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Escapism and Global Apartheid

The Dominican Republic and the NYTs

by JOSEPH NEVINS

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the ballet star, has a vacation home there. It is located close to the sprawling Southern Greek Revival beachside abode of his good friend and native son, Oscar de la Renta, in the same town where the fashion designer and singer Julio Iglesias are partners in a luxury resort and club. Prices there range from $310,000 for a three-bedroom villa away from the sea to several millions dollar for property on the beach-such as Iglesias’s home, a six-acre Balinese compound.

The place is "the new St. Bart’s," a reference to St. Barthelemy, the tiny Caribbean island in the French West Indies that serves as a lavish get-away destination for many of the global rich and famous. But it’s better in so many ways. In addition to having more favorable prices, "It’s so close," explains Margarita Waxman-only 3 12 hours by plane from New York City. The SoHo resident, just retired from a public relations job at the upscale jeweler, Bulgari, flies back and forth monthly. She recently paid $3 million for four acres of beachfront for a new villa there, instead of in the harder-to-get-to St. Bart’s, where she has often vacationed.

"There’s so much building going on," gushes Amelia Vicini, a fashion editor at Town & Country magazine, who was born and raised in the tropical paradise. "Every time I go home, I am amazed. The winter season is crazy, full of people – celebrities, A-listers, everyone."

This hot location is the Dominican Republic. In a lead article on August 13 entitled, "In Pursuit of Fabulousness" in the "Escapes" section of the paper, The New York Times introduced its readership to this little-known side of the half-island-nation (the other half of the island being Haiti). "Until a few years ago, the Dominican Republic had a reputation as second-rate, and affluent shoppers for second homes largely stayed away," the Times explained. "Then, in the early 90’s, developers . . . began attracting attention with luxurious gated communities on the water."

Only one day earlier, the Times ran an Associated Press article on the inside of the main section about a different type of water-related escape involving the Dominican Republic. Entitled, "Dominicans Saved From Sea Tell of Attacks and Deaths of Thirst," the piece recounted the horrific experiences of about 80 Dominican migrants fleeing the poverty in their homeland. Having paid $450 each-about a year’s income for most Dominicans-they tried to sail clandestinely to Puerto Rico so that they would be then able to fly to the U.S. mainland free of immigration controls.

The engine of the small wooden boat died two days after the July 29 departure from the coastal village of Limón. By the next day, the vessel’s water and meager food supply-chocolate, peanuts sardines, and some coconuts-were depleted. The passengers began to panic.

Two lactating women reportedly dripped their breast milk into a bottle for passengers to drink. Another told of eating his tube of Colgate to survive. The boat drifted at sea for almost two weeks. People began dying on the fifth day, their bodies thrown into shark-infested waters by those still living. Many jumped overboard in desperation, and drowned. Forty-seven ended up perishing on the voyage. Another eight died of dehydration after Dominican authorities rescued a total of 39 people.

In a follow-up article on August 16, the Times describes the homes of the majority of the inhabitants of one of the villages of many of the migrants as being made of "lashed-together pieces of tin." Attempts to flee from such poverty to a better life in the United States have increased over the last year in the context of a severe economic downturn in the Dominican Republic. In the last ten months alone, U.S. authorities have arrested more than 7,000 Dominican crossers, and many thousands more have surely evaded the web of enforcement.

Such unauthorized crossings have a long and deep history given the intense migratory ties between the United States and the Dominican Republic. And so do migrant deaths. A May 12, 1998 report in the Los Angeles Times, for example, spoke of "human bones littering the small shoals and islets between the Dominican and Puerto Rican shores" as a result of crossing-related fatalities. In November 2003, the U.S. Border Patrol estimated that, over the previous three years, nearly 300 people had either died or vanished-undoubtedly an undercount-while crossing the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. And another 164 U.S.-bound migrants had reportedly died or disappeared elsewhere in the Caribbean during the same period.

In the late 1990s, the economy of the Dominican Republic was growing at a fast pace. But the economic expansion did little for the poor and middle class, many members of which also attempt to make the perilous journey. Today, that expansion is long-gone.

Unemployment stands officially at 16 percent, and the rate of inflation is 32 percent. Meanwhile, the Dominican peso has lost half of its value against the U.S. dollar over the last two years, resulting in a doubling of prices during that period. Saddled with a $6 billion debt and under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund via a $600 million dollar loan agreement, the government in Santiago has promised austerity measures. This will lead to cuts in social services, government jobs and a reduction in subsidies for basic necessities, which will surely fuel pressures for out-migration. In addition, the country’s electrical system is a mess. The government privatized generating plants in the 1990s with the goal of lessening blackouts. The situation has worsened, however, as electricity is typically only available for a few hours a day.

Little of this profoundly affects the lives of rich Dominicans or the affluent foreigners eagerly buying up the country’s prime beachfront property. As an envious real estate agent from St. Bart’s explains, "You can be a king in the Dominican for very little money." Or, as Margarita Waxman effuses, "There’s a quaintness about it. It has all the beauty of St. Bart’s, only more bohemian."

If, as Stuart Hall suggests, racism is the fatal coupling of power and difference-fatal in the sense that it shapes one’s life (and death) circumstances-the recent reporting on the Dominican Republic in The New York Times (albeit unintentionally) exposes the true face of global apartheid. It is one in which the relatively rich and largely white are free to travel and live wherever they would like and to access the resources they "need." Meanwhile the relatively poor and largely non-white are forced to subsist in places where there are not enough resources to provide sufficient livelihood or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to overcome ever-stronger boundary controls put into place by rich countries.

It is for such reasons that the struggle for global justice and human rights must have international freedom of movement and residence, among other matters, at the center.

JOSEPH NEVINS is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge 2002). Cornell University Press will publish his latest book, A Not-So Distant Horror: Accounting for Mass Violence in East Timor, in early 2005.