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Making the Family Real

By Sunity Maharaj

The Caricom Secretary General came to town last week and managed to deliver a lecture distinguished mainly by its silence on two of the most explosive issues in the Caribbean.  

Within 24 hours of his lecture, one of them broke wide open. The Caribbean Court of Justice’s decision delivered last Friday in Port of Spain in the Shanique Myrie case has made integration more real to Caribbean people than all the decades of communiqués and Heads of Government meetings put together.

Among those driven by historic fear and modern-day insecurities, it struck a note of immediate panic. 

But for those of us longing to explore the adventure of a united Caribbean family and dreaming of a future of potential unleashed, the CCJ’s decision confirmed our relationship as members of the blue-blooded family of the Caribbean Sea and set the bar for our mutual expectations at the point of greeting. 

On the most seminal point in her suit, Ms Myrie has written herself into Caribbean social and legal history.

For its part, the Caribbean Court of Justice has now indubitably begun the process of unsealing the power of all those pieces of paper signed by Caricom prime ministers over the years without much thought to  consequence. 

In ruling against the government of Barbados, CCJ President Sir Dennis Byron and his panel — Justices Adrian Saunders, Jacob Wit, Rolston Nelson, Winston Anderson, David Hayton and Desiree Bernard — have alerted us to the possibility that Caricom governments can indeed be held to account. Further, that the average citizen can seek and find justice before the CCJ.

We wait to see whether the judgment will now stir the  Persad-Bissessar administration out of the limbo into which its intransigence on the CCJ has stuck Trinidad and Tobago.

The other explosive issue that didn’t make it into Irwin La Rocque’s lecture on “The Status of the Regional Integration Process and Vision for the Future of Caricom” at UWI on Thursday involved fellow Caricom member Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a member of Cariforum.

Just over a week ago, on September 26, the Dominican Republic’s top court delivered a ruling that effectively stripped thousands of its people of citizenship if they were born to illegal migrants. 

An estimated 80 per cent of those affected are of Haitian origin. The most outlandish aspect of the ruling is its finality and retro-activity: it cannot be repealed and it affects all those born since 1929. 

In an instant, right here in the Caribbean Sea, generations who had known no country but the Dominican Republic as home immediately became stateless. DR authorities have talked about engaging a process by which those affected may apply for legal residency, but no such process is in place and anyone who has followed the history of this issue would be disinclined to place faith in it.  

Before the anti-Haiti lobby in T&T and around the Caribbean begins to cheer, it should consider the implications for its own people if the United States, Canada or Europe were to apply this same ruling to the children of illegal West Indian migrants going back almost 100 years. More pointedly, let us each consider our own plight if the indigenous community in Trinidad or elsewhere in the Caribbean were to declare Columbus and his crew illegal migrants and outlaw everyone of us who settled here post-1490s. Where would we go? The devil, they say, is in the details, but the god of justice lies in the principle. The right to nationality is an accepted human right to be cherished and defended by everyone, but especially by migrant communities like ours who, by whatever means we arrived, have made the Caribbean our home. Curious how so many who walk through an open door are anxious to close it in the face of the other behind.

In an interview with the Caribbean Media Corporation, presumably following his lecture, the Caricom Secretary General expressed “concern” over the court’s ruling, adding that he was seeking further information and was “watching very keenly to see how we could find a resolution to this issue”.

While we watch and wait, the United Nations human rights office in Geneva has dispatched a letter to the DR government urging it to ensure that citizens of Haitian origin are not deprived of their nationality as a result of the ruling. In addition to those who were granted citizenship, there are thousands of Haitian descendants born in the DR who are in limbo, denied nationality papers of any kind. Perhaps, this is a new-era purging, less bloody but no less devastating than the 1937 atrocity in which the Trujillo government ordered the killing of 20,000 Haitians in the DR. 

Today, murder comes in the form of the death of identity and personhood, with its attendant denial of rights and services. While the government in Port-au-Prince promptly recalled its ambassador in protest, Haitians are not optimistic about much more, given the labouring category of persons involved.

But we, the people of the Caribbean, have repeatedly shown ourselves to be better and more courageous than our governments. It was ordinary people who, in March 1986, took licks from the police at the Oval in defence of the rights of black South Africans. And as Ambassador La Rocque noted in his lecture, it was Caribbean workers who first promoted the idea of an integrated Caribbean in 1932. With Haiti as a member of Caricom and the Dominican Republic as a member of Cariforum, we should demand a less puny response from our governments on this issue even as we take up individual positions on the DR — whether as tourists, business people or simply as outraged members of the Caribbean family.

Between them, the CCJ’s judgment in the Shanique Myrie case and the de-citizenising of Haitians in the Dominican Republic present the right opportunity to abandon our usual waffling bureaucracy and make the Caribbean family real.  

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