I don’t quite remember when it was that I first heard the stories of the bateyes of the Dominican Republic, and the Dominican born children of Haitian descent, many of whom live in these farm workers settlements and were effectively stateless. But it was only a few months ago that I learned about Solange (Sonia) Pierre—herself Dominican born and raised, and of Haitian descent—and how she tried to help Dominicans of Haitian descent gain citizenship through her organisation Mudha. She first came to prominence at the age of 13, organising a sugarcane workers protest at their poor living conditions and low wages. She was arrested, but their demands were eventually met. In 2006 former Senator Edward Kennedy said she was near the top of his list of heroines as he presented her with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
How bateyes came into being:
For many decades, the Dominican Republic brought in workers from Haiti to farm sugarcane. They set up villages for them by the farms, known as bateyes. This marked a change from the 1937 massacre of Haitians living along the border with Haiti, which was ordered by then Dominican President Rafael Trujillo, in which up to 20,000 were shot, chopped and clubbed to death, many as they tried to flee across the Artibonite River back into Haiti. Many of the bateyes have no running water or proper sanitation facilities, and many of the Haitian farm workers have lived in these conditions for decades. They risk losing their wooden shack homes if they stop working on the farms.
Denial of Citizenship for children born in the Dominican Republic:
For years, the Dominican Republic has been denying official documents to first, second and third generation children born in the country who have Haitian descent. The documents denied them means they are unable to access higher education, get most jobs, and even to travel. People spoke of turning up at government offices to be told by petty bureaucrats that their names didn’t sound Dominican, they didn’t look Dominican (i.e. they were too dark in complexion), amongst other spurious grounds. Since they were born and have lived in the Dominican Republic for all of their lives, they are not citizens of any other country—they are effectively stateless.
Solange Pierre takes the Dominican Republic Government to the International court and wins:
Solange Pierre was part of a legal team who in 2005 took the cases of two young girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They successfully argued that the Dominican Republic was in violation of various articles of the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as Article 11 of its own constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to all those born within its borders except those ‘in transit’ and the children of diplomats. This earned her the hatred of some Dominicans, and there were then attempts by members of the congress to revoke her citizenship.
Dominican Republic Government counters by changing the law:
The Dominican authorities would quickly reverse Pierre’s victory. The Dominican Supreme court ruled that all those invited to work in the country were ‘in transit’, and the constitution already denied citizenship to children born to people ‘in transit’. This was retroactively applied, so that hundreds of thousands who were entitled to Dominican Republic citizenship at the time of their births had it removed with the scribble of a pen. So many of these people woke up to find themselves having been ‘in transit’ for decades, and their children stateless.
People and the impact on their lives:
- Students graduating high school and with a scholarship to attend university cannot attend, because they are refused a birth certificate, even though they and at least one of their parents are born in the Dominican Republic. There is a heartrending YouTube video of the impact of this policy on the Siri Yan family. The father worked in the Dominican cane fields for decades, he and his wife struggling to put their children through primary and secondary education, with the dream that their education would lead to better opportunities. But they were blocked at one of the final hurdles, as one of their sons now has to work irregular jobs as a helper and cleaner on building sites, because although both he and his mother are Dominican born, he was refused the certified birth certificate that would have allowed him to take up the university scholarship he had been offered to study statistics.
- Finish education and looking for a job? You need a cedula (national identity card), without which you cannot open a bank account, without which you cannot get a legitimate job. So people caught in this quagmire tend to work in the less secure cash sector.
- Longstanding professionals such as doctors and lawyers seeking to obtain or renew a passport to attend international events are denied them on the basis that they are no longer considered to be Dominican.
Solange Pierre is no longer with us; she passed away in December 2011. But the organisation which she founded continues the fight to give the Dominican Republic’s stateless citizens a home. There is a novel in my head which takes place between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It’s unlikely to be written anytime soon. But an organic process is already underway, where from time to time I will ruminate on the issues. Themes, plots and characters will come to mind, and when there are sufficient ingredients in the storyteller’s pot, I’ll begin preparing a succulent dish to place before readers. What I’ve learned about the life and work of Solange Pierre has taken me closer to that moment.