The New York Times
September 29, 2007
The Saturday Profile
A Rights Advocate's Work Divides Dominicans
By MARC LACEY
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic
WHEN Sonia Pierre won an international human rights award last fall, there were two diametrically opposite reactions here: “Way to go!” and “Oh, no!”
Ms. Pierre is the Dominican Republic's most polarizing human rights advocate, a dark-skinned woman who says she can only dream of a country in which her color — and the skin tone of hundreds of thousands of other Dominicans like her who are of Haitian descent — is a non-issue.
Carlos Morales Troncoso, the Dominican foreign minister, was among those who were infuriated at the honor Ms. Pierre received from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. He fired off a letter to Mr. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, labeling the award “ill advised” and “myopic.”
“I fear that, unfortunately, the Robert F. Kennedy Prize is divorced from reality on the island of Hispaniola, and unfortunately there was bad information on the consequences of the work of Ms. Pierre in these parts,” wrote Mr. Morales, who blames her for smearing the reputation of the country internationally and creating, rather than healing, racial divisions.
The letter was the least of Ms. Pierre's problems. Within months, the Dominican government began questioning her citizenship and suggested that she belonged on the other half of Hispaniola, the island that the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti.
Born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, Ms. Pierre, 44, has spent her life advocating on behalf of Haitians and ethnic Haitians who hold Dominican citizenship but are subjected to racial discrimination in a society that places a high value on lighter skin. At the age of 13, she organized a protest by sugar-cane workers in one of the Dominican slums — known as bateyes — where she grew up seeing Haitian workers oppressed by their Dominican bosses.
Her current troubles with the government stem from 2005, when her organization, Movement for Dominico-Haitian Women, took to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights the case of two ethnic Haitian children who were denied Dominican birth certificates. The court found in their favor, ordering the government to provide the birth certificates and pay $8,000 in damages to each of the children.
The court could hardly have found otherwise. The Dominican Constitution grants citizenship to those born on Dominican soil, except the children of diplomats or those “in transit” through the country. That has long meant that the children of Haitians who came to the country to work, legally or illegally, gained Dominican citizenship.
But after the decision, the Dominican Supreme Court ruled that Haitian workers were considered “in transit,” and that their children were therefore not entitled to citizenship. (Those children are entitled to Haitian citizenship, however, because Haiti grants citizenship to the offspring of Haitians no matter where they are born.)
THE decision has been decried by human rights groups, who say it has prompted government officials to begin questioning the citizenship of many Dominicans of Haitian descent, putting them at risk of deportation. But Dominican officials respond that there is only one person to blame for the crackdown: Ms. Pierre.
She scoffs at that notion, saying that the problem is racism, not her efforts to end it.
Race is a complicated issue in the Dominican Republic, where much of the population traces its ancestry to the African slaves brought to the island, but where few regard themselves as black. Ms. Pierre said it was considered a compliment for a light-skinned Dominican to tell a dark-skinned one that he had the soul of a white person. Saying that someone thinks like a black person, Ms. Pierre says, is the equivalent of labeling the person ignorant.
“On TV, the maids are always black and the models are always white,” she said.
The American Embassy recently urged its staff members not to patronize one of Santo Domingo's most popular nightclubs, Loft, because African-American diplomats were denied admission at the door while whites got past the bouncer. Ms. Pierre said she was not surprised.
“I'm sure they were confused with being Haitian,” said Ms. Pierre, who speaks Spanish as well as Haitian creole and is a flurry of activity in her office, sometimes pressing two phones to her ears at once.
“Haitianization” is what Dominicans call the negative influences that poor Haitians bring to their side of the island. Mr. Morales, the foreign minister, explained in his letter protesting Ms. Pierre's award that his country could not handle the huge numbers of illegal Haitian immigrants. He put the blame on the United States and other countries for failing to improve conditions in Haiti.
Mr. Morales did not mention that as Haitians head to the more prosperous economy of the Dominican Republic, many Dominicans emigrate to better opportunities in the United States — sometimes legally, sometimes not.
Even as Haitians are shunned, Ms. Pierre argues that the Dominican economy relies on them. Haitian laborers can be seen on construction sites throughout the capital, including the new subway that is the personal project of President Leonel Fernández.
Ms. Pierre's office, just down the road from the presidential palace, has become a gathering spot for Dominicans of Haitian descent who find their nationality questioned.
ON a recent day, there was a mother who had tried to get a government identity card for her 19-year-old daughter but was told that her daughter, who was born in the Dominican Republic, was a foreigner. The girl's plans for college depended on her getting the card.
A father, an English teacher at a Dominican public school, came to Ms. Pierre's office after trying for five months to get a birth certificate for his newborn daughter. “I'm as Dominican as they are,” he said, adding angrily that the government had begun issuing pink birth certificates for children it suspected of being foreigners as opposed to the white documents given to Dominican children.
In Ms. Pierre's case, officials questioning her nationality have focused on disparities in her record. Her name is listed on her birth certificate as Solain Pie, which she says is a result of a government clerk's error. She said her first name should be Solange (Sonia is a nickname), whereas Pierre is her last name.
Both her parents, she said, were Haitians who came to the Dominican Republic for work. Her mother had two children in Haiti, both of whom remain there, and 12 more in the Dominican Republic.
“I'm not Haitian, no matter what the government says,” Ms. Pierre said. “My parents were, but I'm not. I'm Dominican, and I have the same right of any citizen to criticize my country.”
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