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Dominican Republic Hard on Haitians

November 8, 1999

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ In a hospital bed in Santo Domingo, Maria Gomo lies in quiet contemplation, wondering like expectant mothers everywhere how to build a better life for the next generation.

For Gomo, it’s very hard. As an undocumented Haitian, she cannot register her twins _ and this, she fears, will condemn them to ignorance and poverty.

``I have to get them the papers,″ mumbles the pretty 21-year-old, slapping her shoulder with a wet towel to soothe the nerves and relieve the tropical heat.

She may not know it _ she cannot read _ but this issue dominated front pages here last week. It began when the Organization of American States urged the Dominican Republic to change its policy of considering children born to Haitian migrants to be illegal residents.

The report sparked angry protest and rejection from political and church leaders here, but none offered solutions to a problem too big to ignore.

Haitian diplomat Guy Lamothe said as many as 280,000 children born to undocumented Haitians live here illegally. In all, an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Haitians live in this country of 8 million _ half or more illegally.

This dilemma, born of politics and poverty, reveals much about human nature. The Haitians, in search of the dignity of employment, will break laws and endure abuses. The Dominicans _ who themselves experience prejudice as migrants in the United States _ look down on their more downtrodden neighbors.

``They lack a scholarly tradition,″ said hospital spokesman Carlos Beira, shaking his head at Maria’s illiteracy. ``Their culture is just to survive.″

Sociologist Isis Duarte said the Dominican attitude toward the Haitians is rife with contradiction.

``The Dominican economy long needed cheap Haitian labor for sugar and coffee cultivation and now for construction″ because a Haitian works for as little as $50 a month, a quarter the average wage, Duarte said.

On the other hand, Dominican society tends to fear and despise them, because ``our history has been one of conflicts that accentuate the differences,″ she added.

The two countries of 8 million each share the island of Hispaniola _ Creole-speaking Haiti on the overcultivated and degraded western third, the Spanish-speaking Dominicans on the more verdant eastern portion.

The Haitians fought the world’s only successful slave rebellion and became the first black republic in 1804 _ then invaded and occupied the Spanish colony from 1822 to 1844. Haitian rule abolished slavery here but was also harsh.

This century, Haitians suffered a string of murderous, incompetent dictatorships, flocking here for work _ sometimes invited, sometimes not.

The presence of so many Haitians _ who tend to be of pure African descent and black _ has been unsettling for many in a country dominated by brown-skinned people with more European blood.

``The Dominicans fear losing their identity to a lowly ‘voodoo’ culture,″ said Antonio Pol Emil, head of the Dominican-Haitian Cultural Center. ``They fear a peaceful invasion of the blacks. They’re black too, but they don’t see it _ and that’s the bottom line.″

Sometimes there were brutal anti-Haitian campaigns _ the worst being the 1937 slaughter of 20,000 people by dictator Rafael Trujillo on the border around the Massacre River.

Today, Haitians face seemingly random repatriations, and the consequences of an illegality that begins for some at birth.

``I cannot give birth certificates,″ said maternity hospital director Hector Manuel Eusebio. The hospital produces a nonofficial document that must be handed over to a government office along with parents’ residency papers. Without these a child is not registered.

Gomo said she plans to try to bribe officials for the coveted papers _ she heard it costs $190 _ to enable her children to get an education. It’s much more than her husband makes each month on a construction site.

Cases where the proper papers cannot be obtained become the problem of immigration chief Danilo Diaz.

``Every country has rules,″ he said. ``These people came in illegally. By law, they have no rights in the Dominican Republic.″

Diaz estimated up to 1,500 are repatriated monthly but said no statistics were kept.

Pierre Luis, 28, was repatriated _ but not before he’d saved up enough money to bribe his way back.

Now he’s part of a Haitian crew digging ditches for a new elevated highway. The crew sometimes sleeps on the site, he said, and they don’t always get paid in full.

``I have no rights. They could shoot me in the street,″ he said with resignation. ``My dream is to find a job in Haiti and support a family. If I could do that, I would not stay here. I would not tolerate the insults.″

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