by Stan Goff
Stan Goff travelled to the Dominican Republic, a country located on the eastern side of the same island as Haiti in the Caribbean, and gives the Prism this exclusive look at how people there cope and, occasionally, struggle against those who profit from their impoverishment.
Los Algodones is an ambiguous little place. Half its residents call it a pueblo, the other half, a ville. On one side of the road that passes through Los Algodones, the landscape of the Cordillera Central (the Continental Divide of the island of Hispanola) is verdant; a patchwork of lush pastures and forests, mostly pine, resembling in many respects the Alleghenies. On the other side, the recent rains have taken the stripped moonscape from scorched tan to metallic pale green. The caille-pailles, Haitian houses of mud and sticks, dot the barren ridges and draws, leaning this way and that with the ravages of weather and gravity. The houses of the fincas on the Dominican side are hidden from view, tucked back into the forests, and the only visible structure is the military outpost, a mini-fortress complete with battlements, where bored, suspicious Dominican soldiers stare out over this little edge of Haiti, watchful for incursions from the official Dominican enemy.
I took the trip to the Dominican Republic after my fourth foray into Haiti. As my interest in and understanding of Haiti has deepened, it has become more and more apparent that one can not ignore the relationships between the co-resident nations of this island if one is to find the context for the tortured history and troubled present of Haiti. If I have learned anything over the past few years of intense political inquiry and activity, it is that the key to understanding is not to be found in clever academic constructions, but in observing relationships.
In Los Algodones, the Haitian border market is permitted to operate on Tuesdays and Fridays. Permission is granted by the Dominican soldiers, who effectively control the ground on both sides of the roada road that is also the official border. The Dominican soldiers stroll through the crowd with a casual and confident superiority. The Haitians are watchful and submissive. Dominican traders will stop and chat up the Dominican soldiers. They are striking hard bargains for the produce the Haitians sellcoconuts, mangoes, yucca, straw hats.
It's a buyers' market, and the presence of the soldiers inhibits the aggressive dickering that Haitians are notable for in their own marketplaces. The Dominicans will mark everything up when they transport it down the mountains to Restauracion and Loma de Cabrera. The soldiers and police will pick through the truckloads of produce and commodities, here and at the several checkpoints, a system of gratuities so longstanding that the drivers and soldiers converse during the process, laughing easily at shared jokes.
All relationships are characterized by power. As in our personal relationships, sometimes that power is negotiated, each and every day, in an atmosphere of trust. Sometimes it is not negotiable at all, but hangs stubbornly together out of brutal necessity and unabashed domination. There is no doubt that the Haitians who eke out their existence on this international margin submit to the suspicion, domination, and humiliation of their neighbors out of the starkest economic necessity, much as a woman isolated in a bad marriage with no prospect of independence.
I was eating days later at a little restaurant in Puerto Plata, interrogating the waitress about the tourists that infest the place, trying to gain a notion of her real reaction to them. Instead, I heard about her relationship. Her child was in the hospital, burned by a gas explosion in her kitchen, and her boyfriend was not helping with the costs. It was not his child. Without him, without the protection he afforded her as "taken," she felt vulnerable, even as she acknowledged he wasn't much good. He was no worse than most other men, she quipped. She was working, she said, so she would get together the hospital bills for her daughter. At least she had a decent job at the restaurant. Many women she knew worked in the "cabaretes," a euphemism for prostitution. For most women on the tourist traps of the North coast, the choice was to get a husband with a job or work in the cabaretes. That's just the way things are, she said. Men have one job, on their feet. Women have to survive both on their feet and on their backs. Right now, for most Dominican women, there are no other prospects. The absence of prospects is a real thing.
Most women in Haiti have thick feet, hardened by endless journeys to the nearest water pump or river, back and forth to the markets, never wearing shoes. Once in Ferrier, a nun told me how the men had the equipment to fix a local pump, but since men never carried water, they hadn't thought to fix it. The two mile circuit that women were making to the next nearest pump, often carrying as much as 80 pounds of water, just hadn't registered with the men as important, though the oppression of over 75 percent unemployment was a frequent subject of male discussion.
The women in the Dominican Republic typify what I've seen of the Latina world. Their feet by age thirty are plagued by bunions and corns on the anterior half and flattened across the heel from years of walking on jacked up heels with their toes jammed into a pointed leather muzzle, part of the uniform of any woman who can afford it. Skin tight trousers, provocative blouses, the glaring makeup ... all mandates in the life or death competition to gain an approving male matethe alternative to poverty or the cabaretes. Unlike the Haitian women, who can not buy perfumes, deodorants, gels, razors, the Dominican women live in a society which has reached the stage of development where the dominant collective male can demand the decorative face, and the slick, infantilized, hairless legs and armpits, the invisible halo of applied fragrance.
Smiles and Charm
A Dominican man on the airplane asks me if we hit "our" women. Some men hit women, I acknowledge, but it's not something I approve. As if correcting me, he explains that the willingness to impose corporal discipline on a woman will make her love you more. His wife is with him. She smiles pleasantly, and he fawns over her when they sit down. Smiling is important in many relationships. Especially if it signals submission.
An American expatriate bar and grill owner in Puerto Plata is congratulating a fellow restaurateur, a German, on his newest employee. She'll be good for your business, he tells his colleague. She's pretty and she knows how to smile. Good help is hard to find.
In the tourist traps of Puerto Plata, Samana, Luperon, Jarabacoa, there is a lot of smiling. The guides smile. The local merchants smile. The canned act of the campesinos in Cambiasowho play peasant music for the drunken French who splash to shore off the tour boats to enjoy the local coloris an act full of smiling; smiling as the coconut is lopped open and offered to the pale-skinned clients, smiling as they serve the food, and smiling on shore as the pink and staggering foreigners re-embark in the afternoon, some to puke over the side from too much rum and Presidente beer.
Just as the Haitians in Los Algodones are driven by necessity into their relationships on the border, these impoverished residents of Cambiaso are driven to play the role of charming backdrop for people with burnt skin who travel thousands of miles to take photographs with the charming natives.
The charm industry is the principle developmental activity in the Dominican Republic. Charming scenes are being built everywhere to lure in the tourist dollars. Investment dollars from all three major trading blocks, American, Asian, and European, are pouring into the country. The whole process is mediated by the colonial surrogates of the sugar, alcohol, and tobacco industries, mainstays of the Dominican export economy. These investment partners need one thing above all else: stability. Tourists and stock speculators spook easily.
That's why the Haitians are so critically important to the Dominican ruling class and their international patrons. Haitians cut the cane, labor in the most exhausting factories, perform the most grueling work for the least money, and much like African-Americans and Latinos in the United States, provide the super-exploited economic safety valve against demands to increase wages. Many progressives who are looking at Haiti focus too much on the minimal American and transnational investment in Haiti itself. They need to look at the favored nation next door. Haiti's desperation is protecting international finance capital's Dominican investments.
A young Dominican man is raking up last night's trash around a network of beach bars. He is part of a platoon of laborers who are receiving directions from a British woman who has grown leathery and bloated from years of exposure to Dominican sun and alcohol. He is arguing with a young entrepreneur who is opening his little gift booth for the day. I am a burro, he spits. All of us, all Dominicans, are just burros. They'll never let you get rich like them. Quit complaining, says the entrepreneur.
"At least you're not a Haitian."
The United States military invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 and installed a government there. It was part of the Cold War. The point is, they are still there. The American military regularly trains and equips the Dominican military. In 1994, just before my Special Forces team went to Haiti as part of the intervention task force, we were scheduled to run a training program in the Dominican Republic. I was recently arrived and had never been to D.R. But the team had long experience there. They all would tell you, the Dominican is preparing to meet the enemy; and that is Haiti. The only other neighbor is Puerto Rico, and it is a colony of the Dominicans' gringo patron.
So Haitians have the role of lowest of laborers, and the corresponding role of official national enemy. It's very neat, actually. But that neatness is not an accident. The fundamental economic relationship must be painted, in both national and ideological colors. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful phenomenon.
The Anti-Caprine Ideology
When I was training at the Special Forces Medical Lab, we used goats as "patient models." The goats would be wounded for trauma training, shot for surgical training, and euthanized over time by the hundreds for each fourteen-week class. Nearly every student upon arrival would begin expressing his antipathy for the caprine breed, and spend a great deal of time discussing how stupid, contrary, and unattractive the goats were. A few acknowledged what the program was actually doing without seeking these comfortable rationalizations, and a few even became attached to the animals and grew more depressed with each day. But most required the anti-caprine ideology to sustain their activity.
Dominicans fear Haiti. Few have gone there, and few want to. They regard it as a mysterious, dangerous space. Most Dominicans will assure you that Haitians worship devils, and that they practice cannibalism. All will remark on their unperfumed body odor. The more refined Dominicans will express their pity for Haitians and say, alas, it is a shame they can not effectively govern themselves.
The American and British expatriates I speak to tell me the same thing about Dominicans, who are largely African themselves. You should visit Bermuda, they will say. At least there, they know better than to give up colonialism. They know their future rests on the proven ability of white people.
I am white, so it is safe to share this bit of "wisdom." They don't even know me, but it's safe. Later, they will commiserate with one another about what the hell is wrong with that touchy fucking commie from the States.
The Fat Man
Esteban Dias Jaquez is called "El Gordo" by his friends and comrades ... the fat man. It is said with affection and taken affectionately. And he is a very large man. He is the Secretary General of the Partido de Trabajadores Dominicanos (PTD) (the Dominican Workers Party). I have been invited upstairs to have him explain how he sees the political development of the left in the Dominican Republic, and to better understand a recent factional dispute between PTD and the Frente Revolucionario (FR) (Revolutionary Front) over whether or not Marxist- Leninists should participate in the last elections. The PTD participated in a broad Left-Center coalition, and the FR led an attempted boycott of the elections.
On the previous day, while visiting the FR offices, I was told that none of the three coalitions, identified by color (purple, red, and white), were providing the people with true representation. The purples represent the ancien regimé of Balaguer, a rightist-nationalist tendency. The reds are comparable to a kind of conservative Democrat/moderate Republican grouping, with a populist appeal. The whites are a combination of liberal capitalists, social democrats, and Marxists. FR opposed this latter alliance as a sellout of Marxist principles.
"They need to read Lenin's remarks," says El Gordo, "on left-wing sectarianism. They do not yet understand the difference between a desire and a reality. The revolution will grow out of concrete developments and the mass movements that correspond to those developments, not the ardency of their beliefs.
"In 1992, we were illegal. In 1994, in the wake of the election fraud perpetrated by Balaguer, we became an open political force. In 1996, we worked in a left/center alliance that gained a significant plurality in the congress, and which significantly eroded the previously autocratic power of the presidency. This year, our alliance won. To behave as if this is not progress is dishonest. To boycott now is to boycott a trend that we are winning. It would be boycotting ourselves.
"Just as the development around the tourist industry has deepened the impoverishment of many Dominicans, the necessities of that development, the necessity of putting a shiny face on Dominican democracy, has given us maneuver space. We can not take advantage of that maneuver space, if we refuse to make real incursions into the parliamentary arena, where we can enter the debate about the actual development of democratic institutions."
El Gordo and I were working on a particular type of relationship, one that is designed to intervene in events. Organizing. Organizing is seeking the opportunity in a changing reality to build new prospects. The PTD has a very large women's caucus, which is launching something relatively new for the Dominican Republic, a national discussion of feminism. These things are evolving along with the charm industry and the cigar exports and the organization of work to develop these economic activities. New developments new relationships.
"Development." What a dilemma this issue is for any of us who have agonized over the situation in Haiti, and for that matter any of us who have puzzled over the history of socialist and national liberation movements. The infrastructure for the conditions that exist in the Dominican Republic, imperfect as it is, simply does not exist in Haiti. Given the current global situation, it is naïve to believe that, even in the wake of a successful struggle for national independence by Haiti, the moguls of transnational finance would permit development to occur without their direction. Nearby Cuba has served as an example of the kind of punishment that can be leveled at dissenters. Cuba consolidated her revolutionary gains under a protector now defunct. Who would protect little Haiti?
Unlike the Dominican Republic, where development is far more advanced, where there are some clear alternative political formations beginning to emerge, where there is enough of an infrastructure to begin envisioning the kind of transformations that could bring a society to a common level of decency and comfort, in Haiti there is no such prospect. The absence of prospects is a real thing.
Politically, the forces of resistance to neo-liberalism [the name given throughout much of the world to the US, IMF, and World Bank advocacy of 'free markets' and governments getting out of the way of corporationsEd.] in Haiti are intensely factionalized, and the unification and consolidation of that resistance is not something that can happen under the direction of outsiders. The forces over which neither Haitians nor any other small nation can prevail alone are those of the new international world government, the consortium of global financial monopolies who have mere governments at their beck and call.
The only government, should it ever achieve its independence from these institutions, that can usurp this power, is our own. The grim reality, then, is that the most important thing we can do to assist in the liberation of Haiti, and every other underdeveloped nation in this hemisphere and beyond, is to fight for the independence of our national institutions from the transnational financiers; to build alliances of our own that will be both anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist.
As a friend and fellow Haiti-phile recently told me: "Our job is to deal with the mother."
Stan Goff lives in Raleigh, works in Chapel Hill, and has retired from the U.S. Army.
Send comments to email@example.com.