By Jean Franco
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The "Insignificant Incident" and Its Aftermath
Between 2 and 8 October 1937, an estimated twenty thousand Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border were massacred, many of them with machetes. The six-day massacre, known as El Masacre, was ordered by President Trujillo.
The conflictive histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic date back to the division of the island of Hispaniola into two colonies, one French and the other Spanish. The French had arrived in the seventeenth century as buccaneers who took over the island of Tortuga off the coast of Hispaniola; the Spanish garrisons were unable to protect their territory from the pirates who paved the way for the takeover of part of Hispaniola by the French West India Company, and there developed a flourishing trade in sugar, indigo, and coffee based on the slave labor of Africans who came from different tribes, spoke different languages, and soon formed the majority of the population of the French colony.
Achille Mbembe coined the word "necropolis" to describe plantations in Africa where a permanent state of emergency prevailed. The population was degraded, for "the slave condition resulted from a triple loss: loss of the "home," loss of rights over his or her body, and loss of political status. This triple loss is identical with absolute domination, alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether). The slaves in the French colony suffered this triple loss, and the code noir issued by Louis XIV in 1685, which was intended to protect the slaves from excessive abuse and to decree paternalistic care for them in sickness or old age, clearly treated them as commodities. The masters were allowed to chain their slaves, but though they could punish them by beating them with rods or straps, they were forbidden to torture them or mutilate their limbs. Freed slaves were given the same rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed by freeborn persons: "We desire that they are deserving of this acquired freedom, and that this freedom gives them, as much for their person as for their property, the same happiness that natural liberty has on our other subjects." The distinction in this sentence between "natural freedom" and freedom bestowed is a subtle one, for it suggests that the Africans were slaves by nature and yet could earn their freedom.
Royal decrees were all very well, but in Saint Domingue as in the Spanish colonies the rule was "Obedezco pero no cumplo" (I obey but do not comply). Slave owners not only tortured slaves but did so in particularly cruel ways. The historian P. de Vassiere listed, among the cruelties inflicted, the placing of irons on hands and feet, the application of salt, pepper, cinders, and hot ashes to wounds, and mutilation. Women were forced to wear the iron collar. Who, then, were the savages? The colonial powers divided the island, as they did so many other areas of the world, with little thought for the consequences, which in the case of Hispaniola would be devastating.
In the French-controlled section of the island, the lucrative trade with France in coffee and sugar brought so many slaves that they soon outnumbered the white population, and because of death and desertion, new bodies were constantly needed. Thus many of the slaves were African born, speaking their different languages and bringing their customs to the new land. There was also a class of gens de couleur, the mulattoes who would have such a decisive impact on the political future of the island. The presence of a majority African-born population became a dangerous situation: the discontent of a growing mulatto population exploded into revolt when news of the French Revolution reached the island. In France, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of Rights had produced a clash of values between the universality of rights and the colonial exception. The debates in the Assembly were as significant for the slaves as those that occurred in Spain after the conquest when the question of the souls of the conquered was debated, though the terrain had shifted from souls to citizens' rights. The gens de couleur had immediately lodged their claim to be French citizens, the slaves were quick to follow, and the black population of Saint Domingue under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture seized the day. His army repelled a British invasion, and by 1801 he was in control of the island, including Spanish Santo Domingo. Napoleon, planning to restore slavery, sent an army to invade the island and eventually deceived Toussaint into surrender. The French atrocities (including an early form of the gas chamber) spurred the rebels under the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines to repay "these cannibals, war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage." Dessalines not only defeated the French but also, in the Constitution of 1804, declared all citizens of the free nation of Haiti to be black. White men were not allowed to hold property or domain on Haitian soil. As Sybille Fischer argues, the various Haitian constitutions "infuse distinctions of skin colour with political meaning." What is important about these constitutions, Fischer argues, is the political and social desires they emulate: "They are expressions of aspirations and desires that went beyond any given political and social reality."
While Haiti was founded on a revolutionary ideal of emancipation, the history of the Hispanic part of the island took a different turn. It was nominally a Spanish colony before the Spaniards abandoned it in 1821, handing it over to Haitian ruler Jean Pierre Boyer, who instituted a program of agrarian and legal system reform. The Hispanic territory did not gain independence until 1844. Thereafter it staved off five invasions from its neighbor and was briefly reannexed to Spain. It was occupied by US marines in 1916, a year after the marines had invaded Haiti. Though it met with opposition, the US occupation of the Dominican Republic ultimately shaped the future of the island. The US-controlled sugar industry brought in Haitians as laborers and restructured the army that eventually became a power base for General Trujillo.
The area along the border with Haiti was cattle country, remote from the capital, a multicultural free zone in which Dominicans shopped at Haitian markets and Haitians settled on the Dominican side of the border to work on the cattle ranches or as artisans and where people spoke patois and Spanish. It was easy to cross without papers or identification. But General Trujillo, who took power in 1930, converted the Dominican Republic into a totalitarian state with an efficient secret police, a huge national guard, and a system of citizen identification that required people to carry good conduct passes. The horrors of his regime have been amply documented by historians as well as the novelists Mario Vargas Llosa, Junot Díaz, and Julia Alvarez, all of whom re-create the fear and the monstrosity primarily through the fate of attractive women who fell prey to the leader, his sons, or his henchmen.
Junot Díaz writes,
Almost as soon as he grabbed the presidency, the Failed Cattle Thief sealed the country away from the rest of the world — a forced isolation that we'll call the Plátano Curtain. As for the country's historically fluid border with Haiti ... the Failed Cattle Thief became Dr. Gull in From Hell, adopting the creed of the Dionysian Architects, he aspired to become an architect of history, and through a horrifying ritual of silence and blood, machete and perejil, darkness and denial, inflicted a true border on the countries, a border that exists beyond maps, that is carved directly into the histories and imaginaries of a people.
The massacre of 1937 hardly seems material for a novel. It is difficult to extract pathos from mass murder. There are no intellectual heroes or defiant and ultimately martyred women, only an anonymous mass. In The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, the story is told in footnotes. Vargas Llosa slips a brief mention of the massacre into his novel La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), but as an incident that the dictator regretted rather than one he must have regarded as nation-building.
In the diplomatic correspondence, the massacre is referred to as el insignificante incidente (a minor incident) provoked by unruly criminal elements crossing the border from Haiti. But the massacre was foretold by Trujillo himself when, visiting the region in October 1937, he abruptly announced that "to Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle provision, fruit etc. and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the fruits of their labour, I have responded, 'I will fix this.'" He also reported that there were already three hundred dead in Banica and that "the remedy will continue."
A state of emergency was declared, and even as Trujillo uttered his threat, the massacre was already in progress, committed, for the most part, by army recruits wielding machetes rather than guns, perhaps because bullets implicated the army while machetes were the silent arms of a farming community. The machete lent credence to the official story of spontaneous vengeance executed by outraged Dominicans, who could then be represented as defending their property. The Haitian victims were identified by their accents. When pronouncing words such as perejil (parsley), the giveaway was the glottal pronunciation of the r, as in French. According to one historian, this distinction was intended to impute to their victims "radical cultural difference that served to rationalize and ethnicize images of the nation. Thus the violence in the Haitian massacre and the discourse within which it took place were themselves performances that helped constitute notions of inherent and transhistoric difference between Haitians and Dominicans."
Though the news in the Dominican Republic was carefully controlled, it was difficult to suppress the magnitude of the killings despite the smokescreen of denial. Haitians fleeing back across the border told their stories, arousing protests in Haiti among both the masses and the elite. But the Haitian government under President Vincent was cautious, fearful of internal disorder, and asked for the mediation of Mexico, the United States, and Cuba. In the diplomatic exchange, the Haitian president speaks of hechos sanguinarios (bloody events) but appears most perturbed over the agitation of his own people, which threatened the stability of his government. His fear was somewhat justified. The Dominican trade representative in Port-au-Prince, Adriano Mejia, complained that he could not leave his house "for fear of exposing himself to questions and ironic commentaries." The killings were bloody indeed, according to the accounts of eyewitnesses and participants, some of whom were convicts who had been recruited from prison to participate in the massacre. One of the men interviewed had been recruited at the age of thirteen to kill Haitians and was afterward imprisoned as Trujillo attempted to find culprits for what was supposedly a spontaneous event: "I remember that it was an indiscriminate thing and there was no mercy for anyone. We killed young and old, the aged, women. After they were dead, we cut off their fingers and if they wore gold rings or jewellery we took it; if they had cows we took them and if they had hens we took them."
According to US Military Intelligence, "the soldiers who carried out the work are said in many instances to have been sickened by their bloody task. A few are reported to have been summarily executed for refusing to carry out their orders, while many overcame their repugnance to the task by fortifying themselves with rum." The Dominican government, meanwhile, made every attempt to hide the atrocity, using diplomatic language that described the Haitians as hungry marauders who had illegally encroached on Dominican land. Official newspapers referring to the "insignificant incident" insisted that the Haitians had provoked the attacks. But the foreign press could not be muzzled, and after at first dismissing the incident, the Dominican government and its supporters, in an attempt to stave off the mediation of Cuba, Mexico, and the United States that Haiti had requested, played the race card. Thus when the National Black Caucus met in New York to investigate the slaughter of black Haitians, the Dominican ambassador (plenipentencionario) commented cynically that "many of our friends in this country consider that the intervention of the coloured race of America can be favourable to our cause; since there exists such a marked racial divide, any hostile activity of the black organizations could allow us to gain the sympathy of the other race." The apologists for the Dominican government insisted that the frontier was not simply an arbitrary line. It separated "that Spanish, Christian and Catholic nation that we Dominicans are, that arose pure and homogeneous in the geographical unity of the island that would have been preserved today if, from the end of the seventeenth century, there had not been the splicing onto the pristine trunk into which it injected its sap with profound and fatally different agents from those on which Hispaniola initially grew." Not only were the two countries said to be culturally and ethnically different, but the Haitians who had invaded were said to be undernourished and sick; worse yet, they brought with them voudou, whose worshipper "is the most dangerous type of paranoid." Manuel Arturo Peña Batlle, who pronounced this apologia for the Trujillo policy, was sophisticated enough to have read the work of the Haitian intellectual Jean Price-Mars and to quote him as a source that demonstrated the Africanization of Haiti.
The "new nationalist posture" of Trujillo involved the reconstruction of the nation behind an impermeable border. On the international scene, however, it was important not to admit that the slaughter of Haitians was part of this policy. An army of Dominican intellectuals was ready to support the view that what had happened on the frontier was a minor skirmish. Among them was Max Henríquez Ureña, a member of one of the foremost intellectual families of the nation and the author of a book on modernism. Sent to Mexico to meet President Cárdenas and US representatives, he was pleased to record that there seemed to be no interest in the little incident among the general public of that country and that the Mexican government "seems to prefer to leave things as they are." He either did not know or chose to ignore the full scope of the massacre, which he would explain by faithfully repeating the official story that it had been the spontaneous reaction of Dominicans because of the "violation of the immigration laws by hordes of hungry Haitians who rob animals and destroy agricultural land, groups of Haitians against public order etc." Either Ureña was in the dark or, more likely, he was unwilling to explore the murky depths of official discourse. A more elaborate historical narrative was supplied by Julio Ortega Frier, interim secretary of foreign relations, who in a 1938 letter attributed the Haitian border incursions to the buccaneer origins of Haiti. The descendant of the buccaneer was "el marotero, merodeador haitiano de nuestra región fronteriza" (the marotero, the Haitian marauder of our frontier region). The "vegetative growth" of the Haitian population, which had regressed rather than progressed, was responsible for the lawlessness of the frontier. Ortega Frier was adept at quoting from sources that denigrated the Haitians. With some satisfaction he quoted Cartas de St. Thomas by a certain "Fermín," who reports that Haitians are thoroughly corrupt:
Mientras que la masa del pueblo se desliza por la pendiente de todas las degeneraciones humanas, su miseria, su ignorancia y su inmoralidad se extienden como una ola de maldiciones que contamina a los mas altivos de la aristocracia, cuya mayor parte pierde gradualmente, sino la inteligencia, por lo menos la integridad moral, mientras que casi todos se ven envueltos por la miseria general, que los abate y los hace indigno de figurar como clase dirigente.
(While the mass of the people slide down the slope of all human forms of degeneration, their poverty, their ignorance and their immorality extends like a wave of curses that contaminates the highest members of the aristocracy the majority of whom gradually loose if not their intelligence, at least their moral integrity, while almost all of them are steeped in the general poverty that reduces them and makes them unworthy of being a ruling class.)
Seeking to repatriate such immigrants, the Dominican government had set up concentration camps for Haitians waiting deportation. Summing up the argument in 1941, when the problem had been settled by a payment from the Trujillo government and when an amenable Elie Lescot had become president of Haiti, Ortega Frier came to the dire conclusion that another clash between these unleashed hordes and the Dominican farmers and ranchers could not be avoided without the extirpation of the marota. What is implied here was truly sinister, for fear of the marota was a pretext intended to conceal the real aim of keeping the Dominican Republic as white as possible. The intellectuals backed up the Trujillo position by citing experts. Manuel Arturo Peña Batlle, for example, mentions a Brookings Institute report warning of the possible "blackening" of the "white" Dominican population and suggesting that there was a racial Gresham's law according to which those at the bottom of the economic scale were likely to absorb those who were whiter. It was a report that no doubt reflected some US fears. The paradox was that during the massacre, skin color could not determine the difference between Dominicans and Haitians, hence their reliance on the pronunciation of perejil.
Excerpted from CRUEL MODERNITY by Jean Franco. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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