An Eye on the Fence

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When President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic assumed office in 2020, the Caribbean country’s economy had contracted 7 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the succeeding three years, a tourism wave propelled economic growth increases of 12 percent, 5 percent, and 3 percent each year.

Today, the Dominican Republic’s living standards are among the fastest improving in Latin America, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country is now the region’s seventh-biggest economy, bigger than Ecuador and Venezuela.

Abinader, 56, a former tourism executive, told the Financial Times that his prescription for success was simple. The Dominican Republic over the years transformed from an agrarian economy to one that included manufacturing, free trade zones that attract foreign investment, and services in tourism and offshore finance. Importantly, Dominican leaders had not only shepherded this growth, they reinvested the returns to scale for more growth.

“Our government is a pro-investment, pro-business government, but at the same time we have increased social spending more than any other government,” Abinader said. “That’s the key to success because it helps us keep social peace.”

It’s this luck – and talent – in managing the country’s economy that is helping Abinader “cruise” to reelection, wrote Americas Quarterly. His approval rating is around 70 percent, 25 points more than his nearest rival in the presidential elections scheduled for May 19.

Abinader’s challengers include Leonel Fernández, who served three presidential terms between 1996 and 2012. Younger voters, who comprise a large segment of the electorate, might not remember him, however. Those who do remember might also associate his periods in office with the corruption that remains a problem in the country. A third candidate is Abel Martínez, a mayor who has called for more spending on the agricultural sector.

All three candidates have pledged to staunch the flow of impoverished, undocumented Haitians crossing over their country’s border and prevent refugee camps from being established on Dominican territory. Martínez, who appears to be the most conservative on the issue, described this migration as “an overflowing invasion.”

The crisis in Haiti, Haitians in the DR, and racism against Haitians and Black Dominicans are important issues on the island of Hispaniola, where the two countries – one French and Creole-speaking, one Spanish-speaking – coexist.

Tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, go back centuries. In the mid-1800s, for example, Haiti controlled and brutalized the inhabitants of the now-capital of Santo Domingo for decades until they revolted and won independence in 1844.

Since that time, Haitians have crossed the border to settle in the Dominican Republic – about 500,000 Haitians currently live in the country of 11 million people, and many more are the descendants of Haitian migrants.

Now, Dominican authorities have been summarily deporting Haitians without due process because they are Black, for example, complained Amnesty International.

Writing in AFRO, Howard University lecturer and human rights advocate Nikongo Banikongo decried this racism in Dominican society and politics. “Make no mistake, in the Dominican Republic, the term ‘Haitian’ is merely a euphemism for ‘Black,’ and the language of anti-Haitianismo is resonating well with the people,” he wrote. “It is populism at its very best – or worst. If they could agree on nothing else, they could agree on that.”

But Dominicans, who according to local polls mostly agree with the deportations, dispute that racism has anything to do with support for closing the country’s doors to its neighbors, saying that their country is a fusion of Black, White, Taino and immigrants.

Instead, officials say the Haitian migration is straining resources and poses a security threat, especially regarding gang violence spilling into the Dominican Republic along with smuggled guns, drugs and other goods.

They also point to how the possibility of a major regional destabilization, driven by a massive influx of Haitian migrants, raises alarms throughout the Western Hemisphere: from Jamaica to the Bahamas and the United States, governments across the region are cracking down on undocumented Haitian migrants.

Closer to home, President Abinader fears gang members crossing the border and expanding the conflict, wrote Global Americans, a think tank specializing in Latin America and the Caribbean: “With the overwhelming number of Haitians waiting to enter the country (at the border crossing) in Dajabón, gang members slipping past border patrol is a real possibility.”

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