A Lynching in Paradise?

On the morning of February 11, in a park in the city of Santiago, Dominican Republic, a Haitian man was found hanging from a tree. Bound hand and foot, the corpse of Jean Baptiste Harry has prompted special investigations, incited fiery protests on both sides of Hispañola and become the flashpoint in an international debate over the treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Yet the physical evidence produced by the Dominican National Police Force’s investigation points to suicide, not mob violence.

How can a man kill himself while his hands and feet are bound? How can two neighboring peoples, which share an island roughly the size of South Carolina, relate to each other with such acrimony, spite and scorn? How can the body of one dead man spark an international incident?

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Since Mssr. Harry’s death, thousands of Haitians have protested against the mistreatment of their brethren in the D.R. In several cities, demonstrators have stormed diplomatic missions, ripping down Dominican flags and burning them. Because of the threat of violence, Dominican consular officers have been recalled from their posts in Haiti and the Dominican air force has been deployed to the border. Two billion dollars in trade between the countries has ground to a halt, and the Haitian diaspora community in the United States is actively calling for an international boycott of the Dominican Republic.

Relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republican have not seen such strain since the D.R. slaughtered 12,000 Haitian citizens in a genocidal pogrom.

One of two 1933 border meetings between Haitian Sténio Vincent (center) and Rafael Trujillo (right, holding hat). This was four years before the Parsley Massacre.

Photo from one of the 1933 border meetings between Haiti’s Sténio Vincent (center) and Rafael Trujillo of the Domnican Republic (right, holding hat). This was four years before the Parsley Massacre.

The underlying tension, which Mssr. Henry’s death has brought to a head, stems from the chronic mistreatment of undocumented Haitian migrants in the D.R., and has been greatly amplified by that country’s controversial decision to retroactively strip Dominican’s of Haitian descent of their citizenship.

Unfortunately, both nation’s toxic political climates only intensify this unstable and emotional moment. In Santo Domingo, former president Leonel Férnandez plots to retake an executive office denied to him by the nation’s constitution and by the U.S. State Department. In Port Au Prince, President Michel Martelly rules a crippled country by decree, after his party and opposition politicians failed for over three years to come to an agreement about legislative elections.

Mssr. Harry’s story is a tragic one, and the struggles he encountered in his brief life are emblematic of the experience of a great many Haitian migrants to the Dominican Republic. In an effort to calm tensions, the Dominican National Police forces report that they have invited Haitian intelligence officials to participate in the investigation of Mssr. Harry’s death. Colonels José Antonio Cevallo and Lester Matos Pérez, who are leading the inquiry, have also shared their trove of physical evidence with this reporter in the hopes that cooler heads will prevail.

According to Cevallo, Mssr. Harry was a 24 year-old bootblack who lived in a small, squalid, dirt floor shack by the Yaque Del Norte river, in a neighborhood known as Suelo Duro (Hard Floor). He held no legal title to his property and earned his livelihood informally, performing odd jobs in the area around the park in which his body was found.

Mssr. Harry was also an avid gambler, consistently playing an average of $20 a day in local gambling halls, a sum many time larger than what one would expect him to make. Colonel Matos Pérez explained that this fact originally led police to suspect that he was murdered over a gambling debt, though he now thinks the physical evidence belies this hypothesis.

Both Cevallo and Matos Pérez pointed out that the area under the saman tree from which Mssr. Harry hung was undisturbed—no footsteps, no trampled bushes. Furthermore, the colonels produced pictures which showed that Mr. Harry’s shoes were found with their laces removed and placed under a bush next to the tree, close to an ideal spot from which to begin climbing.

Most puzzling to Matos Pérez was the fact that the rope from which Mssr. Harry hung was less than five feet long. The colonel’s agents found that it was tied securely to a branch of medium girth from below with several crude knots, and that the notches and grooves it made in the branch as the body swung below are lateral: consistent with the theory that the man jumped to his death. Finally, and most tellingly, Cevallo and Matos Pérez reported that no bruises or wounds were found on Mssr. Harry’s body, except those caused by the rope, and that no DNA was found under his fingernails, further obviating the likelihood of a struggle.

The sad scene most likely played out like this: after a long evening of playing and losing at the local gambling hall, Mssr. Harry decided to execute the complicated and premeditated plan with which he ended his life. In a quiet spot, under the deep dark of a large, leafy tree in a park he obviously knew exceedingly well, he took off his black, secon- hand tennis shoes and removed their laces. Mssr. Harry then climbed the rough bark of the tree to branch of medium height, which he had almost certainly picked out beforehand. He then stood on the branch and affixed a blue nylon rope some five feet in length to another sturdy upper branch.

While holding the rope with which he was to hang himself with one hand, he bound his feet using a simple sailors knot and the first shoelace. Steadying himself carefully on the branch, he tied slipknots at the ends of the second shoelace, and slipped one end of it around his neck. He then fashioned a crude noose with the green nylon rope, slipping it too around his neck while making sure the second black shoelace came out and over the top of the noose. Finally, Mssr. Harry put both his hands through the slipknot at the other end of the second black shoelace and jumped to his death.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic have allowed relations between them to deteriorate to a point where the suicide of a bootblack can shutter consulates, stop trade and start riots. Xenophobia, populist nationalism and cynical political actors who seek to gain from the discord are setting the stage for a conflagration. Though efforts are being made to repair the relationship, both nations must take the death of Jean Baptiste Harry as cause for reflection. If the island of Hispañola is to see harmony, both countries must work to improve the lives of Haitians and Haitian migrants by reforming the current immigration system and creating legal regimes that allow them legitimate and lasting economic advancement.

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Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican who grew up in Miami. He holds a master’s degree in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Columbia University in New York, and has written about the Dominican Republic before for Guernica. His poetry can be found in such magazines as Gulf Coast, The Baffler, The Rumpus, Small Axe and Bodega Magazine. He tweets irregularly @inaminorkey.

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