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Immigration and Racism on the Island of Hispaniola

PT. 2: A History of Violence

Written by: David Adams  |  Edited by: Noelle Evans

Today, the island of Hispaniola is split unevenly between Haiti (one third) and the Dominican Republic (two thirds). Yet the border between the two countries has fluctuated and occasionally disappeared altogether in the 500 years since the arrival of European invaders. The history of this ill-defined border sets the background for the particularly bitter anti-Haitian animosity found in the D.R. today–called "antihaitianismo."

First, some historical context, because the racist colonial legacy is still being played out in the Dominican Republic today. Beginning in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, Hispaniola was a site of colonial turmoil. Initially there was conflict between the indigenous Taino and the Spanish, who forced them into hard labor in their search for precious metals. But the natives, subjected to brutal working conditions and previously unexposed to European diseases, died by the tens of thousands. With their extermination began the importation of African slaves, in 1503, which was to become the foundation of the colonial-mercantilist economies of the region, whereby natural resources and agricultural products were extracted from the colony by European imperial powers and used to fuel economic and political expansion.

In 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick formally divided the island between French imperial presence in the west (Saint Domingue) and Spanish in the east. The eastern portion remained under Spanish control until the Peace of Basel in 1795, when it was ceded to the French Republic after the War of the Pyrenees. However, these formal shifts in control did not prevent the British and, later, the nascent United States from vying for territory and influence. Yet the events that most echo in the island's collective memory today speak to its later history as the first black republic in the hemisphere, fighting for an end to slavery, independence from France, and its very right to exist.

At the turn of the 19th century, former African and Creole slaves in Saint Domingue - formerly the wealthiest of Europe's colonies - were understandably uncomfortable with the continued presence of European forces just across the ill-defined border with Santo Domingo. From 1791 to 1801 the armies of free blacks had fought and defeated some of the most impressively modern European armies of the era (French, British, Spanish) and were intent on preserving their liberty. As a result, the population of eastern Hispaniola endured multiple Haitian military incursions in the early 19th century:

• In 1801, the revolutionary army of Toussaint Louverture struck across the border and quickly took control of Santo Domingo, declaring the abolition of slavery. It was a move intended to secure the island against the landing of French forces coming to take back the colony and reinstate slavery. Soon afterwards, Napoleonic forces retook the territory.

• In 1805, the Haitian army - this time under Jean-Jacques Dessalines - once again invaded in an attempt to wrest the port of Santo Domingo from French control, but was repulsed by French forces. Retreating back across the border, his army pillaged several towns and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of their residents. The French retained control until 1809, when the Spanish forced their surrender.

• From 1822 to 1844 the entire the island was once again under the control of the fledgling nation of Haiti. This was political self-preservation. Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer had established unity between North and South Haiti; the next strategic step was to secure the western side of Hispaniola against any possible European invasion, which was still a haunting possibility. During the 22-year occupation, the Dominican elite, resentful of Haitian appropriations of property and the ideas of universal emancipation they brought with them, cultivated a fear and loathing of Haitians in general. When the Dominican Creole-led independence movement finally forced out the Haitian army in 1844, the preliminary form of the Dominican Republic was born. From the start, the DR was literally "based on the rejection of Haiti." Today, Dominicans celebrate national independence "not from centuries-long colonizer Spain, but from Haiti."

This politick of rejection perseveres in the 21st century, though the balance of power has significantly shifted. Every year, tens of thousands of Haitians are forcefully deported from the Dominican Republic. The majority of them work in slave-like conditions on Dominican sugarcane plantations (as they once did in Cuba) or are exploited for less-than-subsistence wages by Dominican construction firms (a phenomenon also notable in Brazil and the Bahamas). Migrating from Haiti, where jobs are scarce and resources strained, their labor comes cheap–occasionally even free, as Dominican entrepreneurs sometimes arrange mass deportations of their Haitian workforce right around payday. Haitian lives are equally cheapened; many Dominicans resent them and they bear the stereotypes of savages and thieves, as animals to be abused and robbed - those with Haitian background have been stripped completely of their dignity.

The precise number of Haitian nationals living in the D.R. without official documents is unknown, but estimates range from several hundred thousand to over a million. They constitute a significant underclass, ripe for exploitation for the benefit of the Dominican elite, and serve as a convenient scapegoat for high nationwide unemployment among Dominican nationals. This system of oppression was not born overnight. In the 20th century, it had significant help.

Antihaitianismo took on a professional form in the D.R. in the 1930s as Rafael Trujillo came to power. A monomaniacal dictator, his efforts to unite the country in a cult of personality culminated, like Germany in the 1930s, in genocide of an "outsider" seen as a corrupting influence on Dominican society. 

Between 1935 and 1937, Trujillo and Haitian president Stenio Vincent cosigned clauses finalizing a 1929 border agreement. Taking this opportunity to tighten his grip over the country, in September, 1937, Trujillo sent in the army to bolster state authority along the porous and isolated border regions. His main goal was to clear the Dominican side of Haitians, many of whom had come seeking more fertile land and economic possibility. Not only was Trujillo possessed with an undisguised hatred for black people, he was also worried that the presence of thousands of Haitians on Dominican territory might provide an excuse for the Haitian government to claim more land. He administered his "remedy". Named decades later the "Parsley Massacre", Dominican troops supposedly used the Spanish word perejil as a shibboleth to determine whether or not someone was Haitian, as native Kreyol speakers had trouble pronouncing the Spanish r. Perhaps as many as 30,000 Haitians were murdered with clubs and machetes (Trujillo wanted to blame the Dominican peasantry for the massacre, but bullets could be traced back to the military), though the exact number will never be known. The government of the DR has never apologized nor given adequate recompense to the families of those killed - just $525,000 was paid to the Haitian government at the time, the vast majority of which did not reach the families of the victims.

The massacre was the logical outcome of Trujillo's discourse against Haitian blackness. During his 31 years as "the chief" of the D.R., the nation saw a distinct movement away from its commonalities with its neighbor, towards the policy of Dominican superiority. Trujillo launched an era of intense institutional racism that continues to inform political judgments, court proceedings, and popular nationalist sentiment. He was the product of a long history of white-skinned Europeans fearing for their property and vehemently opposed to the abolition of slavery, the source of their wealth and influence. The D.R.'s current politics and policies are a product of his legacy.

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