The Real and Imagined Borders of Hispaniola
Sending letters directly between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has only recently become possible. For most of the last sixty years, their postal services routed the mail ninety miles north to Miami as if the two countries had decided that they no longer shared the island of Hispaniola. This is absurd at best; a flight between their capital cities, Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince, takes only half an hour. Deep in the Cordillera Central mountain range, the border is virtually irrelevant to peasants who cross it easily on market days and switch rapidly between Dominican Spanish and Haitian Kreyol. In the north, the river that separates the two countries is so shallow that in it women wash clothes and children play.
Tragedy, not geography, forms the real border. Its name, as any Dominican or Haitian can tell you, is the same as that of the deceptively calm northern river: The Massacre. During just a few weeks in October 1937, Dominican soldiers killed 30,000 Haitians along the border because the victims' skin was dark, even though Dominicans were just a few shades lighter. The events still divide the Dominican Republic and Haiti so deeply that there may as well be an ocean not only around them but between them.
Dominicans typically do not describe the massacre as the result of popular hatred against Haitians, but instead imply that Dominicans dislike Haitians because of the massacre. This sounds odd but is not far from the truth, which is that for six decades nationalist Dominican governments distorted history and promoted dissent to defend the madman dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo was openly inspired by Hitler's racial theories and ordered the massacre as a way of "whitening" his country. To quiet critics, Trujillo deployed an intense "Dominicanization" propaganda campaign portraying his racist mania as a paternal act to save his people from Haiti.
Today the two nations are at a historical juncture, the end of an era dominated by two powerful Dominican leaders who were shaped by the massacre -- Joaquín Balaguer, its greatest defender, and José Francisco Peña Gómez, an orphan left behind. Their successors now have a chance to transform the memory of the massacre from one used to justify the past into one with the power to keep such a thing from happening again. To do so, they must replace the myth of the protective strongman with the stories of his victims. A former sugar cane plantation guard, Rafael Trujillo began his ascent to power in the National Guard, where he was trained by American Marines occupying the Dominican Republic. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming head of the armed forces when the American troops left in 1924, a time of relative prosperity. It was not long before he toppled an aging caretaker president, and in 1930 he began a thiry-one-year dictatorship during which he renamed mountains and cities after himself and embellished his own name with the honorific Great Benefactor of the Nation and Father of the New Dominion. He wore pancake make-up to lighten the traces of color his Haitian grandmother's blood had left in his skin. Yet Dominican society still snubbed him for his working-class family origins, and for his youthful exploits as a petty thief.
Turmoil in Europe resonated both with the Dominican Republic's growing economic difficulties and with Trujillo's own obsessions with race and status. By 1937 the Dominican Republic was practically broke, its sugar exports fetching only a penny a pound, one twentieth of the price during the boom a decade earlier. In late September of that year, weeks before the massacre, the Dominican president publicly accepted a gift of Hitler's Mein Kampf, whose racial theories he clearly embraced. A visiting Nazi delegation was welcomed by glowing...