The Massacre

The 1937 Haitian Massacre was a policy of mass murder that occurred in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic that shares an island with Haiti. From late September to late October in 1937 approximately 9,000 to 18,000 ethnic Haitians (we will never truly know the exact number) were systematically rounded-up and killed in Dominican territory. The orders were given by the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, seven years into his 30 year rule.

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Rafael Trujillo (1891 – 1961), second from left

About the 1937 Haitian Massacre

courtesy of Edward Paulino, Ph.D.

    

As Richard Turits has written in the Foundations of Despotism, the specific motives that drove Trujillo to order mass murder remain “obscure.” Over the years, however, several hypotheses have emerged to try and explain what exactly provoked the bloodshed. One is that Trujillo aimed to reclaim more lands that lay beyond the control of the state for export crop production, therefore expanding a land colonization program taking place throughout the nation.



Another reason was revenge. Prior to the massacre a Dominican spy ring in Port-au-Prince had been discovered and dismantled by Haitian authorities—a blow to Trujillo who felt threatened by the Haitian capital’s site as a safe haven allowing Dominican exiles to reside and plot against his overthrow. According to this version, he became so irate that he responded with mass murder to get even with Haitian officials.

There is also the story that Trujillo conceived of the massacre after visiting the border region on horseback and became angered at seeing such a disproportionate number of Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border especially after definitive territorial boundaries were established in 1935. In the absence of tangible evidence pointing to a specific motive it is clear that by 1935 Trujillo was in a much stronger position to carry out a massacre, than say, in 1933. Nearly a decade after taking power and eliminating his political opponents both in-country and abroad through cooptation, arrest and murder, he had consolidated his power.

By the late 1930s he had, as Valentina Peguero has written in The Militarization of Culture in the Dominican Republic, gained absolute control of the army and police forces. Moreover, by 1937 the US had withdrawn its occupational forces from Haiti removing a well-organized counter-force at the ready on the ground, if asked, to cross the border eastward, and investigate the killings. The possibility disappeared when the US officially withdrew from Haiti in 1934—nearly a decade after its forces left the Dominican Republic.

 

What is the Massacre’s Legacy? How and where were the killings carried out? Was Trujillo or the government ever punished?