Beyond Punta Cana

By Sharlene Gandhi

The Dominican Republic is exactly as you would expect a Caribbean island to be: picture-perfect blue seas, bachata tunes and locals who’ll start dancing before you’ve even asked them to. The image of the ‘carefree Caribbean’ seemed to resonate even when we drove around the streets of the capital, Santo Domingo, at five o’clock in the morning. That said, tourism has diluted our perception of these islands so much, that we can’t seem to look past what we see on the postcard, even when the real deal is put directly in front of us.

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, a country you perhaps would not associate with the aforementioned image of the carefree Caribbean. Amongst our generation, Haiti is most likely known for, or associated with, the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that tore the country to pieces in 2010, from which the country is still recovering. Keep this in mind for later on. However, before the Dominican Republic was the Dominican Republic, and Haiti was Haiti, the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taíno people. The story of colonisation usually goes: a European settler population arrives (in this case, the infamous Christopher Columbus himself), pretends to be cooperative for a short period of time, before all but wiping out the indigenous population. In the case of Hispaniola, the five chiefdoms inhabiting the island were quite literally wiped out, both by disease that the Spanish brought over, and by the harsh conditions in which they ended up being enslaved.

That said, fragments of Taíno culture have still weaved their way into contemporary Dominican culture, whether that is through the preservation of Taíno drawings in underground caves, or the integration of traditional Taíno dancing into Independence Day celebrations. It is beautiful to see children being taught the importance of Taíno culture in schools, despite its unfortunate demise. And yet, in certain developed nations, indigenous/ aboriginal cultures that are still alive and kicking today are marginalised in favour of a macro-European culture. Perhaps we should note this as a learning point.

It probably comes as no surprise that during the slave trade, Hispaniola was also introduced to natives of Africa, and thus to African culture. Thus, Hispaniola becomes a ‘melting pot’ of sorts, with Taíno, African, French and Spanish cultures all giving birth to something new and exciting. But, just as people express nostalgia about what once was, with the loss of Taíno culture, there is an equal sense of distancing oneself from African culture. Strange that one culture is given importance above another…

To add fuel to the fire, the side of the island that was eventually established as the Dominican Republic ended up being occupied by Haiti for a period of twenty-two years after having being freed from Spanish / French rule respectively. Described as a ‘brutal military regime’, the Haitians enforced use of the French language over the Spanish, as well as prohibiting all religious activity and imposing mandatory military service. A sense of resentment towards Haitians was planted into the Dominican national consciousness, and as the continuum of culture would have it, that resentment still exists today.

The rejection of African roots and anti-Haitian sentiment have one, common root problem: anti-blackness. Whilst in Haiti, 95% of the population is black, in the DR, this number drops drastically to around 11%. Thus, by definition, the black man becomes the minority, to the point where he is forced to deny his own blackness. I distinctly remember one of our guides, a proud black man, telling us a shocking story that basically sums the issue up: when asked to fill the race/ethnicity box in a census form, our guide wrote negro (Spanish for ‘black’). The form was immediately returned to him and he was told he could not write that in the box. What else was he supposed to write?: Indian, chocolate, coffee, anything but ‘black’.

The anti-Haitian political game, played expertly by current President Danilo Medina, is an even more terrifying perversion of these ingrained social attitudes. Under the Danilo government, a law was passed in 2013 that meant that anybody born in the DR after 1929 was no longer eligible for birthright citizenship. This Constitutional Court ruling meant that 200,000 Haitian immigrants were stripped of their citizenship, and however many thousands of others were repatriated. This obviously impacted unregistered immigrants, but overwhelmingly impacted the children of those immigrants, for whom everything they knew was to the right of the border. Imagine being told to leave your home to ‘go home’.

So why would people continue to move en masse to a place where they are actively discriminated against? Well, here is every immigrant’s conundrum, especially in a contemporary society whereby ‘successful’ countries want to keep their success locked within their borders, and constrained to the people who have the blood of that country in their veins. Of course you would want to move to a country that has a nominal GDP per capita that is more than eight times larger than that in your home country. Of course you would want to move to a place that attracts foreign investment thanks to a more stable governmental structure. Of course your instinctive risk-aversion would mean that you want to move to an environment that is less naturally volatile. And of course, if all that opportunity was only a couple of minutes / hours to the East, you would try your very best to get to it, even if it means getting sent back across the border every night.

It is difficult to put what we saw in the Dominican Republic into words. On one hand, the country, the landscape, the culture and the people are so beautiful inside and out that it hurts to even find a fault in it. But once we found the fault, it was hard to ignore. It was harder to ignore because it hit close to home. The story of this particular conflict stems from colonialism, and today has turned into a debate on immigration. I happen to think Brexit and Donald Trump and all those lovely immigration arguments stem from exactly the same thing.

There is a problem, though: people literally do not care.

In people’s defence, it’s very hard to care about something that you have not seen for yourself. When myself and others on the trip got back to the US, we so desperately wanted to talk to our fellow classmates and other friends about our experiences. But as soon as I started by spiel on the history of Hispaniola, Taíno culture and that damn Danilo, I’d see eyes glazing over and metaphorical saliva dripping from the corners of mouths within minutes. Thanks to a friend I like to call Cruel Irony, this just discouraged us from sharing our thoughts with anybody else, which, as you can imagine, resulted in the slow erosion of our desire to do something about the issue too. People happily gave any spare change they had to our fundraising effort, but taking a moment to really hear about where their money was going was apparently too much to ask. What was it that stopped people from caring?

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite memories from my ten days in the Dominican Republic: the headmistress of one of the schools we visited, after giving us a tour of her stellar new facility, showed us into an outdoor, spacious church built as part of the school. There, she stood before us, eyes closed, deep in concentration, and said the most genuine prayer I’d ever heard in my life. As my friend translated her Spanish, my eyes welled up; she’d just prayed for my future, for my family and for my health, without even knowing my name, all because I’d taken some time to visit her school. Now, what was it that made her care so much, and why are we not doing more of it?