Correction: This story and its headline previously said that Diaz and Danticat called for a travel boycott on the Dominican Republic. In fact, Diaz noted that the Dominican regime was vulnerable with respect to tourism, and Danticat urged Haitian-Americans in particular not to travel there. The story has been updated to reflect this correction.
At any other time, the marquee names would have been talking about literature. Junot Diaz, hands-down the most critically acclaimed Dominican-American author, sharing a table with Edwidge Danticat, the most critically acclaimed Haitian-American author.
But they were not here to talk about books. They were here to speak out against the impending refugee crisis that has reached a fever pitch on the island where they were both born.
“There is a state of terror in the Dominican Republic,” Diaz told an overflowing crowd of attendees gathered in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood at a panel hosted by Miami Workers Center, a local activist group.
All last week, Diaz explained, he was in Santo Domingo, where he witnessed the beginning of the Dominican government’s implementation of a policy that could potentially deport hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian heritage across the border, to a country they have never known.
A court ruling from 2013 retroactively stripped Haitian-Dominicans, among other immigrant groups, of their citizenship dating back to 1929, if they can’t prove they have at least one parent with “Dominican blood.” In effect, the ruling has left four generations of Haitian-Dominicans stateless, by claiming the families were “in transit” all those years. The deadline for Haitian-Dominicans to submit paperwork to remain in the country legally was last Wednesday. Only about 300 got their papers in time, reported the Associated Press.
– Junot Diaz
The government has lined up and paraded a dozen buses that will be used for the deportations. Seven “repatriation centers,” which have been likened to concentration camps for Haitians, have been set up on the border. Instead of risking run-ins with the authorities, reportedly thousands of families have begun self-deportations, bringing themselves across the border to Haiti.
“The last time something like this happened was Nazi Germany, and yet people are like, shrugging about it,” Diaz told Fusion of the international community’s silence on the matter. “Think about how much fear you would have to feel for you to suddenly pick the fuck up and flee.”
Both authors made calls for travelers to think twice about visiting the Dominican Republic, write letters to embassies and politicians in Washington, and to protest Dominican officials when they make regular appearances in the U.S.
During an impassioned speech to attendees, Diaz railed against the Dominican national leadership and the “elite” Dominican media he says has been instrumental in fanning the flames of anti-Haitian sentiment in the name of ultranationalism and power. Together, they have “contorted the conversation and made every single statement against them seem like rabid, traitorous speech,” he said.
The two nations have a long, troubled history. The Dominican Republic celebrates its independence not from a European nation, but from its neighbor, which occupied the entire island of Hispaniola for much of the mid 1800s. Several wars have flared between the nations since then, with a low-point coming in the mid-1900s, during the rule of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, whose official policy was a strain of racially-fueled “anti-haitianismo” that is still prevalent today. Under his rule, between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitians were massacred near the countries’ shared border in a single event.
Danticat, who recalled that period in her early novel The Farming of Bones, says that today is different.
“I think of that period as a historical scar, but we can’t let that overshadow the moment we’re living, which is potentially as tragic,” she told Fusion. “The worst case scenario is having the largest, mass movement of a body of people this hemisphere has seen… It’s a humanitarian crisis ready to happen.”
– Edwidge Danticat
Friends in both countries have recounted stories to her about the current situation. “A lot of people are in hiding [in the Dominican Republic]. A lot of people are afraid to go out since the deadline has past,” she said.
Apart from the threat of government deportations, Haitian-Dominicans are being threatened even from within their communities. During the buildup toward the deadline, a Haitian man was found lynched, she noted. “We’ve had several incidents where communities have been stirred, with people trying to force them out,” said Danticat. “What you have with this decision and the bruhaha about it, is that it opens the door to citizen vigilantes.”
That prospect is one of Diaz’s worst fears.
“What happens when a government basically green-lights your most primitive, fucked up xenophobia?” asked Diaz. “You can develop a certain response from people over 20, 30 years, and in the Dominican Republic, the history is looong of cultivating this response.”
The situation might be happening today in the Dominican Republic, said Diaz, but it could be happening anywhere, with any vulnerable population.
“If we do not begin to practice the muscles of having a possessive investment in each other’s oppressions, then we are in some serious trouble,” he told the crowd.
“This horror, whether we continue to watch it or not, will continue to go on,” said Danticat. “If you don’t think this concerns you, you’re crazy.”