Vol. 1, No.4 February 16, 1999

 

The Cruel Smile of Janus

by John McLaughlin

Yo jete-m pou pa bon
La vi a gen revè
Tout sa ou choute a pye
Ranmase-li demen

("They threw me out because I wasnít any use / Life has its reversals /Everything you kick away today / You pick up tomorrow"-- from a Haitian chant).

Miland's braided hair bounced on the back of her white dress as she danced in the community locale where everyone was gathered. A fiery girl of Haitian ancestry born in Batey Libertad nine years ago, she smiled brightly as she dramatized the song she sang with the seven other girls performing alongside her this Christmas afternoon. In unison, the girls kicked at a spot on the ground, stepped back, then reached forward again with a scooping motion toward the same spot.

This act was one of many put on by the youth of the batey that afternoon, part of their Christmas celebration. Other children recited poetry, sang songs, and acted-out skits, but no performance was more poignant-- or more prescient-- than that of Miland and her friends. Later that night the Guardia made theater a reality.

In this time when work is plentiful for men and boys of Batey Libertad, when Haitian labor is in high demand (until May) all over the tobacco, rice, and coffee-rich Cibao region, when the Dominican government is importing Haitians by the thousands to harvest sugar cane (despite the nearly 20% unemployment rate of its own people), the Guardia continues its campaign of terror. At 10pm on Christmas day a small but fully-armed patrol burst into the batey and detained six adult men. As usual, some of these persons were legal Dominican citizens but were sequestered due to their "Haitian" appearance; in this case, the two men possessing legal identification were allowed to return to their homes, but only after spending an entire night in the fortaleza in Mao, waiting for an officer of "qualified" rank to inspect their documents. The remaining men were deported, as usual, to Haiti.

* * *

In Roman mythology, Janus (for whom the month of January is named) is the guardian of portals, the patron of beginnings and endings who greets travelers from opposite directions simultaneously, with a two-faced head. Official Dominican policy toward foreign visitors surely has such a nature, when one considers that Haitians-- many of whom are desperately poor-- are required to pay nearly four times that which travelers from the US and Europe pay for a tourist visa. When one examines Dominican policy toward Haitian immigrants more thoroughly, this duplicity becomes at once more strange and sinister, more like a Caribbean Jekyll and Hyde. During the day, one sees President Leonel Fernandez, at a December meeting of Caribbean and Central American heads of state in Miami, proclaiming that the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Georges and Mitch has created a feeling of solidarity so strong that it would be "inhumane" to do anything but suspend US repatriation policies during the next 12 months; one hears Danilo Diaz, Director of Immigration, state that nocturnal military raids upon Haitian communities are a thing of the past; one may even feel, based on the number of Haitians that can be found working and studying in the DR, and the number of advocacy groups that support them, that they are beginning to blend more easily into the fabric of Dominican life. But at night, the potion is drunk, and the transformation takes place: one hears accounts from batey residents of Guardia raids that involve theft, physical abuse, and even rape-- and one sees doors that were ripped off hinges when the soldiers took sleeping people from their beds; one laments the death of Elias Delalvis, a young Haitian man shot twice in the back when he fled pursuing Guardia during a late-November raid, and one is puzzled by the slow and tacit response of government and military officials in prosecuting this crime; one reads a January column in a popular daily newspaper in which the author decries the "dangerous Haitian threat," and urges authorities to work tirelessly "against these foreigners who represent one of the most serious problems in the Dominican Republic."

It wasnít too long ago that official Dominican policy was less duplicitous, and brashly so. General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the Machiavellian dictator of 31 years, instituted many anti-Haitian pogroms during his rule, including the infamous "Parsley Test" of October 1937. In this campaign, Dominican soldiers were dispatched in the border zone armed with sprigs of parsley and loaded guns. Anyone of seeming Haitian origin who could not roll the "r" and aspirate the "j" in "perejil" (Spanish for parsley) to the soldiers' satisfaction was deemed Haitian and executed on the spot. Thirty thousand people were killed in this fashion in a matter of weeks.

Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo's disciple and president of the DR for 22 years, was less bloody, and perhaps more subtle, but nonetheless nefarious, in his anti-Haitianism. His racist rhetoric found particularly pernicious expression during the annual "mes de la Patria" (month of the fatherland), the period between the celebration of the birthday of Juan Pablo Duarte in late January and February 27, the anniversary of the successful revolt of 1844, led by Duarte, against occupying Haitian forces. According to Miland's father, Romero, a Dominican of Haitian descent and a life-long resident of Batey Libertad, Duarte Day was a day of fear in the community. Throughout the day, the story of the "Haitian tragedy," as it was called, could be heard on the radio-- exaggerated accounts of oppression during the Haitian rule of all of Hispaniola of 1822-1844, as well as inflammatory "warnings" that the Haitian presence in the Dominican Republic indicated a desire-- on the Haitians' part-- to return to that state of occupation. Massive repatriation campaigns were thrown into action in Duarte's name; soldiers, wearing red headbands and applying a piece of red tape around the barrels of their rifles, stalked bateys and deported Haitians by the dozens. And at times, this misguided patriotism spun out of control, beyond xenophobia and into barbarism: in 1988, Romero recalls, the red-banded Guardia celebrated Duarte Day by razing each and every dwelling in the community, then offering the choice-- to those snapped-up for deportation-- between repatriation and indentured servitude in a sugar cane field in the eastern end of the DR.

Fortunately, this yearís Duarte Day passed without incident in Batey Libertad. Five days earlier, however, a Guardia patrol arrived at 11pm, broke down the door of one dwelling and detained 4 persons, including one legal Dominican who was later released. As of this writing, the Guardia has not returned since. But Romero and the rest of the community know that that could change all too quickly.

* * *

On December 24th, the traditional day of celebration throughout Latin America, the community enjoyed some peace. At Romero's house, a large crowd had gathered by evening, both inside and out. Christmas Eve has always been the best day of the year for his colmado, and this year was no exception-- he sold foods, little toys, and beer after beer after beer until 4am the next day. In the midst of all that, however, he did manage to share a special dinner with his family, all 9 of whom (including his wife and two of his sons, who had been in Haiti the previous day visiting relatives) were gathered inside his small house, feasting on roasted pork. Partaking of the meal as well were Romero's godmother and a handful of neighbors. Outside, other neighbors-- adults with their children, young men far from their families in Haiti, groups of ebullient adolescents-- conversed and danced to the bachata and merengue music in the air.

Folks slept late Christmas Day. In fact, Romero didnít open his colmado until mid-morning, some three hours later than usual. Business was not quite like the day before, but it was brisk nonetheless, and as such Romero did not go to the community locale to see Miland's performance. When she stepped behind the counter to say goodbye, freshly bathed and neatly coifed, Romero could not help feeling the usual twinge of worry as he kissed her. It's the same concern he bears for all his children-- Dominicans of "Haitian" appearance living in a batey-- wondering which side of the Janus face they will encounter once they're out of his sight.

NOTES FROM THE EDITOR

Edwige Danticat recently published "The Farming of Bones," (SoHo Press) a novel which dramatizes the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Also of note is Michele Wuckerís "Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola", to be released in March and excerpted in the next issue of Crossing.

The Dominican CEA ( State Council of Sugar) is still discussing the contraction of some 12,000 Haitians to be employed in this yearís sugar cane harvest. Sixteen Dominicans died recently when their "yola" (boat) ran out of gas and stayed adrift for ten days in the Canal de la Mona. Twenty survived the odyssey, which began January 28. The number of Dominican "boat people" fleeing to Puerto Rico, as this group did, is on the rise.

CROSSING is published by John McLaughlin and the Centro de Reflexion, Encuentro y Solidaridad: ONE RESPE, for further information please contact: a.badillo@codetel.net.do