Discovering the 1937 Haitian Massacre

The first time I read them, I could not foresee that two sentences would transform my sense of history, memory, cultural identity, and genocide. In 1989, I was an undergraduate at the College of New Paltz in upstate New York. My mentor, the historian Dr. Laurence Hauptman, invited me to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, across the river in Poughkeepsie, New York, to conduct research for my undergraduate senior thesis. My thesis focused on the 1937 Haitian Massacre in the
Dominican Republic — a genocidal killing spree ordered by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, in which between 12,000 and 20,000 ethnic Haitians were murdered— and Dr. Hauptman thought I might find some interesting and relevant diplomatic documents. It was the first time I had visited an archive, and it would prove pivotal not only to my research, but to a process of reassessment of my ancestral home. At the FDR Library, I uncovered diplomatic correspondence that showed a widespread
government-sponsored killing spree had indeed taken place, and that Roosevelt knew Trujillo was lying about his regime’s orchestration of it. And then I read those sentences found in a diplomatic communiqué from R. Henry Norweb, then the US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. “Apparently with the approval of President Trujillo,” Norweb wrote, “…a systematic campaign of extermination was directed against all Haitian residents . . . the drive was conducted with ruthless efficiency by the
National Police and Army.”

Prior to this, I hadn’t connected this relatively unknown Caribbean massacre with the larger history of genocide. As a young Dominican kid growing up in the Lower East Side in New York City, I first learned about genocide through Milton Metzer’s book, The Holocaust. I was fifteen years old, and was shocked to learn that places like Auschwitz had existed and were created specifically to destroy other human beings based on racist ideologies. Over the next few years, I would read more books and watch
documentaries on genocides ranging from Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur. Though always compelling, they were distant to my culture and identity: I was related to neither the victims nor the perpetrators. But
the Norweb communiqué was different. It forced me to ponder my own relationship to this legacy of mass murder, and my identity as an ethnic Dominican bearing witness to the crime. 

For someone born and raised in New York City, the Dominican Republic had seemed an idyllic place. During Christmas holidays and summer vacations, Santo Domingo served as a peaceful refuge, where I could bask under a limoncillo (Spanish lime) fruit tree on my family’s cocoa farm in the town of San Francisco de Macorís and watch the guaraguaos (hawks) soaring high above in a royal-blue sky. It was my paradise. There, I felt at home, one of the majority — something denied me in the United States.

During my adolescence in the 1980s, when my neighborhood, like others in New York and the United States, succumbed to the ravages of the crack epidemic, I yearned to leave the United States and return to my parents’ country.

It was thus disconcerting, indeed a jolting surprise, when I came across Norweb’s document in the FDR Library. The communiqué alerting FDR to the 1937 Haitian massacre forced me to see the Dominican Republic and its history in a different light. How could “my people” participate in genocidal massacres? How could a culture, which spoke to me in ways that American culture did not, especially as a politically radicalized working-class Latino undergraduate in a predominantly white college, also be the site of a mass murder not unlike the other genocides I had read about? At the time, I’d had an insatiable desire to condemn the European conquest of the Americas, the decimation of hundreds of indigenous nations, and the enslavement of Africans, thereby reaffirming my Dominican identity by romanticizing “the folk.” Yet I was unprepared to expand my anti-colonial perspective to a critique of my own heritage of violence and racialism. For me, the relevance of the Norweb document is also
deeply personal.

As a Dominican-American, I realize that my legacy is not just that of the victim, but also of the perpetrator. Before, the génocidaires were Nazis, Hutus, Khmer Rouge, Serbs, Turks, Japanese, Europeans in the Americas and Africa — always the Other. Surely not me, a Dominican-American,
a Latino, a New Yorker, an American. Through the Norweb communiqué, I stumbled on a heritage that forced me to reevaluate my youthful romanticism about a country in which, today, a poor, dark-skinned Dominican of Haitian descent lacks a racial, ethnic, and class privilege that I, as a light-skinned American of Dominican descent with a precious blue passport, possess but do not deserve.

*(This essay is an abridged version of the original that can be found in the Resource Center section of this website under the title “Letter from Ambassador R. Henry Norweb to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1937): Discovering the Haitian Massacre,” in Evoking Genocide: Scholars and Activists describe the Works that Shaped their Lives, Ed. Adam Jones, (Toronto: The Key Publishing House, Inc., 2009): 49-54.

Edward Paulino

Copyright 2013

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