In the Dominican Republic, few subjects are more divisive than those of Haiti–Dominican Republic relations and the treatment of Haitians on Dominican soil. They separate families and end friendships, as many hold different views on history. For more than a century, Haitians have gone to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane industry, laboring under slave-like conditions. Most recently, they have come to work in a variety of other industries, including construction and domestic service. In spite of their contribution to the national economy, they are often portrayed by right-wing politicians as a menace, a population that is taking jobs away from Dominicans and polluting the nation with their presence. Although it is reactivated anytime it seems politically expedient, this view was first used in 1937 as a tool to justify a massacre perpetrated that year by dictator Rafael Trujillo against tens of thousands of Haitian migrants and their Afro-Dominican descendants.
The Dominican artists of Viau’s generation shared an anticolonial critique, a pride in African heritage, and a rekindled notion of Haitian-Dominican friendship.
The relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti—which share the island indigenous people called Ayiti and the Spanish named Hispaniola—has not always been one of conflict, mistreatment, and massacre. Indeed, long before the existence of the present-day nations, the island often witnessed solidarity between very different people. When it was divided between French and Spanish slaving colonies, escaped Africans from both colonies received aid from the indigenous Taínos, who taught them the geography of the island’s mountainous wilderness and the uses of native plants. Later on, this knowledge served Africans on the French side of the island, Saint-Domingue, contributing to the success of the Haitian Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the birth of Haiti in 1804. During a period when all of Hispaniola was united under Haiti (1822–44), slavery was abolished on the entire island, turning it into a haven for hundreds of freed slaves from the United States who migrated to start new lives on Hispaniola. After the separation of the nations in 1844, which led to the founding of the Dominican Republic, solidarity continued. This was particularly clear in the 1860s, as Haitians helped Dominican leaders regain their independence from Spain (to which Dominican conservatives had annexed the new nation, returning it in 1861 to its former colonial status) through ammunition, supplies, trade, housing, and protection of refugees. Some Haitians even joined the expeditions against Spanish troops.
What has received relatively little attention is that even in the aftermath of Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of Haitian migrants, solidarity did not stop. While both nations were under the dark control of dictators—Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, François Duvalier in Haiti—leftist militants on both sides of the island also understood the continuing need to be allies and learn from each other. When Dominican president Juan Bosch was elected in 1962, hundreds of Haitians fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship took refuge in the homes of Dominican families. Most of these families were members of the left that had helped bring Bosch to power. When Bosch was overthrown in 1963 by a coup staged by the United States with the help of the Dominican right, Haitian exiles joined the Comando Haitiano, which helped the Constitutionalistas in their fight against the U.S. Marines sent in 1965 to ensure Bosch would never come back to power. Many died in combat.
According to Lionel Vieux, who was part of the Comando Haitiano, solidarity and friendship between leftist Haitians and Dominicans was the most natural thing in the world. The tacit understanding was that once Bosch was restored to power, Dominicans would help Haitians overthrow Duvalier. It was a notion of solidarity in which “si tu ’ta bien, yo ’toy bien,” that is, your gain is my gain. Rather than acting to “save” someone in need, this solidarity was an agreement between equals, whereby the welfare of the other meant the welfare of the self, and fighting for the other was, in a way, fighting for oneself.
No one captured the era’s Haitian-Dominican solidarity better than poet Jacques Viau Renaud. Born in Port-au-Prince in 1941, he was part of a modestly middle-class family that moved to Santo Domingo in 1948. As a young man, Viau met the artists, writers, and poets of the Generación del Sesenta (the Sixties Generation), known for their progressive inclination. His poetry was shaped by two major aesthetic and political movements taking place at the time: first, by the emergent Afro-affirming, anticolonial literary and philosophical scenes led by Jean-Price Mars, a Haitian intellectual, and Martinicans Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon; and second, by the Marxist and internationalist views espoused by his compatriot Jacques Stephen Alexis, a celebrated Haitian novelist.
The artists of the Generación del Sesenta whom Viau knew as a young man—including Antonio Lockward Artiles, Miguel Alfonseca, and Silvano Lora—shared these internationalist and anticolonial ideas, a pride in African heritage, and a rekindled notion of Haitian-Dominican friendship. They organized in groups with such telling names as El Puño (“The Fist”) and La Isla (“The Island”). La Isla, led by Viau’s close friend Antonio Lockward Artiles, in particular, actively promoted solidarity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
These anticolonial, Marxist, and Afro-affirming views informed Viau’s poetry, which also addressed events taking place beyond the island. The poem “A un líder negro asesinado” (To a Murdered Black Leader), for example, was written in homage to U.S. civil rights activist Medgar Evers upon his assassination in 1964. It offers poignant testimony to a pan-Africanism that was in tune with events beyond Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and shows the impact that the U.S. civil rights movement had outside the United States. It also reflects an international current of writers and artists who engaged politically and used their art and literature as tools for political rebellion.
In regard to Haitian-Dominican dynamics, Viau had a particularly privileged position as he belonged entirely to both sides of the island. Haitian, he wrote exclusively in Spanish. His friends were Dominican poets and yet he also read Haitian authors and knew very well the history of Haiti. His poems emphasize a solidarity that manifests itself most concretely through the use of two terms: “nosotros” (us/we) and “patria,” a term that can be translated as “country,” “homeland,” or, most literally, “fatherland,” depending on the context See, for instance, this excerpt of the poem “Se va amontonando el silencio (The Silence Is Piling Up):
Camaradas, en nosotros está la alborada,quieren matarlamatándonos,quieren guardarla en cajas de acero,asesinarla.Camaradas, no os dejéis asesinar,alcémonos en nombre del pueblo con el pueblo.Volved las espaldas a la nochegritad: Patria, te amamos. . . .Patria te arrancaremos de los barrotes.Comrades, the dawn lives within usthey want to kill itby killing us,they want to keep it in cages of steel,murder it.Comrades, don’t let them murder you,let’s rise in the name of the people with the people.Turn your backs against the nightshout: Fatherland, we love you. . . .Fatherland, we will free you from the jail bars. (my translation)
Viau’s use of the collective pronoun “nosotros” is consistent with the poetry of his generation, which consciously used its art to further a political project of collectivity, inclusiveness, and unity. I would argue that Viau’s use of the term “patria” is intended to be equally expansive. Instead of wondering whether he meant Haiti, his birth country, or the Dominican Republic, his adopted country, I suggest that he meant both but also more than that: patria as an idea of a nation, an imagined community of oppressed people—be they on the island or in the rest of the Americas—who are comrades, partners, and fellows sharing the same fight for freedom. This was his beloved patria, and he was willing to die for it, as he ultimately did.
When the Marines invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965, Viau joined the rebel unit Comando B-3, and soon became a sub-comandante, but died, hit by a mortar, when he was only twenty-three. Hundreds of people attended his funeral. Although Dominicans had already adopted him as one of them, Constitutionalist president Francisco Caamaño formalized this adoption by issuing a decree granting him posthumously Dominican nationality for defending with his life the nation’s democracy and sovereignty.
The once-unifying concept of “patria” has become the ultimate tool for dividing the nation.
Since 1965 the Dominican concept of “patria” has shifted considerably from the solidarity community imagined by Viau’s generation. While the fall of Duvalier in 1986 led to a rapprochement between the two countries well into the end of the past century, the adoption of neoliberal economic policies has accompanied a shift in values. Principles have gradually been replaced by self-interest, the struggle for the collective’s welfare by one for individual’s success, solidarity by competition, and the notion of “your gain is my gain” with that of “your gain is my loss.”
The party Bosch created a decade after the 1965 revolution, the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD), has been in power since 1996, with a short hiatus between 2000 and 2004. Yet it has turned its back on Haitians, erasing their contributions to Dominican history and implementing constitutional policies that culminated, in 2013, in the infamously anti-Haitian court ruling 168-13. This ruling strips of their nationality multiple generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent who had been entitled to Dominican nationality by virtue of birthright citizenship.
The ruling provoked local and international outrage, galvanizing protests by activists, journalists, writers, and scholars. Worldwide solidarity flourished to unprecedented levels, broadcasting the message that many Dominicans do not agree with a notion of dominicanidad (Dominicanness) that excludes the poor and blacks. At the same time, another front emerged, protected by the PLD, to discredit, intimidate, and marginalize these activists. This divided Dominican society into, on the one side, those who defended an idea of an ethnic state, and, on the other, those of us who emerged as critics and dissenters, supporters of an expansive definition of Dominican society. The once-unifying concept of “patria” became the ultimate tool for dividing the nation. As the current government, led by the PLD, controls all branches of the government and employs roughly a million individuals in a nation of 10 million, the livelihood of half the population depends on their submission to the PLD’s ideology.
Three years ago, I was able to interview celebrated journalist Juan José Ayuso, who also participated in the 1965 revolution. When I asked him about Viau, with whom he had been close friends, he responded, with tears running down his face: “¿Para qué patria fue que peleamos? Para esto? Mira en lo que nos hemos convertido!” (For which country did we fight? For this? Look at what we’ve become!) Like Ayuso, I have a broken heart but I try to not let despair take over. New generations of artists, writers, and activists are rising and following in the footsteps of Viau and his generation, a sign that not everything is lost, and that hope and solidarity are staying alive after all.