Expelled from the Dominican Republic: Other factors

Who profits from the forced emigrations?

by David Holmes Morris

August 28, 2015

 The ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal of September, 2013, which formalized the long-standing informal practice of denying citizenship to Haitian migrants and their descendants, and a new wave of nationalist attacks on the streets against Haitians, have affected the lives of thousands of people in monstrous ways. They have brought up again the question of Dominican anti-Haitianism as the primary force behind the deportations. But the usual explanation of widespread racism and xenophobia among the Dominican people rings hollow and seems inadequate. Other recent developments suggest more specific causes.

((Juan Vicini (left) and Fernando Capellán - Diario Libre photo))

((Juan Vicini, left, and Fernando Capellán – Diario Libre photo))

There are clearly economic reasons for anti-Haitianism and a new project for industrial development along the Haitian-Dominican border, first made public at the same time as the court ruling, may provide clues to similar economic reasons both for the ruling and for the current resurgence of anti-Haitianism. The histories and the present interests of the prime movers behind the project and their connections with the court that made the ruling hint at behind-the-scenes manipulation.

For years there have been plans in Hispaniola and in this country to diversify the economy of the island, where the sugar industry was the dominant force for many years, by finding other uses for the abundant cheap labor that has made fortunes for sugar barons. Jean-Claude Duvalier, at the urging of his US and Haitian advisers, envisioned turning Haiti into the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.” Haitian workers would be moved from the Dominican cane fields to sweatshops, where they would assemble textiles, electronic devices and baseballs, destined mostly, like the sugar, for US markets.

Following a number of similar projects in free trade zones in the Haitian interior, Grupo M, a textile manufacturing company in Santiago owned by Fernando Capellán and the largest employer in the Dominican Republic, in 2002 constructed the first factory complex on the border, in the northern Haitian city of Ouanaminthe (known to Dominicans as Juana Méndez), across the Massacre River from Dajabón. The ground-breaking ceremonies for the complex included Dominican President Hipólito Mejía and Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, whose support for such projects was in effect a requirement imposed on him by the Clinton administration as a condition for his reinstatement after the 1991 coup d’état against him. The first factory built at the Compagnie de Développement Industriel, or CODEVI, as the complex was named, was an assembly plant for clothing pieces shipped there from Grupo M plants in Santiago, specifically for Levi Strauss in this case. CODEVI is the model for much of the new development plan and Capellán is one of the two prominent leaders of the Consejo Económico Binacional Quisqueya, or CEBQ, the group of Dominican and Haitian businessmen promoting the new plan. (“Quisqueya” is the pre-Hispanic Taino name of the island, used in modern times by both Haitians and Dominicans.)

((Batey Las Papita - Al Jazeera photo))

((Batey Las Papita — Al Jazeera photo))

Juan Bautista Vicini Lluberes, the other top CEBQ leader, is heir to the enormous wealth of a family involved in the Dominican sugar industry since the 1870s. His great uncle, Juan Vicini Burgos, was provisional president from 1922 to 1924, during the first US occupation of the Dominican Republic. As the Dominican sugar industry has gradually declined in modern times, the Vicinis have expanded their interests to include tourism, banking and electric power generation, among other enterprises. Juan Vicini is reportedly the richest man in the country and wields great influence in political and business circles, described by many as the power behind the throne. In a 2014 interview  he boasted of his close friendship with President Danilo Medina and laid out his strong ideas on economic development of the border region.

Also heavily involved in CEBQ, if more quietly, is Rafael Paz, head of the Consejo Nacional de la Empresa Privada (National Council for Private Enterprise).

CEBQ was reported at first to have been initiated by the presidents of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Michel Martelly and Danilo Medina, but Vicini and Capellán seem clearly to be the real leaders.

((Milton Ray Guevara - TeleAntillas photo))

((Milton Ray Guevara – TeleAntillas photo))

Interestingly, Milton Ray Guevara, the president of the Constitutional Tribunal, which issued the all-important ruling, was legal adviser on labor matters to Capellan’s Grupo M from 2004 to 2006 and in 2010, a year before he joined the Constitutional Tribunal, wrote a public statement in defense of a Vicini sugar plantation, flatly denying, with no supporting evidence, the accusations of extreme abuse of its workers documented in the film The Price of Sugar . The Vicinis had sued the makers of the film for defamation and sought to keep the film from being shown. The Vicinis lost.

An editorial in the Dominican business newspaper El Dinero praised the CEBQ project, describing it as having as a central aim the creation of jobs and the reduction of poverty, a claim shared by other such projects, like the US-backed Caracol industrial park. Vicini, Capellán and Paz told the Dominican senate in July that the plan involves initially the construction of three industrial complexes and 3,000 housing units for workers, improvements to the port facilities at Manzanillo, in the northern province of Montecristi, and the construction of solar power generating facilities, which in addition to fulfilling local needs would supposedly supply 800 megawatts to the national power grid. The development, they said, would involve investment of some five billion dollars over a 15-year period.

((Grupo M, Ouanaminthe - Piet den Blnaken photo))

((Grupo M, Ouanaminthe – Piet den Blanken photo))

Vicini hinted that moving workers from one place to another was part of the CEBQ project when he told the senators that planning and preparation were needed to supply the work force required by the businesses being planned and that the CEBQ is prepared to cooperate with the Dominican and Haitian governments to achieve that goal. Of course an abundance of cheap labor is the very point of building factories in Haiti, essential both for the construction of the factories and for the operation of them. And what better workers for Dominican-owned factories than Haitians who know Spanish because they have lived in the Dominican Republic, have experience in construction work, as many Haitian immigrants to the Dominican Republic now have, and are “broken in,” that is, used to Dominican ways of managing workers.

So far, it should be pointed out, most of those forced across the border are living in make-shift tent camps, similar to those set up after the 2010 earthquake, a short distance inside Haitian territory, very near the region the CEBQ has its eyes on. The Haitian government seems unable or unwilling to provide better facilities for them or to move them into the interior.

Many of the Haitians and descendants of Haitians in those tent camps left on their own to avoid violence on the part of Dominican nationalists. But residents of a town neighboring a Vicini sugar plantation interviewed for The Price of Sugar said the Vicini company often pays people to stage anti-immigrant demonstrations and physical attacks on them. And there is precedent for blaming ordinary citizens for attacks on Haitians in order to shield the real perpetrators; the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo did just that after he had ordered the Dominican army and police to kill thousands of Haitians in the famous “perejil” massacre of 1937.

((Children in the cane field - Tino Soriano photo))

((Children in the cane field – Tino Soriano photo))

Since the grand project envisioned by the CEBQ would call for international support in the form of financing, investments and markets, what better way to clean up the slave driver image that Vicini has earned in the sugar industry than the time-honored practice of deporting the victims?

Meanwhile, CEBQ secretary Rafael Paz attended a hearing conducted by a commission from the Organization of American States, formed to inquire into the ruling and subsequent government action, at which he defended the “regularization” plan devised by the Medina administration following the court ruling and promoted the CEBQ project as a solution to the problem of migration.

And Milton Ray Guevara has moved close to the position of the Dominican nationalists who argue for expulsion of immigrants and has accused the OAS of violating the country’s sovereignty by investigating the court ruling and its effects. He says the OAS should instead apologize for its part in the US-led military invasion of 1965, a position advanced opportunistically by many Dominican nationalists. In 1978 and 1979 when economic conditions made immigrant workers valuable and he was minister without portfolio in the administration of Antonio Guzmán, Guevara himself reportedly arranged the importation of 29,000 Haitian sugar cane workers. In those days, it was common practice for the Dominican government to pay Haitian ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier, and before that his father François Duvalier, for laborers to work in the sugar cane harvests.

The CEBQ entrepreneurs say their plans are intended to alleviate poverty by providing decent jobs. But what kinds of jobs can Haitians expect from them? Juan Vicini’s history in the sugar industry, in which working conditions are close to slavery, does not bode well for decent jobs in enterprises he is involved in, but the CEBQ is proposing assembly plants, after all, not sugar plantations or mills and he may be given the benefit of the doubt. Capellán, on the other hand, has made his fortune in precisely the kinds of assembly plants CEBQ wants to bring in. Here too the likelihood of decent jobs is slight.

Workers at one of Capellán’s Grupo M plants in Santiago have reported violent attacks, abductions and unfair dismissal of workers trying to organize unions there. “The company pays for this type of thing, to destroy the unions,” Genaro Rodríguez, one of the workers, told a journalist in 2002. “There’s a group of 20 people in the free trade zone who are paid to prevent the formation of any unions. Every time they try to form a union, they go and contract these guys and put them inside the factory to start fights with the principal leaders of the committee so that they will lose their rights. They do this every time anyone tries to form a union.”

When the Grupo M plant first opened in Ouanaminthe, the Aristide administration provided some protection for the right to unionize. Working conditions turned out to be typical of sweatshops; hours were long, abuse was common, wages were low, in keeping with the lowest minimum wage in the hemisphere, kept low to satisfy the Clinton administration’s conditions for Aristide’s reinstatement. But Aristide was overthrown in a second coup on February 29, 2004, six months after Grupo M began operations at CODEVI, by Haitian rightists, the United States, Canada and France, with Dominican cooperation. On March 2, armed para-military forces called in by management attacked workers demonstrating outside the Grupo M plant in Ouanaminthe to demand reinstatement of 34 workers who had been fired for union organizing. The attackers beat the workers and forced them back into the plant. This was the first of many such attacks on Haitian workers in the period following the coup as the protection of workers Aristide had provided vanished.

It was in the following August that Milton Ray Guevara, now president of the Constitutional Tribunal, became labor consultant for Grupo M.

There is no proof of a plot by Vicini, Capellán and their associates to force the deportation of Haitians and the descendants of Haitians out of the Dominican Republic for the sake of the CEBQ. There is, however, a potential for great profits to be made from the availability of a large cheap labor force in the very region where deportations have left many Haitians homeless, jobless and, in many cases, stateless. And there is a close-knit group of wealthy and powerful businessmen and politicians who are likely to gain personally from the deplorable situation these Haitians have been forced into.

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One Response to “Expelled from the Dominican Republic: Other factors”

  1. Mona Mehdy Says:

    Thanks, David, for your voice and knowledge in this commentary. I learned much more about the historical exploitation, manipulation, and outright killings. And learned about concomitant labor rights dispute right around the 2004 coup and the violent aftermath. This latest scheme is more of the same, literally for the elite and governments currently in power. Thanks again.