"Hope and Hopelessness and the Latest Dominican Tragedy," by David C. Brotherton and Luis Barrios.
In our recent book on Dominican deportees expelled from the United States (based on seven years of research) we wrote that “57 percent of Dominicans say that they want to emigrate and 50 percent think that positive change is not possible…Clearly when all else fails, when hope is no longer sufficient…then the last resort is to escape this dance with want and misery and aim for the promised land (“Banished to the Homeland” p.41).” The tragedy just reported in the Guardian (2/5/12) of a boat capsized off the northern Dominican coast with at least 12 dead, 14 survivors and according to the Dominican press 39 still missing is another example of the desperate conditions facing residents in this country, a top holiday destination for European and American families along with that global market of consumers in the sun, sea and sex industry.As the details emerge of this latest “incident” in which men and women in the prime of the lives (they seemed to be between 25-35 years old) went in search of nothing more than the right to live, we encounter many of the same themes recounted in our dozens of interviews with returning Dominicans. Once again we are face to face with what dependency feels like in an area of the world almost completely dominated and controlled by U.S and European foreign interests with the exception of Cuba.
According to survivors, the 65 “passengers” paid between 30,000 and 50,000 Dominican pesos (or 750-1250 U.S. dollars) for the attempted voyage to Puerto Rico across the Mona Passage in a flimsy wooden boat (locally called a “yola”) built for a maximum 32 people. The boat was rented from someone called Berto (who cannot as yet be located) who was paid 1.5 million Dominican pesos (38,500 U.S. dollars). The vessel had few if any life belts and was patched together using windows normally employed in house construction instead of the appropriate material for a boat. Based on our research most Dominicans who make these crossings do not have that kind of money and have to borrow the sums to be paid off some time in the future. The same seemed to be true in this case too. One survivor talked about being forced to mortgage his 200 acres of sown rice fields due to “the economic crisis… hitting the producers.” He went on, “I’ve travelled already five times and I’m ready to continue getting these yolas because I can’t take it anymore”. Other ways of finding the resources to flee are from family and friends whom the refugees hope to repay in future years once they get to the United States.
But what are Dominicans fleeing from? In this general election year this question focuses our attention on the plight of a nation now in its 49th year since the country was last led by a truly independent politician, Juan Bosch, in 1963. This extraordinary intellectual and man of unimpeachable character was duly dispensed by Washington in league with its local allies for his efforts to bring a popular democracy to a country that had been brutally and dictatorially ruled by Trujillo for more than three decades. Bosch’s commitment to land reform, an anti-colonial foreign policy, and openly democratic elections were simply too unpalatable for the U.S. fearful of a freedom-hungry Caribbean four years after the Cuban Revolution and thus the country was once more invaded to “save American lives.” Henceforth, the Dominican Republic’s trajectory towards dependency and hopelessness was firmly set in motion.
This year is just another year in this well-worn path of freedom and independence denied, the true foundations of hopelessness in the Dominican people. Like most of the other elections in the last 30 years, the country will mostly vote for one of two parties, the Democratic Liberation Party (PLD) or the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Both parties are almost identical in domestic policies, proposed relations with the United States and ties to the national and international elites, all of which heavily determine the life chances of the country’s ten million inhabitants.
As for the economy, Dominicans have been sharply affected by the economic meltdown and the global banking crisis both of which have compounded the nation’s dependency. Currently, the population is coping with approximately 15% unemployment, the highest in Latin America. But as in most developing nations these numbers mask the real level of joblessness due to tens of thousands living off incomes in the precarious informal economy. Thus a better estimation is the percentage of people who are either unemployed or underemployed which is around 50%. Further, about one third of the country’s population live in poverty, i.e., exist on less than 7 U.S. dollars per day, while the top 12 percent continue to own almost 60 percent of the nation’s wealth, although again these figures are misleading since they do not include wealth owned abroad by the Dominican elite. Moreover, the government spends less than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health, almost the lowest in the region.
Perhaps the best indication of the hopelessness that pervades the country is the fact that hardly anything left in the Dominican Republic regarding its natural resources are owned by Dominicans. Not a single holiday resort on the country’s extraordinary coast line is any longer in Dominican hands while the nation’s entire energy system, i.e., its gas, electricity and petroleum, is controlled by U.S., Spanish, Canadian or Italian corporations. Meanwhile the manufacturing sector is almost entirely owned by corporations in the United States, Korea, Taiwan and Canada with the country’s so-called Free Trade Zones providing unlimited cheap labor in conditions completely hostile to workers’ rights while producing little tax revenue for the nation’s coffers. The one industry for which the country was famous in years past, sugar, hardly merits a mention as part of the nation’s GDP with remittances from abroad now the country’s second most important revenue.
This, in short, is the real story behind this dreadful tragedy off the Dominican coast. The lives lost reflect the human calculus between hope and hopelessness. Juan Bosch once said that a developed moral consciousness was the ultimate goal of social evolution. I guess if he were around today he would have to conclude that we still have a long way to go.
David C. Brotherton and Luis Barrios are authors of a recent book, “Banished to the Homeland: Dominican Deportees and their Stories of Exile.” Columbia University Press, 2011. They both teach at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.