SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Jude Payoute of Atlanta tried to cancel his $6,000 family vacation here after learning about calls to boycott this Caribbean nation for denying citizenship to thousands of Haitian descendants.
"I'm ashamed to tell my friends I'm here," said Payoute, 64, a native Haitian who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, as he walked around Santo Domingo's 16th-century city. "It's wrong for me to come here supporting the economy of the Dominican Republic because they are racist and they have no decency and they treat people like trash."
Such strong feelings could force this country to pay a steep price in its dispute with neighboring Haiti if sought-after tourists decide to spend their vacations at other nearby Caribbean islands.
At issue is the mass exodus of crowds into Haiti this summer because of a crackdown on non-citizen residents stemming from a 2013 Dominican Republic Supreme Court ruling that people born between 1929 and 2010 to non-citizen parents did not qualify as Dominican citizens. The decision retroactively stripped away the citizenship of tens of thousands of native Dominicans of Haitian ancestry.
The Dominican government subsequently created a plan to restore nationality for thousands of people who could prove they were born in the country to non-citizens. The government also said it would grant legal residency to non-citizens — many of them Haitian workers — who could prove they arrived before October 2011.
Milene Monime, 16, holding her 2-month-old son Jefferson Thezan, stands along with other Haitian migrants just deported from Dominican Republic, at the border crossing in Malpasse, Haiti.(Photo: Rebecca Blackwell, AP)
Last month, the government said it would expel the non-citizens if they didn't apply for legal residency by the June 17 deadline. Since then, more than 41,200 Haitians have voluntarily returned to Haiti, said Josue Fiallo, an adviser to the Dominican ministry of the presidency. Immigration became a big issue after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, prompting tens of thousands to seek refuge in the Dominican Republic.
The exodus has led hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter to call for a boycott of the Dominican Republic. About 3,000 people have signed a boycott petition on change.org. A group called the International Campaign to End Apartheid in the Dominican Republic has dedicated a website to the cause.
Fiallo told USA TODAY calls for a boycott are "not intelligent" and "not helpful." He said the Dominican Republic is working with Haiti on an immigration plan and said a boycott would hurt both countries.
A gift shop in the Dominican Republic sits near a beach. A 2013 decision by the Dominican Republic's Supreme Court effectively stripped tens of thousands of people of their nationality retroactively, prompting some activists to call for a tourism and economic boycott of the Dominican Republic. (Photo: Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY)
"We are worried and at the same time we are concerned because people who suggest this kind of thing, don't understand that this is going to hurt not only our economy but also Haiti's economy," Fiallo said.
Yanilda Maria Gonzalez, an organizer with the New York City activist group We Are All Dominicans, was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the United States at age 7. She hopes to discourage tourism to the Dominican Republic until the 2013 ruling is changed.
"We are really trying to exert pressure any way we can," Gonzalez said. "We are trying to say to folks who want to visit the D.R. that this is a government that is engaging in human rights violations."
One of those who might be hurt by a boycott is Thomas Mouese, 58, a longtime tour guide who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He and many others here have close ties with Haitian Dominican friends and don't want to see those people deported unjustly.
Thomas Mouese, 58, a longtime tour guide who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic said a boycott would wreck his livelihood. (Photo: Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY)
Mouese said a boycott would wreck his livelihood. “If tourism doesn't come to the country, many fathers of the family, including myself, will suffer and their families will suffer," Mouese said.
Les Roos, a real estate lawyer from Cape Girardeau, Mo., visiting the country for the first time, said he would happily come back and recommend others to visit. "I don't think boycotting the Dominican Republic is appropriate," he said. "In a sense, you are sacrificing the people who live here or came here legally for those who came here illegally."
Tourist Gwen Mosley, 54, a teacher from Queens section of New York City, said a Haitian friend in New York begged her not to come. Throughout her stay, she said, people assumed she was Haitian because of her deep brown skin and treated her unfairly. At her hotel, workers ignored her requests for towels and sheets. In stores, people gave her unpleasant looks. At restaurants, service improved once people learned she was American.
Gwen Mosley, 54, a teacher from New York City, said she feels she betrayed a Haitian friend by visiting the Dominican Republic. (Photo: Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY)
"When people thought I was Haitian, I was insignificant," said Mosley, who is African American.
Pharmacist Payoute said he wouldn't buy anything other than food, passing up souvenirs and other gifts that might help the economy. His cousin, Sheila Cherfilus, who accompanied him on the trip, agreed.
"You know that as long as you have money to give them, you are going to be welcomed," said Cherfilus, 36, a lawyer from Washington. "But it's not because they appreciate and welcome everybody because of their color."