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.
How and where were the killings carried out?
The killings were carried out by Trujillo’s army and conscripted civilians. Both soldiers and civilians used mostly machetes. Because Dominicans could also be black a linguistic litmus test was sometimes used to distinguish between Haitian and Dominicans since the Spanish rolling r is difficult to pronounce in Haitian Kreyol. Thus victims were asked to repeat words like perejil (parsely) to mark their insider (Dominican) and now outsider (Haitian) status. But this strategy was applied intermittently and not at all efficacious: Dominican machete-wielding men could not have asked this same question to each of the thousands of people they killed in the relatively short amount of time that the killings occurred.
The Dominican government told the world the massacre was a spontaneous skirmish by Dominican farmers protecting their property and livestock from Haitian thieves. For the most part machetes were used in order to support this subterfuge. Yet there were instances (virtually absent in the historiography of the massacre) where civilians were given shotguns to kill Haitians. The ammunition was documented by military officers. For every bullet Dominicans were required to bring back one ear for each Haitian they killed.
There was also a systematic pattern whereby Haitian corpses were burned or buried throughout the rural countryside. The murders not only occurred throughout the border region but non-border towns as well, some as far east as Moca, Santiago, Puerto Plata and San Francisco de Macorís. Archival correspondence collected by Vega, Cuello, Roorda, Derby, Turits and Paulino show, as US Ambassador Henry R. Norweb’s October 1937 diplomatic communiqué to President Franklin D. Roosevelt shows, that a “systematic campaign of extermination” occurred in the Dominican Republic. Something the Trujillo government always denied.
And yet, another forgotten strand of history seldom underscored during the killings is a pattern were Dominicans risked their lives to save Haitians and their descendants who were often their neighbors, their relatives. During those days of October 1937, if you were a Haitian immigrant, long-term Haitian resident, native Dominican born person of Haitian or Dominican parents and lived outside of the safe US-owned sugar mills your goal was to reach the border and cross into Haiti. Depending on the location it could take a few hours or eight days to reach and cross the border into Haiti.
Was Trujillo or the government ever punished?
No high ranking Dominican government official was ever prosecuted or sentenced for the massacre. Indeed, after the Dominican and Haitian governments reached a peaceful resolution in early 1938, a published League of Nations report stated that neither Trujillo nor his government shared any present or future responsibility for the massacre—the official report, in essence, (a legal precedent) made it practically impossible for the Dominican government to be prosecuted absolving the regime of mass murder. Ironically, in the months following the massacre a sham trial was held by the Dominican government of those thought to be responsible for the killings. The men on trial were called reservistas, reservists, men of well-repute in the community and loyal to Trujillo. The men were found guilty but after several months were set free. The trial was a farce and the Dominican government was never punished.
Trujillo capitalized on World War II (as Eric Roorda writes in The Dictator Next Door) and the US need through the Good Neighbor Policy to project strong western hemispheric solidarity against an imperialistic Germany in Europe and an imperialistic Japan in the Asia. In declaring his government’s support for the United States against Germany, Trujillo’s crime was forgotten. Later on in the 1940s Trujillo ingratiated himself even more to President Roosevelt by accepting several hundred European Jews fleeing the Nazis who eventually settled in the northern Dominican coastal town of Sosua and revealing one of the 20th century’s deepest of ironies: one group viewed as racially inferior and insufficiently Aryan in one country arriving in another country where they, as Caucasians, were now viewed as agents of whiteness to “improve the race” settling near the same region where black Haitians less than ten years before their arrival were hunted and killed for their perceived racial inferiority.