By Leina Gabra
The Dominican Republic’s next presidential election is quickly approaching, and many hope to leave behind the years of corruption and political instability that have undermined Dominican democracy in the last century. However, Ramfis Dominguez-Trujillo, the grandson of the prolific authoritarian leader Rafael Trujillo who controlled the nation for three decades, is running for president on a platform reminiscent of his grandfather’s. Throughout the 1930s, Trujillo and his administration of Dominican elites fostered nationalist sentiments and bolstered racist ideology; ultimately culminating into the deplorable October 1937 Parsley Massacre. The Parsley Massacre- known in Spanish as “The Cutting” and in Creole as “The Stabbing”- was a barbaric campaign of mass genocide carried out by the Dominican military under the orders of Dictator Rafael Trujillo. It is estimated that between 17,000 and 35,000 innocent men, women, and children were exterminated. Victims were burned alive, shot in front of their families, often beheaded by machetes or stabbed by bayonets. Trujillo justified the abhorrent genocide with lies and helped foster conditions leading to the disenfranchisement of and institutional discrimination against Haitians since the 20th century and persisting to this day.
In the pre-massacre years, the Trujillo regime formulated a strategy to boost nationalist, anti-Haitian ideology on the basis of promoting modernity, encouraging cultural unity, and protecting the Dominican Republic’s border security. Discrimination against Haitians was not commonplace for most Dominicans before the Parsley Massacre. In fact, a multiethnic population lived harmoniously for years on the border, despite centuries of imperial and colonial forces that attempted to establish a racial hierarchy among their subjects. However, when Trujillo ascended to power, he integrated elite intellectuals into his dictatorial regime who believed that the cultural practices of Haitians and other African descendants on the island were “backward and the primary obstacle to progress”, and thus perceived them as a menace to the modernization of Dominican society. Furthermore, the Trujillo regime, or the trujillato, aimed to foster national unity through the concept of dominicanidad, a national identity which is “defined in opposition to the neighboring society of Haiti” and thus encouraged the ‘othering’ of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.
Another of Trujillo’s preoccupations in the pre-massacre years was border security. The regime was “concerned with Haitians primarily in areas where the border was actively disputed by the two countries”, a protracted conflict that had existed between the two nations for decades. The effort to ‘Dominicanize’ the border regions began with a colonization program based on fears of Haiti claiming more territory and underpinned by racist notions that associated modernity with whiteness. While fears of ‘Haitianization’ existed before the trujillato, the regime’s elite nationalism codified anti-Haitian ideology throughout the 1930s and was a fundamental premise for the Parsley Massacre.
The Parsley Massacre ratified the trujillato’s anti-Haitian, nationalistic ideology which was then exploited to create a lasting divide between ethnic Haitians and Dominicans. This divide has been sustained throughout the 20th century and persists in modern Dominican thought. Often in cases of state violence against persecuted groups, ideology comes first and justifies the proceeding repression. In this case however, the violence came first, and was then justified after-the-fact. Trujillo justified the Parsley Massacre by framing it as a “nationalist defense against the putative ‘pacific invasion’ of Haitians”, thus portraying Dominicans as the victims of a Haitian onslaught. This was untrue. According to Shoaff, “the massacre signifies an ideological project of segregation and unification, whereby the general citizenry was enlisted to arbitrarily draw a territorial and symbolic boundary” between Haitian and Dominican identities. It is also important to note that Dominican anti-Haitianism is largely based on the premise of blackness, rendering them inferior; thus, Dominican-born black people are also victims of racial discrimination. This ideological narrative became widespread after the massacre and created the conditions for the continued subjugation of Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
After 1937, Dominicans restricted Haitians in virtually every way imaginable. Haitians in the Dominican Republic were excluded from most economic opportunities and relegated to the lowest rung of the labor market through a “government-managed system of semi-coerced exploitation”. From then on, Haitians in the Dominican Republic have been forced into a cycle of poverty which both perpetuates and reinforces stereotypes of Haitian inferiority. Moreover, the trujillato terminated free movement between Haiti and the Dominican Republic through military command posts which patrolled the border, putting an end to the relatively multi-ethnic frontier community which then diminished cultural integration and acceptance of Haitians over time. Through a policy of official racism that has been institutionalized throughout the 20th century, anti-Haitianism has become the norm in the Dominican Republic. It was further legitimized more recently through constitutional changes which excluded Haitians – and anyone with Haitian descent – from claiming citizenship. In 2010, the Dominican Republic formed a new constitution effectively rendered “an estimated 250,000 individuals (83 percent of whom are of Haitian descent) […] stateless”. In this way, the trujillato used the Parsley Massacre as a foundation for an ethnicized conception of dominicanidad and the continued discrimination of Haitians, as well as Dominicans of African descent.
Since the Parsley Massacre, Dominican politics has steadily maintained anti-Haitianism as a key component of nationalist rhetoric. Ramfis Dominguez-Trujillo’s presidential campaign rhetoric – which calls for stronger border security and advocates for Dominican national pride – resurfaces memories of his grandfather’s similar attempts to codify opposition to Haiti as part of Dominican identity. The Parsley Massacre was enacted by a racist, elite, dictatorial regime, which sought to eradicate an ethnic group it perceived as inferior in the name of national protection and cultural unity. The massacre was then used to justify institutionalized racism, which has endured since 1937 and continues to permeate Dominican politics into the present day.
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