Dominican solidarity with Haiti

February 15, 2010

Emmanuel Santos reports on aid and support for the Haitian people, organized at the grassroots in the country that shares the island with Haiti.

THE SOLIDARITY effort with the Haitian people organized by ordinary Dominicans has been ignored in an international mainstream media that insists in presenting the U.S. and other rich nations as the mighty saviors of the Haitian people.

Since the earthquake struck January 12, many Haitians living in the neighboring Dominican Republic returned to Haiti in search of relatives, and to take part in the relief effort. I was a witness to their desperation and grief during a recent visit to the country.

I also witnessed a growing popular solidarity among Dominicans toward Haitian immigrants that has, for the time being, diffused the tense political relationship that the two countries have had to endure for most of the last century. Everywhere, people are mourning the unprecedented loss of human life.

The catastrophe in Haiti created a state of panic in the entire island as people feared more destruction. Rumors of a tsunami quickly spread. The Dominican government issued a red alert, creating more panic in the process.

Injured people take shelter in makeshift tents outside of the general hospital in Port-au-Prince
Injured people take shelter in makeshift tents outside of the general hospital in Port-au-Prince (Logan Abassi)

However, fear of another catastrophe in Haiti didn't stop people from traveling to the other side of the island in search of relatives and friends. For example, Miguel, a Dominican activist, traveled to Haiti the next day to search for his Haitian friends and comrades. He slept in a park among thousands of people who became homeless after the earthquake. Luckily, all of his friends survived. He met them the following morning.

On the day of the earthquake, low-intensity tremors shook the Santiago, Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata provinces in the Dominican Republic. Around 110 public schools suffered minor damage, though no one was injured. Both Santiago and Puerto Plata provinces in the north of the country share a seismic fault with the Haitian capital. People fear a disaster in the future. For the last month, there has been uninterrupted seismic activity in Puerto Plata.

Two factors would prevent a disaster of the same magnitude on the Dominican side of the island: a solid public infrastructure and the government's ability to regulate building construction.

But many people believe that the new construction boom is driving developers to disregard construction guidelines to make a quick profit--so an earthquake of the same magnitude as in Haiti could one day unleash a catastrophe. In addition, the population is becoming more vulnerable than ever due to growing social inequality and cuts to health care services.

THE DOMINICAN government's quick response to the relief effort in Haiti won praise from the Obama administration and other Western powers that are militarizing Haiti. So far, it has provided medical assistance and basic aid.

But President Leonel Fernández and his government could do more to assist Haitians by letting them through the border. The policy of keeping the border closed has, surprisingly, had the support of Solidaridad Fronteriza (Border Solidarity), a Jesuit NGO that has defended undocumented Haitian immigrants in the past.

Another issue is human trafficking across the border, which benefits the Dominican military and a well-organized mafia comprised of Dominican and Haitian smugglers. Fernández hasn't taken action to stop trafficking because he doesn't want to alienate the military.

From the start, Fernández's role has been to fill a political vacuum caused by the powerlessness of the Haitian ruling class and the lack of leadership from the UN occupying forces.

Similarly to the U.S., the Dominican government is using the humanitarian crisis to clean up the image of the country as a human rights violator. In recent years, international human rights organizations have challenged citizenship status laws that consign poor and working class Haitians and Dominico-Haitians to second-class citizenship.

Fernández and his right wing allies point out the Dominican people's solidarity with Haiti as a clear indication that racial discrimination and mistreatment of Haitians is a myth.

However, the fault for racist and xenophobic stereotypes about Haitians lies with the government and Dominican ruling class, which scapegoat Haitian immigrants in times of social and economic crisis. Fernández's current rhetoric diverts attention from a new constitution that strips the children of undocumented Haitian immigrants of their Dominican citizenship.

Fernández's government suffered a setback shortly after the earthquake when public opinion forced it to stop deportations of undocumented Haitian immigrants. But according to Clave Digital, a mainstream Web site, the military is conducting deportations in the border zone. In fact, some of the injured have been returned to Haiti after being released from hospitals. In most cases, those who have relatives on the Dominican side are able to stay for a longer time.

Also, Fernández, one of the U.S. closest allies in the region, requested the UN permission to send 300 Dominican troops to strengthen the five-year-old military occupation of Haiti. But public opinion forced his government to back down. As of this writing, no troops have been sent to Haiti.

ALMOST A month after the earthquake, both Dominicans and Haitians continue to travel to Haiti to help with the relief effort, providing medical help, feeding people and recovering remains from the rubble. Even though the Dominican Republic lacks the logistical and economic resources of wealthy nations, this grassroots solidarity campaign has saved lives.

In fact, several hospitals located in the impoverished border region of Jimani, where an international team of Cuban, European and U.S. doctors work side by side, have served thousands of people.

One of the biggest contingents of volunteers at the hospitals is medical students (both Haitians and Dominicans) from the Santo Domingo Autonomous University (UASD), a state university for low-income students. Prior to the catastrophe, Haitian and Dominican medical students did not interact with one another. But the life-and-death situation caused by the earthquake forced them to work together and begin to form social bonds.

In addition, there are many non-medical volunteers who help with translation from Creole to Spanish or help unload and organize supplies.

In a high school in Herrera, a working-class neighborhood in Santo Domingo, the capital of the country, a group of Dominican teachers discussed how to best help three Haitian students who lost their grandparents in the earthquake.

The three had come to the Dominican Republic to finish their secondary education, but after the earthquake, their parents told them they could no longer afford to pay for them to stay, since the family's small business was lost in the disaster. Teachers, in conjunction with the principal, decided to provide a monthly allowance to the students so they can pay rent, buy groceries and finish their education. The Haitian students received help from the whole student body, who organized a cultural event to help raise funds.

More solidarity is on the way. In the coming days, organizations of the Dominican left will bring a convoy with food and medicine to Haitian grassroots organizations for distribution.

What is striking about what is taking place in the Dominican Republic is how in a matter of weeks, the collective effort of ordinary people have accomplished more than that the U.S. and UN put together have. For example, people all over the country collected tons of food and other basic necessities, while others have donated blood and cared for the injured. In fact, many poor people donate what little food they have.

According to Maribel, a Dominican activist who has been to Haiti three times since the earthquake, 80 percent of the food is rotting in warehouses guarded by U.S. troops, unlike most of the food and aid brought by the Dominican solidarity campaign, which has reached the Haitian population. The reason is simple: aid is given directly to the people in need.

The earthquake also revealed warm ties between Haitians and Dominicans, something the media rarely mentions. The poor and working-class people of the island share cultural and political traditions, and continue that interaction despite constant political tensions fostered by both the Dominican and Haitian elites to discourage unity.

During the colonial era, Spanish and French colonizers encouraged racial hatred to create divisions among African slaves and people of mixed race. But the history of the island has been more than contradictory at times. In times of class struggle and natural calamities, Haitians and Dominicans have worked together in unity.

Examples of solidarity across the island abound--from the countless slave rebellions on both sides of the island to the 1863 War of Restoration waged by black Dominicans against Spanish colonialism, which defeated the Spanish Empire, due in part to the military aid of Haiti. Another important example is the simultaneous struggles fought by peasant guerillas against the U.S. occupying forces in Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924).

In the 1930s, Haitians came to the rescue of Dominicans when hurricane San Zenon devastated Santo Domingo City. Most recently, during the Dominican Republic's 1965 Revolution, a popular uprising aimed at restoring democratically elected President Juan Bosch to power, many Haitians joined the cause and died fighting against Dominican military forces and the subsequent U.S. invasion. In fact, one of the martyrs of the revolution was the Haitian-born intellectual Jacques Viau.

Unity among Dominicans and Haitians is possible--and crucial today to help defeat the U.S. and Western powers that seek to further oppress the Haitian people under the guise of humanitarian intervention.

Aid to earthquake-ravaged Haiti is important, but it shouldn't be the only focus of our solidarity with the Haitian people. Only by building a strong revolutionary, internationalist and anti-imperialist movement in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and elsewhere will we be able to force UN and U.S. troops out of Haiti.

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