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Magdalena Holztrattner {*}

Poor Island Full of Riches

What about the Future of the Dominican Republic?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2012, P. 530-534
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    On May 20 of this year, Danilo Medina was elected president of the Dominican Republic. He promises that he will make everything new and everything better. 44 percent of the population live in poverty, while 5 percent have more than 43 percent of national income. Economically, tourism plays an important, socially an ambivalent role. The Church has still great influence.


"The Germans are the worst!" said with an apologetic glance Sister José María in a conversation about the situation of people in the Dominican Republic, in particular about the results of tourism for the population of the island nation, and about the growing prostitution, in which also young girls are involved.

Every year more than four million tourists come to the Dominican Republic to enjoy the beautiful country. Apart from the white coral sand beaches, the turquoise sea, the green palm trees, the swaying sugar cane, the fiery rhythms and the traditional rum, the short-term visitors from the West are also delighted by the people's dark skin, their black eyes and slim figures. You may therefore quite often see old, fair-skinned men with gray hair and a big belly, who are leading a dark, very young companion by the hand through the shopping malls and please them with purchases. Also single, middle-aged women from Germany enjoy walking on the beach with swarthy, handsome Dominicans, who hang on to their arm like a recently acquired handbag.


Sold Women

Prostitution, rape, domestic violence belong almost to the culture of the country. Not only in the Dominican Republic, but also in most other Latin American countries, especially women are the victims of a centuries-old culture of the often violent domination of men over women.



The for Latin America typical mingling of European, African and indigenous races were probably very rarely the product of love and the free choice of indigenous women regarding the man whom they wanted to marry.

Also today you may not always speak of love, when statistics in cold numbers tell that one in four women in the Dominican Republic at least once in her lifetime was exposed to sexual violence. The low number of criminal complaints and the even lower number of convictions of criminals as well as the silence of the families and neighbors of the victims speak volumes. Economic violence such as unemployment and poor wages for the same work compel many women from the hinterland to the outskirts of the big cities, especially to Santo Domingo. Given the surplus of unskilled workers and the frequent lack of responsibility of the fathers for their children, many single women often see prostitution as the only way out of the economic bankruptcy. Usually on the advice of a girlfriend, young mothers try to give their children enough for survival by selling their bodies.

Meanwhile, also the "consumer pressure" occasionally compels young girls into prostitution, because their parents do not have enough income to meet the needs for modern clothes and the ultimate mobile phone. "There are girls, partly ten or twelve year old," says Sister José María, "who prostitute themselves in order to be able to show off with groovy clothes at school."

According to a survey, the use of condoms is at almost 100 per cent in contacts with strangers. The closer the relationship, the less often this contraceptive device would be used. The second place of the island state in the HIV statistics in Latin America speaks therefore volumes: With an HIV infection rate of 1.2 percent of the population, only Haiti is worse off with 2 percent.

Several Catholic sister communities throughout the country look after the women and young girls who have to earn money by prostitution or are, due to unemployment, poor education and lack of social networks, at risk of working as prostitute. The sisters go to brothels, talk to prostitute women in the street, and offer them the opportunity to live in the convent's shelter for battered women. They provide treatment for their psychological problems, and enable them, via training courses for dressmaker, hairdresser, cloth printing or cosmetician, to find a professional alternative in order to feed themselves and their children.

For example, Barahona, one of the westernmost regions of the island, near the border with Haiti. "Bateyes" are named the settlements for sugar cane workers who emigrated from Haiti and now harvest the sugar cane in the neighboring country under almost slave-like conditions. "Bateyes" are "country within a country." Isolated from the villages of the Dominicans, the Haitians live far away from the Dominican society, not only in the economic but also in the legal sense. At the beginning there was in the "Bateyes" an own currency and an own police under the command of the sugar baron.


The Bitter Taste of Sugar

A sharp increase in the population of Haiti since the fifties of the last century (from 3.5 to 9.6 million in 2010), combined with the highest poverty rate of the continent (50 percent of the population in Haiti live in extreme poverty), and mostly the last place in all relevant statistical data in the Latin American comparison explain why so many Haitians seek a better life outside the borders of their own state. Cost what it may.

Despite the massacre of the Haitian population in the border region under dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937, and despite the since then deeply internalized resentment of the Dominicans against the Haitians, the so-called "pull factors" are great enough for the children of slaves, who worldwide as the first succeeded in shaking off their rulers, to leave their homeland. Thus, at present about ten percent of the population of Quisqueya, as the Dominicans also call their country, come from Haiti.

Haitian men and women workers earn only slightly more than half of that already miserable minimum wage for Dominican workers (currently the equivalent of about 150 euros per month). Furthermore, the access to education and the national healthcare system is de facto denied to them, and the right to trade union activities as well as the granting of citizenship to their in the Dominican Republic born children is virtually withheld from them. While previously every in the Dominican Republic born child was automatically awarded with Dominican citizenship, it is now - after an amendment in 2011 - only awarded children of Haitians with valid residence papers. (By the same amendment, moreover, abortion is absolutely prohibited).



"I've never been to Haiti. I am now 35 years old and I was born here. My eight children and my siblings are all born here!" shouts Amadé, who was caught by officials of the migration police and will be deported to Haiti. Every year thousands of cases of arbitrary deportation are registered by state officials (see Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados y Migrantes [2004], Inmigrantes haitianos y dominicanos de ascendencia haitiana en la República Dominicana). Those who were born by Haitian parents before the law amendment but had not yet requested papers from government agencies have now bad luck. Even though the law is only partly retroactively valid, many Dominicans with Haitian parents are denied legitimate papers, and thus the access to public schools, travel documents or papers necessary for the civil wedding. With reference to the lack of citizenship, protesting youths of Haitian origin is also denied the right to freedom of assembly - by using tear gas. For despite their birth in the Dominican Republic, they lack the all-important birth certificate. On the contrary, their usually darker complexion, their usually not accent-free Spanish, their humble origin "reveal" that they are Haitians - no matter what status they have legally.

Since children of immigrants get no papers, they cannot attend any public school. And without official documents they get also no state medical care. Without school education, however, the escape from the slave-like and by extreme poverty and exploitation characterized conditions in the "bateyes" is impossible for them.

"The Dominican society is racist," it says in the annual report of the Refugee and Migration Service of the Jesuits in 2007. Since the 12-year occupation of the country by the Haitians in the 19th century, and since the from the thirties to the eighties of the twentieth century massively state-sponsored racism by dictator Trujillo and his successor Balaguer, everything that has to do with Haiti is detested. Haitians were stupid, dirty and dangerous - these are the prejudices of the Dominican population.

That's why the majority does probably not regard it as a crime when the Dominican state in this decade commits massive human rights crimes against the Haitian immigrants and their descendants. That they are preferred victims of the theft of organs and of sexual exploitation, and that also civilian and military authorities benefit from the illegal trafficking in human beings is rather reluctantly reported in the media. Like in other countries of the world, one wants to get rid of the non-beloved foreigners. Like in other countries, the foreigners without residence status do those chores which are too exhausting, too dirty or too poorly paid in the eyes of the locals.

On construction sites and in the cane fields you hardly hear Spanish but almost exclusively "Creole", the language of the Haitians. Although the private sector is always dependent on the cheap labor, there are even after the great earthquake of 2010 operations by police and military, in which those people who look like Haitians and can not prove their identity are simply put over the border to Haiti. That also Dominican citizen are among them is their personal misfortune: a too dark skin. Brave people of society and the Church, as e.g. the recently deceased human rights activist Sonia Pierre, who publicly speak out against state violence and for the protection of the Haitians are likewise publicly discriminated, mocked and butchered.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church too is in this context not only the good angel of the exploited. In addition to many religious, priests and lay people who in many places are very dedicated to their fellow men, Benedict XVI had to admonish the bishops of the Dominican Republic not to deny Haitian children baptism. For this is indeed the sad practice, due to the fact that you get by the baptism certificate the confirmation of your existence, an official status, and the confirmation of your birth in the country.


Dominicans as Emigrants

It is one of the ironies of history: when Dominicans leave as emigrants the country, they are faced with the same behavior that they in their homeland show Haitian immigrants. As always, economic poverty and family reunification are the strongest "pull factors" for migration. There are only 50 kilometer distance between the island of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, the gateway to the United States. Many men, and more women therefore leave their beautiful Quisqueya. They risk their lives and cross the sea, in order to get into the "promised land".

The cheapest and most dangerous option is to risk an attempt off one's own bat. But it is safer with the smugglers. For a tidy sum of money they bring you on a secure way to the neighboring island. Currently the smuggling price is the equivalent of about 2000 euros. It is also rumored that a VIP variant exists: For even more money, a speedboat from Puerto Rico picks the emigrants on the spot up, to bring them safely to their destination.

Although Dominican immigrants in Puerto Rico have to struggle with the same prejudices of the natives as the Haitians in the Dominican Republic, in comparison with them they are nevertheless better off, because they needn't overcome a language barrier. What's more, in this with the United States freely associated state, their human rights are much better respected than they themselves behave in their homeland towards their fellow beings.



But most Dominicans do not stay on the neighboring island; they go to the north. The largest group of them lives in New York. As "Dominican Yorks" they are a cultural enrichment. Many of the Dominican politicians were trained in the U.S.. However, the greatest factor, which makes migration an important dimension for Quisqueya, is the remittance of money. These so-called "Remesas" are periodically transferred to those who stayed at home. With almost seven percent of gross domestic product, they are after tourism the most important source of revenue of the country.


Four Percent for Education

The migration and the remittances of money are important, because the poverty in the country is great. 44 percent of the population live in poverty, while 5 percent have more than 43 percent of national income. The unequal distribution of property is, and that is quite common in Latin America, relatively large. The so-called "Gini coefficient" measures this dimension. By it the Caribbean Republic with 0.5 is placed between Argentina and El Salvador - just into the upper half of Latin America. The country is dominated by 20 families. As landowners they possess 36 percent of the areas under cultivation. They are in the executive boards of private universities, and are the main shareholders of the major media. No wonder that the real estate tax - a means of creating local infrastructure by municipalities - is missing. And no wonder that the situation in the education sector of Quisqueya is rather poor. Only about 2 percent of GDP are currently invested in public schools and universities. Long distances, high costs of school uniforms and teaching materials, and an almost yearly changing assortment of school books which must be purchased (to the benefit of publishers and distributors) explain inter alia an illiteracy rate of currently almost 15 percent.

But the state economizes in the education sector. A fact which in 2011, the year before the elections, has mobilized all groups of the population - led by church and civil institutions.Yellow posters, umbrellas and people in yellow T-shirts with the slogan "4 percent of GDP on education" called upon all presidential candidates to promise publicly by their personal signature to invest in their possible term of office 4 percent of government spending on education. With it, they did not demand something impossible but only the implementation of an existing law.



On 20 May this year, Danilo Medina was elected new President of the Dominican Republic. There was a very low turnout of nearly 56 percent. 51.2 percent of the valid votes were won by the electoral alliance of his liberal economic PLD party (Partido de la Liberaciön Dominicana). With them, the 61-year-old could on 16 August move in the presidential palace for a four-year term. Thus, after eight years the rule of the PLD continues. It has also in both chambers (Senate and House of Representatives) a clear majority.


The Church has still Great Influence

After two terms of office, outgoing President Leonel Fernández Reyna could not be re-elected. His wife, Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez, however, was appointed Vice President of the country. This can be interpreted as a success for the increase in the proportion of females in political offices in the country. After all, in the parliament 20 percent of the 183 members are women. But the suspicion is more likely that by this move the power still firmly remains in the hands of the same families.

The newly elected president Medina now promises to make everything new and everything better. Whether he will fulfil his written promise to spend four percent of GDP on education remains to be seen. So far, he disbanded the ethics committee working under his predecessor, in order to replace it by a new ethics committee. It is intended that it now under a new name ensures transparency in public administration, prevents corruption and reviews the work of officials with regard to its ethical dimension. The fact that most of the technical equipment and of the staffing of the committee remained the same is only mentioned by critical media. However, they also report that there are in the new committee also members of the former. They are suspected of evasion of public funds. With the comment "borrón y cuenta nueva" (erase and new account) is pointed to the high impunity in the country. Above all the politically and economically powerful benefit from it.

The Catholic Church belongs still to the powerful and influential in the Dominican Republic. After Columbus had on his voyage of discovery found with the island of Hispaniola an in Europe previously unknown country, the first church in Latin America was built there, and a little later, with Santo Domingo, the first diocese was founded. This oldest archdiocese of the new continent became famous also by the exhortations of the Dominicans. In December 1511 the preacher Antonio de Montesinos stated in a prophetic Advent sermon that the brutal treatment and murder of the natives by the Spanish conquerors was in no way God's will (see HK, October 2011, 522 ff.) With it the foundations of a Latin American liberation theology were laid. And also the question of "Whose side does the church take?" has been "contextualized".

In the Latin American comparison of recent years, the Dominican Catholic church distinguishes itself by developing a common national pastoral plan. With the help of the method "prospectar" (preview), which is inspired by the "Movement for a Better World" of the Jesuit Father Riccardo Lombardi, a multi-year process was started with the broad participation of the faithful. Based on an interdisciplinary analysis of the reality of Church, society, economy and politics of the country, they jointly developed a vision of how in 30 years the church should be experienced as a messenger of God's kingdom in the island state. Subsequently, concrete steps were planned, in order to achieve this vision.

In combination with the impulses of the Fifth General Assembly of Latin American Bishops CELAM in Aparecida (2007), the parishes were then divided into sectors, the regular distribution of parish letters with stimuli for the work of the numerous volunteer pastoral staff was organized, and priority was given to the formation of so-called small communities (pequetias comunidades). The forming of those communities has priority in this third national pastoral plan.


The Greatest Asset of the Materially Poor is the Social Network

83 percent of the population declare that they belong to the Catholic Church. Most of them live in poverty. Due to poverty research it is known that the greatest asset of materially poor people is the social network: it supports them and opens up possibilities to cope with adverse circumstances of life without economic means. The creation and promotion of small communities by church initiatives strengthens the social cohesion among people. The belief in a God who is close to people, and the concern for the neighbors may thus for the faithful become a force that relativizes the destructive power of material poverty.

The poverty is great in the Dominican Republic. But great and manifold are also its riches. In recent years, in German discos and bars Latin American rhythms have become popular; salsa courses are offered in every major city. Bachata and Merengue are Quisqueya's gift to the world. The fiery rhythms bring memories of enjoyable times on a hot beach in the Caribbean holiday-country into the hips of German dancers. They are perhaps also a stimulus to keep alive, despite the difficult circumstances, hope and zest for life in German hearts.


    {*} Magdalena M. Holztrattner (born in 1975) studied in Salzburg Catholic theology, lectureship in religion and Hispanistic. In 2008 she obtained her doctorate with an interdisciplinary project on participatory poverty research with adolescents. She has completed several research residencies in El Salvador. Since 2009 she has been working at Adveniat as country specialist for Mexico and the Dominican Republic.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'