From her busy schedule of travel and other obligations, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar must make time for an ugly crisis engulfing two member states of Cariforum, which shares membership with Caricom, of which she also serves as chairman. The crisis has been triggered by a Dominican Republic constitutional court ruling that threatens a devastatingly disparate impact on many thousands of people in that republic, descended from Haitian immigrants.
The ruling, which is not subject to appeal, denies citizenship rights to an estimated 200,000-plus residents born in the country but to Haitian parents. Suddenly, this segment of the population appears to have been reduced to a condition of statelessness.
People born in the Dominican Republic, with nowhere else to call home, have been plunged into bewilderment, in desperate hope that the international community will come to their rescue. “Soy Dominicano, (I am Dominican)”, said placards raised in protests against the ruling.
Already, the Geneva-based office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Santo Domingo authorities to ensure that the ruling is not so interpreted as to leave Haitian-descended persons in “constitutional limbo”. Such an outcome, with its apartheid-like associations, will inevitably stain the international image of the Dominican Republic.
This is especially likely since long-standing race and colour differences between mostly black Haitians, and mixed-race Dominicans, have underlain the ups and downs in relations between the two Caribbean republics that share the island of Hispaniola. Dominican generosity was notably forthcoming immediately after the 2010 earthquake that killed some 300,000 and left homeless some 1.5 million Haitians.
But as a new constitution and the newer court ruling show, sympathy for Haiti and solidarity with its people proved to be short-lived. Nor has it helped that the image of Haiti as an international economic basket case may have induced aid fatigue and cynicism on the Dominican side of the border.
The constitutional judgment opens a new chapter in the troubled history of relations between the two republics. With support from the international community, the ruling is likely to be challenged through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, Santo Domingo authorities have suggested that the Dominican-born Haitian descendants may apply for residency, and then citizenship. This approach must be seen as conferring second-class citizenship on people born and bred in the Dominican Republic, who have also contributed to its agricultural and economic development.
Inevitably, the Caricom Secretariat has adopted a wait-and-see approach. For it is political leadership that must drive the shaping and execution of Caricom policy toward this new burning issue in the northern Caribbean. It is accordingly to Caricom chairman Kamla Persad-Bissessar that the region, and the world, in heightened expectation, necessarily looks.