"Dominican Responses in the Aftermath of the 1937 Haitian Massacre" by Richard Lee Turits, Ph.D.
Turits is Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in the Dominican Republic (2003).
Between October 2 and October 8, 1937, the Dominican military killed with machete an estimated 15,000 Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent who had lived in the northwestern frontier region of the Dominican Republic for decades. With few exceptions, Haitian workers in the cane fields, which were located elsewhere, were not targeted. The frontier had previously been characterized by fluid relations between ethnic Haitians and Dominicans – both of whom had been mostly independent peasants. And there had been a fairly open border between the island’s two nations without immigration restrictions. Ironically, official discourse had been increasingly pro- rather than anti-Haitian since the onset of the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in 1930. The 1937 Massacre thus seemed to come out of nowhere.
The Dominican government anticipated armed retaliation from Haiti. Women and children were temporarily evacuated from the border areas. The Haitian military, however, did nothing to defend or avenge its compatriots. Indeed, at first Haitian president Sténio Vincent prohibited public discussion of the massacre and refused to allow the church to perform masses for the dead. His government's only response was to issue a statement with the Dominican government on October 15th dismissing the seriousness of the killings: "With the hope that certain incidents which occurred in the Northern frontier between Dominicans and Haitians would not be subject to exaggerated commentary contrary to the harmony [of the two nations]...it is declared that the good relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic have not suffered any damage."
In the face of escalating domestic pressures in Haiti – demonstrations, strikes, and ultimately a failed coup effort in December – Vincent did eventually demand an international investigation and mediation. Unwilling to submit to an inquiry, Trujillo offered instead an indemnity to Haiti. One can only speculate as to why Vincent readily accepted Trujillo’s offer of $750,000 (of which only $525,000 was ever paid) in exchange for an end to international arbitration.
In the indemnity agreement signed in Washington, D.C. on 31 January 1938, the Dominican government recognized "no responsibility whatsoever" for the killings. Furthermore, in a statement made to the governments that witnessed the accord – Mexico, Cuba and the United States – Trujillo stressed how the agreement established new laws inhibiting migration between Haiti and the Dominican Republic: "More than an indemnity. . . [this will] assure the future of the Dominican family and preclude...the only threat that hovers over the future of our children, that constituted by the penetration, pacific but permanent and stubborn, of the worst Haitian element into our territory."
In the indemnity agreement, the Trujillo regime, in effect, defended the massacre as a response to a mythical illegal immigration by supposedly undesirable Haitians. Trujillo thus turned a moment of international scandal that might have toppled his regime into the foundational event for legitimating the state through anti-Haitian nationalism. This nationalism rationalized both the massacre and the government’s newly closed and well-policed border as necessary to protect an ethnically and linguistically defined Dominican community, one that the massacre had, in fact, just violently constructed itself.
In November 1937, Trujillo had initiated a criminal investigation into the "incidents" in the frontier, which led by March to the conviction of dozens of Dominican civilians obligated to confess to killing 423 Haitians. Neither these trials nor the accord with Haiti, however, signaled an end to the terror. In the spring of 1938, Trujillo ordered a new campaign against "Haitians," this time in the southern frontier. Over several months, thousands were forced to flee, and hundreds were killed.
Responses to the massacre among Dominicans in the northern frontier varied. Their communities had been devastated by the slaughter or flight of half their populations, and instead of free and frequent movement between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they faced a closed border. From many of their perspectives, Trujillo’s massacre seemed an inexplicable horror. Others, though, and above all their offspring, over time embraced the age-old anti-Haitianism of elite urban Dominicans and came to believe that the killings had restored a true Dominican-ness to the frontier. This dovetailed with growing anti-Haitian racism among ordinary Dominicans across the country as massive numbers of Haitian migrants were integrated at the bottom rung of the labor market in the decades after the Massacre.