We have a story now of a forgotten battle from 80 years ago, a massacre resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic in 1937. The two nations share an island in the Caribbean. Then-Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered soldiers to kill Haitians indiscriminately and then worked to keep it a secret. Marlon Bishop from the NPR program Latino USA visited both countries, where the aftershocks from this tragedy are still being felt.
MARLON BISHOP: On October 5, 1937, 10-year-old Francisco Pierre – who today is 90 – was sitting in his patio in the Dominican Republic, not far from the border with Haiti, when a man passed by his house.
FRANCISCO PIERRE: (Through interpreter) He yelled out to us, go across to Haiti right now because they are killing people in the village.
BISHOP: They were killing Haitian people and Dominicans of Haitian descent like Francisco. So he and his grandmother loaded up their donkey and began to flee towards the Haitian border. Eventually, they made it to the river that divides the two countries. On the other side, several Haitians were yelling at them to cross quickly.
PIERRE: (Through interpreter) They said come, come, come, come. The guards are coming. And if they catch you, they will kill you. But we stood there, immobile. And before we knew it, the Haitians crossed over and grabbed our donkeys and grabbed ahold of our hands and pulled us across.
BISHOP: Francisco barely escaped, but others weren’t so lucky. Over the course of about a week, Dominican soldiers executed thousands of Haitians by machete. Estimates of the dead range from a few thousand to 30,000. The man behind the massacre…
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GILLES LAGIN: From the ancient Spanish fortress, built more than 400 years ago, comes the car of Rafael Trujillo Molina, the strongman of the republic.
BISHOP: Rafael Trujillo ran a police state in the DR for 31 years. He was a total narcissist who renamed the capital city after himself and forced merengue orchestras to compose songs in his honor.
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BISHOP: He was also said to be obsessed with whitening the country and allegedly powdered his face to have a more Spanish appearance. And according to historians, he was fixated on the idea of controlling the border, which people more or less crossed freely at the time. After the massacre, Trujillo denied his government had anything to do with it, claiming that it was just local Dominican farmers rising up against Haitian cattle thieves. Edward Paulino, a historian who studies the border, says that Trujillo proceeded to launch a campaign against Haitians in the Dominican press, painting them as invaders and criminals.
EDWARD PAULINO: Trujillo capitalized on this historically but diffuse notion of Haiti as the outsider, as the enemy. And he uses the massacre to crystallize this official doctrine that Hatians are our eternal enemies.
BISHOP: It wasn’t until after Trujillo’s death over 20 years later that researchers began to put the pieces together of what really happened. While the massacre is acknowledged in the DR today, Paulino says the country hasn’t really reckoned with this piece of its history.
PAULINO: The state has never apologized. It has never officially come out and engaged.
BISHOP: He says there’s no monument, no museum, no national day of remembrance.
PAULINO: And I think you have to talk. There has to be a catharsis.
BISHOP: But not everyone on the island agrees.
How many books have you written, by the way?
BERNARDO VEGA: About 52 – something like that.
BISHOP: Just a few.
Like Bernardo Vega, one of the country’s top historians and a former ambassador to the US.
VEGA: So we are very upset at the fact that, time and time again, this issue of a massacre is brought up when it was something that the Dominican people, as a society, were never involved in. I don’t think that bringing this up again and again helps Dominican-Haitian relations. Trujillo did so many bad things. Why should we be responsible for it?
BISHOP: Another reason that the massacre isn’t talked about much today in the Dominican Republic may be that the anti-Haitianism that Trujillo promoted – this idea that Dominicans and Haitians are eternal enemies – that idea still has a foothold. But these days, it’s colored by another source of tension. High immigration from Haiti in recent years has sparked new waves of anti-Haitian feeling. Driving through Santo Domingo one day, I found a striking example of that feeling, a billboard suggesting that the country build a wall on the Dominican-Haitian border to help keep immigrants out.
PELEGRIN CASTILLO: (Foreign language spoken).
BISHOP: That billboard belongs to Pelegrin Castillo, a right-wing politician. And he jokes that maybe Donald Trump got the idea for his wall from him. He says he’s been asking for it since the ’90s.
CASTILLO: (Speaking foreign language).
BISHOP: He says that building a physical wall is a way to avoid something worse in the future – a, quote, “wall of hate and blood.” It’s an ominous suggestion that the mutual dislike between the countries might lead to violence in the future. But that’s only one narrative, says historian Edward Paulino.
PAULINO: That this one lie and, you know, and one story and one narrative – and that said, Dominicans and Haitians have never gotten along. The Dominicans hate Haitians. Well, if you go to the border, it’s not just about wars and massacres, but it’s also about these two peoples coming together and sometimes making one people.
BISHOP: And that, he believes, is exactly why Dominicans have to talk about Trujillo’s massacre – to take a good look at Trujillo’s story, that Haitians and Dominicans are enemies, and leave it in the past where it belongs. For NPR News, I’m Marlon Bishop.
SINGH: That story is an excerpt from an hour-long episode of NPR’s Latino USA. The full story is available at npr.org.