Letter from The Dominican Republic — From the May 2015 issue

Displaced in the D.R.

A country strips 210,000 of citizenship

( 3 of 10 )

When two countries, one richer and the other poorer, share a border, it is a given that people from the poorer nation will pass over the border to seek a better job and a better life. Today the Dominican Republic’s economy is about eight times the size of Haiti’s, but until the turn of the twentieth century Haiti was richer than the D.R. During centuries of colonial rule, when the island of Hispaniola was divided into French and Spanish possessions, the Spanish side was the cattle-raising backwater, and people there had to cross the border to buy luxuries like perfume.

Haiti is the world’s only nation formed by a successful slave rebellion. It was the second republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. In 1825, two decades after Haiti triumphed over France, its former colonizer surrounded the island with gunboats and extorted compensation from the new republic for the “property” lost in the revolution: slaves. France demanded 150 million gold francs, later reduced to 90 million. Haiti was forced to borrow from French banks to meet its payment deadlines, and it was 122 years before it was able to pay off both the ransom and loan interest. This is one reason why mention of Haiti now is so often followed by the phrase “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government asked France to return the money, which he claimed amounted to $21.7 billion. France refused.

HA040__06620-1The young republic of Haiti ruled the Dominican Republic, then called Santo Domingo, from 1822 until the two sides separated in 1844. These dates have been seared into Dominican consciousness as an occupation, the most humiliating episode of their history. Dominican Independence Day is celebrated not on the day the country gained freedom from Spain but on the date of independence from Haiti. Spain even briefly recolonized the D.R. in 1861, at the invitation of a Dominican leader looking to salvage the economy and his own authority, who used threats from Haiti as a pretext for the action, according to historian Anne Eller. Still, into the early twentieth century, the line between Haiti and the Dominican Republic remained porous, and along the border people from both countries farmed side by side and intermarried.

This peaceful coexistence was shattered in 1937, when Rafael Trujillo, as part of his project of whitening the Dominican population, ordered the murder of between 7,000 and 15,000 Haitians who were living on the Dominican side of the border. Trujillo himself had a Haitian grandmother, and wore pancake makeup in the Caribbean heat to lighten his complexion. He was famous for never sweating. An artist I met in Santo Domingo told me that the dictator “looked out the window” and realized that if he didn’t want his country to be considered black, he would have to invent a new racial category. Dominicans were henceforth to be indios, a categorization that appeared on government-issued I.D. cards until 2011.

Haitian merchants cross into the D.R. via the Dajabón bridge. Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean.

Haitian merchants cross into the D.R. via the Dajabón bridge. Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean.

The 1937 massacre is known in the D.R. simply as el corte, “the cutting.” To differentiate Haitians and Dominicans, Trujillo’s men forced residents with dark skin to pronounce the word for parsley, perejil. If they could not roll the r like a Spanish speaker, they were executed. The army used machetes to make it look as though nationalist farmers had turned on their neighbors spontaneously, without government orders or assistance. The border city of Dajabón saw so many killings that it was said the nearby Río Masacre — which divides the two countries and was named for a colonial skirmish — ran red.

The United States, which had recently withdrawn from a military occupation of the D.R. that lasted from 1916 to 1924, expressed only mild dismay. Trujillo was trained on a base by U.S. Marines and rose to power through the ranks of the Dominican National Guard. According to historian Eric Roorda, a Dominican emissary to the United States explained the 1937 massacre as something necessary to “preserve our racial superiority.”

A year later, in an effort to improve his international image, Trujillo announced a plan to accept hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe, and he built the Sosua Jewish Refugee Settlement on the northern coast of the island. A promotional video showed pale immigrants sunning themselves on the tropical beach.

In accordance with his Good Neighbor policy, Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over negotiations between Haiti and the D.R., after which Trujillo promised a $750,000 indemnity to Haiti but sidestepped responsibility for the killings on the border. In the end, Trujillo paid only $250,000, plus several bribes to Haitian officials, and only a few hundred Jews were ever settled in the Dominican Republic. After the issue was resolved to his satisfaction, Trujillo nominated Roosevelt for the Nobel Peace Prize.

is a doctoral candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University.

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