The Dominican Republic and its Arab Assimilation

Arabs are nearly invisible in the Dominican Republic. A large wave of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians left the Ottoman Empire from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century and settled in the Caribbean island.

At first life was hard, but things quickly improved, and under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo [1930-1961,] they were already entrenched; he took good liking to the meticulous records maintained by the Lebanese-Syrian-Palestian Club, which kept detailed records of all the immigrants who came to the Dominican Republic from those countries. Arabs were not accepted by social clubs before the 1930s, thus meaning that the LSP Club was a casual place where many prominent Arabs could socialize. Trujillo had also been rejected from high-class Dominican clubs, thus providing solidarity.

The LSP Club maintains records on "civil and religious registries, passenger manifests, immigration permits, exit permits [during the Trujillo Era,] contracts, census data, etc." Information which could have been very useful to the man who owned 60% of the Dominican economy: Generalissimo Trujillo.

One prominent family during the Trujillo dictatorship was that constituted by the union between Vincho Castillo and Sogela Semán, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. Vincho Castillo was a Representative to Trujillo's puppet Congress, and would later maintain close relations with Joaquin Balaguer -- Trujillo's vice-President at the time of his assassination, and also the subsequent strongman of the Dominican Republic.

Today, Vincho still maintains a strong influence over Dominican politics, along with his sons, one of whom is also a Representative. Known as Los Vinchos, together they preside over the The National Progressive Force, the most far-right party in Dominican politics.

Los Vinchos are frequently in the news for their tirades against Haitian immigrants and also over their frequent calls to build a wall between the DR and Haiti.

Los Vinchos were members of this current administration, but broke away because of what they perceive as "soft-handed tactics" against Haitians. This current administration -- led by President Danilo Medina -- decided to offer immigrants the chance to normalize their status, a move widely denounced by Los Vinchos.

Ironically, by 1882, the Dominican Ministry of Interior Police registered all foreigners living in the country, and found no Arabs. More shockingly, between 1893 and 1928, only 162 Arabs nationalized as Dominican citizens.

If the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal had decided that anyone needed to prove their ancestry back to 1882 -- as opposed to 1929 how was decided controversially in 2013 -- Los Vinchos may have found themselves digging through the archives of the LSP Club.

At the end of the 1800s, the Dominican Republic was undergoing industrialization under the dictatorship of Ulises Heureaux; thus, all immigration was carried out with presidential support, according to Harry Hoetink. The first Arabs began arriving in 1884.

Already by the beginning by the 20th century, a report by the Dominican police detailed: "All commerce near the border is Arab and sustains an incessant contraband business with Haiti."

Most of the Arab immigrants that arrived in the Dominican Republic were generally poor; the average age was barely eighteen. A report by Jaime de Jesus Dominguez detailed that there were 47 Arabs living in one house, and 15 in another.

Initially there was tension between Dominicans and Arabs -- especially bodega owners -- with Harry Hoetink recording that Dominicans complained that Arabs lived an "unworldly and miserable subsistence." Arabs upon their arrival in the DR were referred to as "smelly Turks with bad habits."

In the early 1900s, many cities passed ordinances against "Turkish" street vendors, with Francisco Moscoso Puello writing in his 1975 novel: "The Syrians were seen as a threat by bodega owners because their melodious voices convinced Dominicans that they had the best goods."

Moscoso Puello further wrote that many Arabs would travel the countryside on their mules, with massive loads of goods, "only staying at the homes of their countrymen, or of trusted sellers."

This type of goods distribution was revolutionary at the turn of the century in the Dominican Republic because peasants were expected to reach shopping centers in urban areas, instead.

Juan Elias Giha, retelling his story to Listin Diario newspaper in 1911, spoke of cooking with firewood in the mountains, and arming himself against bandits while traveling the countryside heckling his goods.

However, within a decade, frugality in the Arab community helped change the fortunes of the newly-arrived immigrants. Orlando Inoa writes that Nicolas Garip arrived in 1907 and within 10 years managed to save 5,000 pesos, return to Palestine for marriage, and to resettle with his family in the Dominican Republic.

Unlike Arabs in other parts of the Americas, the former street vendors did not invest their savings into one specific industry, instead diversifying into all sectors of Dominican society. If an Arab opened an industry, he could immediately count with the clientele of Arabs.

Orlando Inoa writes: "When Jose Dejar Acra set up a shoe factory in San Pedro de Macoris, all the Arabs throughout the country began wearing those shoes, and eventually those shoes were also sold by Casa Lama, itself Arab."

Harry Hoetink, citing Arturo Bueno, recorded that the first Arabs arrived in Santiago in 1897, and by 1914 already owned 12 of the 24 import houses, and 16 of the 25 retail houses. The same happened in other cities throughout the Dominican Republic, with San Pedro de Macoris being called "the Sultanate of the East."

Within 50 years of their arrival, Arabs were the most powerful economic group behind Spaniards. Their seat in power was cemented after the US occupation of 1916-1924. During that time, peasants from the countryside, called Gavilleros, would not only kill US soldiers, but would also attack and kill Arab vendors traveling through the countryside.

In 1917, when Gavilleros led by Vicentico Evangelista murdered two American engineers, Arabs Antonio Draiby and Jose Agapito took up the reward and chased Evangelista for 45 days, leading to his execution. In some ways, Americans felt they could trust an Arab more than a Dominican peasant, which gave them a favorable trade position.

Though the first generation of Arabs in the Dominican Republic did not intermarry -- as they were generally poor and despised and found it hard to meet women -- but the second generation, especially after the end of the US occupation in 1924, began to intermarry.

Today, their descendants number nearly 80,000 in the Dominican Republic, occupying important levels in all sectors of Dominican society. The main force calling for the expulsion of Haitians, the National Progressive force, is led by Vincho Castillo Seman, the son of an Arab. The current minister of the Dominican police, Jose Ramon Fadul, himself is also of Arab descent. 
El Nacional
 One can only speak to human nature when the descendants of people who were just 100 years ago seen as "unwordly" and "smelly," have overseen the exodus of 65,000 Haitians in just the past two months. It speaks even more to our nature, when Luis Abinader -- also the grandson of Arabs, and leader of the main opposition party -- remains largely silent.