Student Journal: summer dispatches from the field The Dominican Republic fighting for the right to go to school
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The Dispatches

1- Amid the swirl of passionate conversation, and the rhythm of merengue and bachata

2 - To be dark-skinned in the Dominican Republic is to live under suspicion of being Haitian

3 - Forced expulsions of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent

4 - Humberto's 'disappeared' family and Enron in the Dominican Republic

5 - Life in the batey communities where Rosa seeks to buy a mother

6 - Meeting Daniela, the catalyst for this case — and reaching an understanding about the country




Johnny Tibo and Manuel de Jesus Dandre
Attorneys Johnny Tibo and Manuel de Jesus Dandre sign a Declaration criticizing Dominican policies on public school access for "undocumented" children
The Dispatches
Late night ruminations on the World Cup, viewing the role of race through a Dominican lens, and the precious sound of a school bell

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - I could try to pretend that I am being diligent about the business of sending dispatches regularly. The truth of the matter, however, is that I find writing these blurbs the best way to keep myself awake until the wee hours of the morning in order to watch the US national soccer team in the World Cup.

Let's see, where was I at the conclusion of my last dispatch? I think I was headed to the offices of the Dominico-Haitian Women's Movement (Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas), better known by its acronym MUDHA. MUDHA is a truly amazing organization and I am honored to be working with and for the people here. MUDHA aims to improve the quality of life in the Dominican Republic's batey communities. Batey communities are essentially company towns or neighborhoods where sugar cane workers and their families live. Sugar production is grueling work and it does not pay well. For years, the Dominican sugar industry has counted on cheap migrant labor from Haiti to harvest the cane and operate the sugar refineries. As a result, the batey communities consist largely of Haitian or Dominico-Haitian residents. They are extremely impoverished and marginalized from the rest of Dominican society.

MUDHA is not alone in its endeavor. There are quite a few organizations dedicated to the effort to improve life in the batey communities. However, off the top of my head, there are at least three things that set MUDHA apart as an organization. First, the staff is made up almost entirely of Dominico-Haitians who grew up and for the most part still live in the batey communities. Second, as the name suggests, MUDHA places particular emphasis on the important role that women play and the special risks that women face in the batey communities. Much of MUDHA's work in the communities is carried out through teams of women leaders, or promoters, as MUDHA calls them. For example, in several batey communities, MUDHA maintains a stock of medical supplies. These supplies are largely administered by the women leaders, to whom MUDHA gives special training in first aid and basic medicine. MUDHA also prioritizes sexual and reproductive health in its provision of health care and in community health education. Third, and perhaps the point that most distinguishes MUDHA, the organization stridently refuses to ignore the crucial role that race and racism play in Dominican society. MUDHA as an institution and the people that make up its staff take pride in their roots and are unwilling to accept the common myth that the Dominican Republic is a racial democracy in which people of all shades are treated equally.

Yipes! With this last bit, I have just bitten off an enormous chunk, so let's take a moment to chew before I ask you to swallow it all.


Ask the Author:

Tim Griffiths has agreed to answer your questions, time permitting. Email Tim in Santo Domingo.

First of all, to begin to understand the role that race plays in the Dominican Republic, if you were raised in the United States, you will need to take off the distinctly U.S. lens through which people in the U.S. generally view race. In the U.S., an individual with any African ancestry is generally considered "black." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, is widely hailed within the U.S. as one of the most influential black men in the nation's history. But when I asked Ruben Duran Pie, a MUDHA staff member, what race Colin Powell was from a Dominican point of view, he responded immediately, "white."

The difference is one of societal construction of race. In the Dominican Republic - and Haiti as well, by the way - your race is determined less by ancestry than by skin color (though obviously the two things are often related). And, whereas in the United States we typically think quite literally in terms of black and white, in the Dominican Republic there is a much broader and more complex racial spectrum. Understanding this different "lens" through which Dominicans view race is absolutely essential to comprehending the context in which MUDHA works and the controversy that its position provokes.

Most Dominicans think of their society as largely free of racism. To some degree, that view is accurate. After all, as many Dominicans will point out to you, since nearly everyone is of mixed African and European ancestry, how could one Dominican be racist against another? Another way of thinking about this is in terms of racial minorities. Where nearly everyone is of mixed descent, it is difficult to say that that there exists either a racial majority or minority (though MUDHA does so). More importantly, Dominicans' daily experience is one of fair and friendly interaction with people of all shades and mixtures of African and European ancestry.

I suspect, too, that Dominicans draw a comparison between their society and that of their enormous, wealthy neighbor to the north, the United States. I can't help but wonder, for example, what Dominicans make of the ubiquitous Hollywood movies shown here and their depiction of racial tension in the United States. Comparing their daily experience with these sometimes exaggerated or satirized film portrayals, it isn't hard to see why Dominicans feel that they live in relative racial harmony. And, quite apart from the impact of Hollywood, there are thousands of Dominicans living in the United States where, viewed by a different lens, they are instantly black, Latino and immigrants — and suffer substantial discrimination on account of each of these characteristics.

But if there is important truth in the image of Dominican racial democracy, it also obscures significant racial discrimination. First, there are the more subtle prejudices that permeate the culture: the upper-class parents who prefer that their daughter straighten her otherwise curly, classically African hair; the omnipresence of light-skinned individuals on TV and in advertisements; the fact that the only truly dark-skinned candidate to challenge for the Dominican presidency (in 1994) was subjected to a campaign of racial slander and then prevented from taking power when he won; and, in general, an overwhelming valorization of all things historical and cultural that connect the Dominican Republic to Spain and Europe.

Second, the picture of the Dominican Republic as a racial democracy crucially covers up the situation of the thousands of Haitians, and Dominicans of Haitian descent, in the country. To be dark-skinned in the Dominican Republic is to live under suspicion of being Haitian. Though anyone born in Dominican territory is legally Dominican, anyone born of a Haitian parent is generally considered Haitian by the society at large. And while a government form referring to "Dominican children" seemingly includes any child born in the Dominican Republic, it is clearly understood here that the form means only children born of two Dominican parents.

This only begs the question, however. If you can't be sure whether someone is Haitian or Dominican based on where they were born, how can you know?

Well, many Dominicans will tell you, it's obvious: Haitians walk differently, they talk differently (even when speaking Spanish as opposed to their native Creole), they eat different foods, they are darker-skinned and well, you can just tell. And based on one or more of these factors, people suspected of being Haitian, regardless of the truth of the suspicion, are denied access to job opportunities, education and social services and are subject to sudden and random expulsion from the country without cause and without a hearing.

These are the problems that MUDHA refuses to allow to remain hidden. Of special importance to me, MUDHA has spearheaded the use of international human rights mechanisms to seek resolutions to these problems when the Dominican political and judicial systems have refused. My role with MUDHA is to help marshal the documentation, testimony and legal arguments that will allow MUDHA to win the cases it currently has pending before the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights (see About the Project).

But once again, I am getting ahead of myself. To be able to work on these cases as well as to continue its other programs, MUDHA needs funding. Like most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), MUDHA lives life on the financial edge, so my first task here was to translate the organization's 35-page Strategic Plan into English to assist the search for donors in the United States and Europe. Translation isn't always the most fascinating work, but I was anxious to lend a hand to MUDHA's effort.

My other activities in the first week were similarly and regrettably desk-bound. Though I very much wanted to get out into Santo Domingo and to visit our clients and the batey communities, some preparatory work was in order. I needed to read up on case backgrounds, establish contacts and coordinate my summer agenda with the needs of the organizations involved: MUDHA, the Berkeley International Human Rights Clinic, our counterparts at Columbia Law School and the Center for Justice and International Law. Here, in broad strokes, is the resulting program:

  • Assist MUDHA institutionally.
  • Conduct a survey to show the impact/lack of impact of the September 2001 government policy change allowing children without birth certificates to attend Dominican schools and facilitating late applications for birth certificates.
  • Gather evidence and testimony regarding the clients' damages in the Education Case.
  • Analyze and report on the prospects for immigration law reform in the Dominican Republic.
  • Organize the reunification, in accordance with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights' decision, of four clients: a husband who was separated from his wife and two children when they were suddenly and arbitrarily expelled to Haiti.
  • Mediate and facilitate the disbursement of "safe passage" documents to a man and a family subjected to random and arbitrary expulsion from the Dominican Republic.
  • Analyze and report on the current status of an effort to block compliance with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights' decision through a constitutional challenge before the Dominican Supreme Court.

That should be more than enough to keep me busy.

As a first step in that program, MUDHA staff attorneys Johnny and Manuel de Jesus Dandre finished up the Declaration that they drafted regarding a Dominican government policy, announced last July and ratified by an agreement between the Central Electoral Board and the Secretariat of State-Run Education, that supposedly allows undocumented children under 13 years of age to attend school and, if they have the required papers, register for a birth certificate through the school system. MUDHA's Declaration praises the policy as an important step, but cautions that it is insufficient to address the wider problem.

First, the policy will not reach all undocumented children, because many are over 13 and the policy will only reach students in official government schools. Second, because the policy only applies to the registration of "Dominican" children, it is unclear if, in practice, the policy will cover the enormous number of children who are of Haitian descent or whose parents simply were never registered as Dominicans. Third, the policy is in the form of an "acuerdo" or agreement between two governmental bodies. As such, it lacks an outside enforcement mechanism. Finally, MUDHA's Declaration points out that, while allowing undocumented students to attend primary school is wonderful, students who lack a birth certificate still will not be able to take the necessary exams to advance to the high school level, nor can they officially graduate. Thus, the government's new policy points in the right direction, but it is still woefully insufficient.

Once Johnny and Manuel signed the Declaration (see the photo at top), it was dispatched to the Berkeley Human Rights Law Clinic to be included as an annex to the petitioner's response to the Dominican government's brief on the merits of the Education Case. This is an excellent example of the teamwork through which this case is being carried out. MUDHA is the key institution, providing direct contact with the clients and analysis of domestic law and political developments. The Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic does the international legal legwork and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) gives expert legal advice and maintains direct contact with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, before which the case is pending ...

— Tim Griffiths


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