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





About the project

Editor's note: Grad student Tim Griffiths will be filing regular dispatches from Santo Domingo this summer. We'll publish his reports online here. This is Tim's first report.

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Salman Rushdie writes in one of his novels something to the effect that, in order to understand one life, you have to swallow the whole world. The same might be said of the two legal cases I am here to work on.

The human rights violations at issue are steeped in the island of Hispaniola's grim history of oppression and the seemingly irrepressible human urge to overcome it. Hispaniola's past, in turn, is embedded in some of the cruelest chapters in world history.

A proper contextualization of the cases would go back at least as far as the African slave trade or perhaps even to Christopher Columbus himself. It would include centuries of animosity between Hispaniola's two occupants, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, from the days of colonial rule through Haiti's revolution and Dominican resistance, and continuing on to the present day migration out of Haiti and the resulting Dominican backlash. This summer, I want to gain a better understanding of this history and if time permits, I will try to share what I learn with you.

For now, suffice to say that Haiti and Haitian migrants to the Dominican Republic are not viewed favorably by either the Dominican government or the majority of Dominican society. Nonetheless, there are estimated to be several hundred thousand undocumented Haitians currently residing in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican government wants to be rid of some these undocumented migrants, or at least rid of their demand on Dominican social services. However, there are many people living in the Dominican Republic, Dominicans and Haitians alike, with little or no proof of citizenship. And so in practice, Dominican authorities often rely on factors like a Haitian-sounding last name, Haitian ancestry or simply darker skin color to identify suspected Haitians for denial of services and even expulsion from the country. It is this practice of massive and arbitrary expulsions or denial of services without due process of law that forms the background for the two cases.

The Education Case

I have yet to meet Daniela (not her real name), but from what little I know of her, she is a truly remarkable young woman. She wants to go to school. That, alone, is not what makes her remarkable though. There are thousands of kids like Daniela living in the Dominican Republic, kids who, maybe on account of their Haitian ancestry, their dark skin or perhaps a Haitian-sounding last name, are suspected of being Haitian citizens and who, as a result, are shunned from Dominican society. Doubtless many of these children would, like Daniela, like an education. What makes Daniela remarkable is that when the Dominican government told her that she could not go to school, Daniela decided to stand up for her rights.

Daniela was born of a Dominican mother and a Haitian father. More significantly, she was born in the Dominican Republic which means that, according to the Dominican constitution, she is a Dominican citizen. The problem is - or was, until she became involved with this case - she had no way to prove it. As a result, Daniela was expelled from school.

There are two ways to prove to the government that you are a Dominican citizen. One way is to show a birth certificate as evidence that you were born in the Dominican Republic. Like a large percentage of children born in the Dominican Republic, no one ever issued a birth certificate to Daniela. That might have been alright if Daniela could have proven her citizenship by the other method: a long, tedious, bureaucratic and essentially impossible procedure requiring the compilation of documents and testimonials. In fact, very few people have successfully proven their citizenship this way. Human Rights Watch's most recent report on the situation of Haitian migrants and their descendents in the Dominican Republic, "Illegal People" explains and documents this problem in depth, including a discussion of Daniela's case.

Daniela's petition was rejected. Unable to prove her citizenship but desperate to get an education, Daniela attended a local evening school for adults. Going to night classes was dangerous for Daniela. For these two years, Daniela also was separated from her peers. Perhaps hardest of all, however, Daniela must have felt a terrible sense of ostracization from the very society and government of the country where she lives and belongs.

Having exhausted every possibility within the Dominican Republic to prove her nationality and return to school, Daniela, with the help of a local organization called the Movimiento de Mujeres Dominica-Haitianas (MUDHA), the Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Inter-American Declaration and Convention on Human Rights. The Commission agreed with Daniela and, in view of the irreparable harm she suffered with each day that she was denied the chance to attend school with her peers, the Commission ordered the Dominican government to reinstate Daniela. In the fall of 2001, Daniela returned to school.

Shortly thereafter, the Dominican government issued a birth certificate to Daniela and the other client in the case, Gabriela (also not her real name). Gabriela received her papers just in time to start school without interruption. Then, just a year ago, the Dominican government announced that it would no longer require citizenship status for attendance at Dominican schools.

The Price of Fighting Back

In my mind, Daniela, Gabriela and their families are quiet heroes. Unfortunately, the backlash against people of Haitian origin or descent is so strong here that Daniela, Gabriela and their families have suffered some recriminations for their stand. That is why, for example, I will not be using their real names nor posting photographs of them on this site. I can only hope that their efforts and courage will one day be recognized by their fellow Dominicans and that they will feel that the vindication of their rights and the rights of those like them has been worth the sacrifice.

The resolution of Daniela and Gabriela's cases thus far is cause for celebration, but the fact that their situation has stabilized is an exception to the overwhelming rule for most children confronting Daniela and Gabriela's situation. Much of what I will be working on with respect to this case over the summer involves trying to ensure that the results for Daniela and Gabriela are extended to all children in a like situation. But, having laid out the basis of the case, I will save an explanation of what remains to be done for another day ...

—Tim Griffiths


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