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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.3 (2002) 589-635

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A World Destroyed, A Nation Imposed:
The 1937 Haitian Massacre in the Dominican Republic

Richard Lee Turits


Forgetting, I would go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle] of nationality.

—Ernest Renan, "What is a Nation?" (1882)

In October 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina commanded his army to kill all "Haitians" living in the Dominican Republic's northwestern frontier, which borders on Haiti, and in certain parts of the contiguous Cibao region. Between 2 October and 8 October, hundreds of Dominican [End Page 589] troops poured into this vast region, 1 and, with the assistance of alcaldes pedáneos (submunicipal political authorities) and some civilian reserves, rounded up and slaughtered with machete perhaps 15,000 ethnic Haitians. 2 Those killed in this operation—still frequently referred to as el corte (the cutting) by Dominicans and as kout kouto-a (the stabbing) by Haitians—were mostly small farmers, many of whom had been born in the Dominican Republic (and thus were Dominican citizens according to the Dominican constitution) and some whose families had lived in the Dominican Republic for generations. 3 Haitians were [End Page 590] slain even as they attempted to escape to Haiti while crossing the fatefully named Massacre River that divides the two nations. 4 After the first days of the slaughter, the official checkpoint and bridge between Haiti and the Dominican Republic were closed, thus impeding Haitians' escape. 5 In the following weeks, local priests and officials in Haiti recorded testimonies of refugees and compiled a list that ultimately enumerated 12,168 victims. 6 Subsequently, during the first half of 1938, thousands more Haitians were forcibly deported and hundreds killed in the southern frontier region. 7

Dominican civilians and local authorities played disparate roles in the massacre. Some assisted the army by identifying and locating Haitians, while others helped Haitians hide and flee; the army recruited a few to participate in the killings. Generally these civilian recruits were prisoners from other areas of the country or local residents already tied to the regime and its repressive apparatus. Above all, local Dominican civilians were compelled by the army to burn and bury the bodies of the victims. 8

The extraordinary violence of this baneful episode provides a terrifying image not only of the brutality, ruthlessness, and Caligulesque features of the infamous Trujillo dictatorship but also of the potential depths of Dominican [End Page 591] anti-Haitianism. Anti-Haitianism, moreover, has only grown and, above all, diffused during the last 60 years, as Haitian migrants to Dominican sugar zones and other areas—mostly far from the frontier regions—actually increased in number after the massacre. These migrants have been subjected to extraordinary exploitation and continual human rights abuses. In addition, there is a salient racial dimension to Dominican anti-Haitianism, as Haitians have been identified in the Dominican Republic as "black" in contrast to Dominicans who, evidently since the colonial era, have rarely constructed such identities for themselves (even though most also have not identified themselves—nor been identified by others—as "white"). 9 Hence, narrating the history of the Haitian massacre as a story of anti-Haitian racism resonates powerfully with [End Page 592] contemporary issues in Haitian-Dominican relations and comparative themes in world history, namely, hostility toward lower-class immigrants and the racial and ethnic conflict, ethnic cleansing, and genocide that marked the twentieth century.

Yet to tell the history of the Haitian massacre through the lens of post-1937 Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic, indeed to tell it as a history of Dominicans versus Haitians, of one ethnic group or nation versus another, is misleading and may unwittingly reinscribe and essentialize what are, in fact, historically varying and contingent ways of imagining the Dominican nation. The story of the Haitian massacre is also one of Dominicans versus Dominicans, of Dominican elites...