Dominican Republic

U.S. walks tightrope on controversial Dominican ruling


The U.S. voice on the Haitian citizenship issue was weakened without VP Joe Biden’s visit.

Special to the Miami Herald

A controversial court ruling that affects thousands of Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants has laid bare a division in the influential Catholic Church and posed a diplomatic quandary for the United States.

Vice President Joe Biden was expected to urge the Dominican government in a visit this week to find a “just solution” that would potentially include legislation specifically aimed at more than 24,000 people affected by the ruling, a senior Obama administration official said.

But Biden’s visit was scrapped at the last minute because of the standoff in the Ukraine.

Biden’s planned visit was seen as an important show of support for embattled U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, an openly gay former Obama fundraiser whose appointment to the post angered the leadership of the powerful Catholic Church, making it more difficult for the embassy to advocate for a change to the court ruling.

“There is an outcry of opposition to ‘Wally.’ We’re a very conservative society in respect to sexual orientation,” said Emelio Betances, a Dominican scholar and author of The Catholic Church and Power Politics in Latin America: The Dominican Case in Comparative Perspective, referring to the ambassador, James Brewster, by his nickname. “In a small country like the Dominican Republic, the church is very influential, very involved in politics.”

Medina’s administration has come under fire since the ruling came down in September. The high court’s decision, which cannot be appealed, states children of undocumented immigrants — many being sons and daughters of Haitian migrant workers — are not entitled to Dominican citizenship even if they were born in the country.

Human rights groups say those affected will be left functionally stateless, although the government says it is developing a plan that will regularize their status and allow them to eventually apply for naturalization.

Nearly six months after it was handed down, the ruling, referred to simply as la sentencia, has become one of the most polarizing social questions in recent years. Critics call it racially motivated, xenophobic and anti-Haitian. And its backers say succumbing to international pressure would be tantamount to signing away Dominican sovereignty.

“You see a very divided reaction to the ruling, even among members of the government,” said Julio César De la Rosa Tiburcio, a law professor at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. “It has certainly put the country in a very difficult position internationally.”

Nowhere has the division been as clear as within the Catholic Church, where the conservative Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez has supported the ruling, opposed the appointment of Brewster as ambassador and influenced the government.

As a result, members of the government and civil society here say, the U.S. has had to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

Members of civil society groups working on issues related to Haitian migration said the U.S. has been less vocal on the court ruling than they expected, even while many other foreign governments have aggressively opposed it.

“The embassy is involved, and they continue to support the work. But I think these groups would like to see someone be more outspoken,” said a human rights worker who asked not to be named because she works closely with groups that receive U.S. funds.

When he was appointed, Brewster joined a small but increasing group of gay ambassadors. The news was divisive in the majority Catholic Dominican Republic, with church leaders fearing the new ambassador would work behind the scene to push for many of the same gay-rights laws that have been passed in the U.S.

Instead of finding a partner within the church’s hierarchy, Brewster has found an enemy. The reaction to his appointment hit a low point when Lopez referred to Brewster with a derogatory term in Spanish. Neither the embassy nor Lopez returned Miami Herald calls and emails seeking comment.

More recently, Brewster and his husband met with Dominican gay-rights groups at the embassy.

The Dominican ambassador to the Vatican, Victor Grimaldi, responded to that meeting by writing an open letter to Pope Francis in which he said, “Just when the constitution of the Dominican Republic establishes that marriage is between a man and a woman here comes the new United States ambassador — ‘married’ with a man — to meet with a gay and transsexual group that has opposed the Catholic church and alleges that the Dominican Republic is a secular state.”

Although the Foreign Ministry distanced itself from his comments, Grimaldi’s letter went on to defend the cardinal in a clear indication of the influence the Catholic Church wields in the Dominican government.

Lopez’s position appears to stand in contrast with that of the pope who surprised many last year when he said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Yet, the pope has not called for Lopez’s resignation, although he is 77, two years past the age at which bishops traditionally retire.

Lopez has also been a staunch defender of the court ruling, calling on foreign institutions, including non-government organizations, to butt out. “Nobody is above the Constitutional Court,” he said in October.

While Lopez has been the most vocal proponent of the ruling, other bishops have not spoken out.

“There have been some timid expressions of support from some bishops for the plight of the Haitians, however they are never going to openly confront the cardinal,” said Christopher Hartley, a Catholic priest who worked for years in sugar cane cutter communities before being kicked out of the Dominican Republic. He is now working in Ethiopia. “They are a very scared lot.”

That alignment has left Catholic groups working on the issue in a precarious position. The Jesuits, in particular, are leading the charge to change the court ruling or for the government to pass legislation to regularize their status.

“What we are calling for is for the government to pass a comprehensive bill that would address the needs of those affected by the court ruling,” said Mario Serrano, a Catholic priest who, like Pope Francis, is a Jesuit.

Serrano, an outspoken critic of the government on the ruling, has been targeted by Lopez. Last month, Dominican journalists recorded and published Lopez saying Serrano should “shut up” and stop “talking idiocy.”

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