A Boston community is divided over the Dominican Republic's citizenship policy

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Marco Werman: As we just heard, this is a contentious issue in Haiti and it’s also sparked a big debate here in Boston. Ask Dennis Benzan. Benzan is the vice mayor of my city of Cambridge, just across the river from Boston. In recent weeks, he and a number of other members of Boston’s Dominican community, including Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, have been called traitors against their country. That’s because they’ve criticized the Dominican Republic’s citizenship policies towards people of Haitian descent. The vice mayor joins me now. Mr. Benzan, thanks for joining us. First of all, what is your connection to the Dominican Republic?


Dennis Benzan: First of all, thank you for having me, Marco. My connection to the Dominican Republic is that my father is of Dominican descent and I was born in the city of Cambridge but I spent the first few years of my life in the Dominican Republic being treated for asthma. I had a great uncle in the Dominican Republic who was an army general and the chief medical doctor for the army, and I spent quite a bit of time in his household as a young child and I traveled frequently to the Dominican Republic. I love the Dominican Republic and this is one of the issues that really pains me quite a bit.


Werman: Why does it pain you? Why have you chosen to speak out against this policy?


Benzan: The issue of race and the issue of immigration is inextricably linked to the legacy of slavery in the Dominican Republic and on the island of Espanola. It pains me because there’s been a silence around what has been happening around the Dominican Republic and it’s not just the result of (?), which was the law in 2013 that was passed by the constitutional court denationalizing Haitians but it’s also the history of race on the island and the fact that there are several members of our community that stood up against what they see as a violation of human rights in the Dominican Republic, and they’ve been vilified, and in many ways it’s shameful because Dominicans come to the United States to be protected by some of the greatest laws in the world. It’s a hypocrisy and very hypocritical of us to go back to the island and expect to treat others differently.


Werman: You know, some local leaders in the Boston community have said that this racism does not exist. What would you say to them?


Benzan: Issues of race are always difficult to talk about, and where we need to start as a community is acknowledging our history of racial discrimination on the island. I mean, I’ve been a victim of discrimination on several occasions in the Dominican Republic. In 2004, we were discriminated against at a lounge/night club and we were not allowed to gain entrance because we were told that we had limitations in society, we were told that we were black. I ended up extending my trip so that I could talk about the issue and talk about the experience and what it meant to me but also to retain an attorney. We filed suit under international human rights law because the Dominican Republic does not have laws that prevent discrimination or provide recourse for anyone that has been discriminated, and to this day I’m waiting for a hearing. This conversation should not really be about anyone’s right to express their opinions about what’s happening in the DR, it should really be about how do we make the Dominican Republic a better democracy.


Werman: You know, I was at a school graduation recently in Cambridge and one of the teachers of Haitian descent put to the assembled students to be aware of what is being done by Dominicans to Haitians down in the Dominican Republic. I’m just curious, how have you seen this debate spread into the wider community of Haitians and Dominicans here?


Benzan: You know, I have a group of 12 interns that are working with me this summer from high school and many of them are Dominican and Haitian, and they’re doing their own research and they’re talking about this issue openly. It’s a healthy conversation for us to have. We’ve got to ask ourselves, “What kind of society do we want to have? What are the laws that we want to put in place to protect human rights that could also give any member of society legal recourse in the event that they are discriminated against?” I can give you a perfect example. About five years ago I was at a concert and a great Bachata singer by the name of Antony Santos invited me onto the stage. With thousands of people in the audience, he says, “Vote for Dennis Benzan if you do not want to be treated like a Haitian.”


Werman: Wow.


Benzan: And so, if you take that statement alone, it implies issues around race, it implies that Dominican society, in many ways, looks down at Haitian people. What’s great and what I love about America, what I love about having grown up in Cambridge is that I have a really interesting lens in the sense that I live in a city that was a sanctuary city for Haitians going back to 1986, my father’s Dominican, my mother is Puerto Rican. The lens in which I view this is a lens where I believe that we have the greatest democracy in the world, and so I have the opportunity, and the young people that I work with have an opportunity to shape what happens in the Dominican Republic and to shape what happens in America and to shape what happens in the world. We can’t have double standards.


Werman: Dennis Benzan is the vice mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thank you very much for your thoughts. I really appreciate it.


Benzan: Thank you, Marco. I really appreciate it.