced yesterday that his agency could begin forced deportations on July 6 (Spanish language). Ruben Dario Paulino Sem reiterated the official Dominican line that no forced deportations have begun.
  • Nevertheless, the Haitian government released a communiqué the same day reporting that 21 people including eight children were deported by Dominican authorities on the night of July 1st (French language). The communiqué claims that the majority of the refugees were born in the Dominican Republic and that they were denied food and water during a 15-hour journey to the border. Haitian Prime minister Evans Paul met the refugees at the border.
  • Mark Philips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti reported that both the Haitian and Dominican governments are exaggerating the extent to which the deportations have been voluntary and are underestimating the number of  refugees. He also worries that many refugees do not have Dominican or Haitian documents.
  • Haitian President Michel Martelly, who has been criticized for taking a detached approach to this crisis (see tweet below), spoke out today against the Dominican deportation plans at a Caribbean summit.
  • Haitian journalist Etant Dupain is reporting on the stories of some of the refugees and found that many of those who have left already have been the victimized by Dominican authorities.

News Digest on the Refugee Crisis: June 28, 2015


Dominican President Danilo Medina

Here is a new digest on the Dominican/Haitian refugee crisis for June 28, 2015:

  • This is consistent with other  government statements that there will be a period of “incentivized” voluntary removals from the Dominican Republic before forced relocations begin.  As of yesterday, the official Dominican line is that 17,456 people have left the Dominican Republic voluntarily.
  • In an insightful op-ed in English, former Haitian Ambassador to the United States Raymond Joseph analyzes many of the underlying issues in the current crisis including racism in the Dominican Republic, Dominican electoral politics, the United States’ role in moving Haitians to the Dominican Republic during its occupation of the two countries and the failure of the Haitian government to deal with this problem multilaterally.
  • The Dominican media continues to offer up images of friendly border guards taking willing Haitian citizens to the border in comfortable vans (Spanish language).

Raison d’être

Men transfer clothes from a Dominican truck to a Haitian truck along the border. I took this photo in 2013.

Men transfer clothes from a Dominican truck to a Haitian truck along the border. I took this photo in 2013.

In 2013 I lived for six months along the southernmost border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where I ran a grassroots journalism project. While I was there I saw border guards harass Haitian peasants crossing the border and I interviewed Haitian fishermen who had had their boats seized for allegedly fishing in Dominican waters.

But for the most part the two sides of the border benefited from one another. The Dominican town opened to Haitians twice a week for a market day on the Dominican side of the border and Haitians crossed over to do laundry and clean homes. Everyday, men on motorcycles would take ice across the border and sell it throughout the Haitian town of Anse-à-Pitres, which had limited electricity. Despite the fact that many Dominicans I spoke with had never crossed the border, many of the Dominican homes were built by Haitians and nearly all the ice in Anse-à-Pitres was Dominican.

Today, there are about 1,000 refugees from the Dominican Republic living on the Haitian side of the border, the French-language Haitian news site AlterPresse reports. The AlterPresse article says that these refugees do not have access to latrines or sufficient medical care. There are fears that diseases will spread in the camp.

These people came from the Dominican Republic. They faced deportation following a 2013 court ruling that stripped the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic. Following an international outcry, the Dominican Republic gave these people until June 17 to register for legal residential status in the Dominican Republic. That deadline has come and gone, and now these people face official deportation and a culture of intimidation and fear.  The Dominican government has claimed the deportation process will be slow and deliberate, but there are reports that deportations have begun and more than 17,000 people have fled the Dominican Republic for Haiti.

Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul has said that the Haitian government considers many of these people to be Dominicans and will not recognize them as Haitian citizens. There are hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent that have been stripped of their citizenship still in the Dominican Republic. This appears to be only the beginning of long-term humanitarian crisis.

I am going to maintain this blog to monitor English-, French-, Kreyòl- and Spanish-language reporting on this issue. I also hope to contribute some original reporting.

As I traveled on public buses from the border region where I lived toward Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, Dominican soldiers would periodically board the bus and single out dark-skinned people they believed were Haitians. They demanded to see their passports and spoke to them condescendingly. One time while I was in the market on the Dominican side of the border, I watched a Dominican border guard who was having a bad day threaten a Haitian teacher and community organizer by pointing a pistol at his head as the Haitian man’s children looked on.

The everyday racism I saw on the island has spiraled into a nightmare for thousands. I hope I can contribute to monitoring this crisis

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