A Dominican Heroine

There's a fascinating and disturbing profile of Sonia Pierre, the head of the Movement for Dominico-Haitian Women in Saturday's New York Times. Fascinating for the hard work that she has put in trying to fight racism in the Dominican Republic, disturbing for the depth of racism in that country.

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.

It's clear that she is shaking up the status quo, which is good, but it is a lie to say that she is creating racial divisions. They have been a part of Dominican society for generations. Mr. Morales would serve his nation, its citizens and its image better if he would acknowledge the problems and dedicate himself to bridging the gaps. How bad are things there?

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.

The racist attitude is also blamed on the difficult relationship that the Dominican Republic has with its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti. The Dominican Republic's major sugar growers, with the government's approval, brings in Haitian workers to effectively act as indentured servants to the sugarcane industry there. It also helps explain Morales dishonesty and reaction to Ms. Pierre:

As if to underline the importance of the sugar industry in Dominican politics, Foreign Minister Morales Troncoso himself has a long-standing relationship as an executive and major shareholder of the Central Romana sugar concern, along with Cuban-American sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul.

The author of the Times article does a good job of hoisting Morales by his own petard:

"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 the president that appointed Morales, Leonel Fernandez, grew up in New York and had a green card when he was first elected. In Morales' world, if it's good enough for his boss, it's not good enough for his neighbors.

Cross-posted at Beautiful Horizons.

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