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.
courtesy of Edward Paulino, Ph.D.
Why did Trujillo order the killings?
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 Moreover, by 1937 the US had withdrawn its occupational forces from Haiti removing a well-organized counter-force at the ready on the ground, if asked, to cross the border eastward, and investigate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?
What makes the 1937 Haitian Massacre different from other genocidal massacres is as written in “Estudios del terror y los terrores de la historia,” is that an ideology of hate demonizing Haiti and Haitians as state doctrine appeared after the mass murder violence not before. Usually, campaigns of genocidal violence proceeds an ideological state rhetoric dehumanizing the targeted group that eventually concludes in mass murder. In the Dominican case, the opposite is true. Months before the massacre Dominican-Haitian relations were at an all-time friendly high. Anti-Haitianism as state doctrine appeared after the violence. But, if the goal of the massacre as the subsequent government ideological rhetoric suggested was to cleanse the Dominican border of Haitians, it failed. A year after the massacre border markets resumed and the historic collaborative ties that marked the region for centuries were stronger than ever, according to reports from Trujillo’s own government border agencies and officials like agentes culturales fronterizos (Border Cultural Agents).
The real legacy of the massacre was the crystallization of a historic anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic that was never countered with the same level of institutional and cultural investment where Dominicans would be constantly bombarded with a positive counter state ideology where Haitians could be viewed as historic friends rather than historic enemies. In other words, the massacre cemented Haitians into a long-term subversive outsider incompatible with what it means to be Dominicans. Unlike, in the United States, Germany and Rwanda where after a long history of discrimination was combated through the state laws, commemorative events, and public service announcements to embraced historically marginalized and underrepresented communities, no similar institutional or cultural mass program or space has been created in the Dominican Republic where Haitians and their descendants can form and be acknowledged as part of the Dominican nation. Today, Haitians (whose population has been said to reach a million out of population of 10 million), and who have settled in the Dominican Republic residing for thirty, forty, even fifty years as well as their descendants, are systematically denied Dominican citizenship—in many ways a de facto stateless group. One can say that the current political situation of the Dominican Republic’s largest ethnic and racial minority is a direct legacy of the massacre where they continue to be pushed out and excluded from forming part of the Dominican melting pot.
The more profound question for the Dominican nation whose governments have consistently argued that a country its size cannot support current levels of Haitian migration is: will Haitian ethnicity ever be compatible with Dominicanness? Can the children and grandchildren of Haitians, like descendants of Dominicans in the United States or Spain who are teachers, lawyers, soldiers, politicians, even ambassadors and who also contain undocumented persons, be integrated as full and contributing citizens of the nation? This legacy of Haitian exclusion and their socially constructed incompatibility with Dominican culture is an ideological legacy bequeathed by Trujillo’s intellectuals following the massacre. It is the reason why the late Dominican human rights activist Sonia Pierre struggled so much to compel the nation to see her and her community of Dominicans of Haitian descent as part of the Dominican nation much like Dominicans of Spanish, Italian, Arab, Jewish and even West Indian descent.
Haitians, Magic and Money: Raza and Society in the Haitian-Dominican Borderlands, 1900 to 1937, by Lauren Derby
by Robin L.H. Derby & Richard Turits