Les Vêpres Domincaines

Settlement of the Frontier and Dominican Independence

Tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic reflect an earlier conflict between imperial powers over the settlement of Hispaniola. Manuel Vicente Hernández González asserts, “En el último tercio del siglo XVII la colonización francesa de la parte occidental de La Española se consolidó con un crecimiento espectacular de la economía de plantación y de la trata esclavista. Por el contrario, el área fronteriza española estaba prácticamente deshabitada…. Para la monarquía española su repoblación era objetivo indispensable para envitar la expansión francesa.” To thwart French expansion on the island, González explains, Spain paid merchants to relocated families to the frontier.1 Soon however the Haitian Revolution engulfed all of Hispaniola in shifting alliances between insurgents, Spain, Britain, and France. In 1801 Toussaint Louverture invaded Santo Domingo and abolished slavery. After Haitian Independence, Spanish rule and slavery returned to Santo Domingo; and Haitian leaders anticipated a future European attack through its colonized neighbor. Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer sought to preempt European aggression with an invasion of his own. Jean-Marie Théodat writes, “L’intérêt historiques de la présidence de Boyer, c’est d’avoir été la seule occasion de l’aboutissement d’un long rêve, antérieur à l’indépendance haïtienne: l’unité le l’île sous un même gouvernement, un même drapeau, avec l’avantage stratégique de pouvoir la defender sur toutes les côtes contre une éventuelle invasion étrangère. Les Dominicains, débarrassés de la tutelle coloniale espagnole, dans l’impossibilité d’assurer seuls leurs indépendance choisirent l’alliance inattendue avec l’ennemi traditionnel haïtien: les troupes de Boyer pénétrèrent sans coup férir à Santo Domingo en février 1822 et restèrent vingt-deux ans.”2

Dominicans resented occupation and, like many Haitians, were discontent with the governance of Boyer. Led by Juan Pablo Duarte, Dominican rebels challenged Haitian rule and later supported the Haitians who overthrew Boyer in 1843. According to Frank Moya Pons, “Durante los últimos diez y seis años habían occurido demasiados acontecimientos desagradables para el espíritu y los intereses de los dominicanos, y esos acontecimientos, posiblemente estimulados por la cadena de conspiraciones y revueltas del lado occidental de la Isla y abandos por la crisis commercial de los últimos dos años, pusieron en movimiento a un grupo de jóvenes de Santo Domingo, algunos de ellos comerciantes o hijos de comerciantes, que el 16 de Julio de 1838 se reunieron para integrar una sociedad secreta con el propósito de organizer la Resistencia dominicana y separar la parte del Este de la República de Haití. La Trinitaria, que fue el nobre de esta sociedad encabezada por el comerciante Juan Pablo Duarte y Diez logró reunir en su seno a la mayor parte de la juventud de la ciudad de Santo Domingo cuyas familias habían sido lesionadas en una o en otra forma por las diversas disposiciones légales o militares del Gobierno haitiano.”3 Boyer’s successor, Charles Rivière-Hérard, persecuted the Trinitarios and forced Duarte into exile. In the absence of Duarte, his comrades stormed Fort Ozama in Santo Domingo.  Cattle-rancher Pedro Santana emerged as the Dominican military leader by defeating the Haitians at the Battle of Azua on 19 March 1844. Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi recalls the exact message circulated by the victors: “Los haitianos han provocado las hostilidades, y nos han agredido, sin siquiera hacernos una comunicación, y sin responder a las notas oficiales que hemos dirigido a su Presidente. Tal ha sido el desprecio que han agregado a sus vejaciones anteriores, pensando sin duda que, con su presencia sola, volverían a dominarnos para tratarnos peor que nunca; pero el Omnipotente, que protégé nuestras causa, ha querido que en très encuentros que hemos tenido con ellos, en Neiba y Azua, nuestras armas hayan salido vencedoras, principalmente en la jornada del día 19 en que ha sido considerable el número de muertos y heridos de su parte habiéndose visto en la precision de abandoner el campo después de très horas de combate.”4 The Dominicans won the Battle of Santiago eleven days later and, the next month, defeated the Haitians at El Mesimo. After conquering Santo Domingo in July, Santana became the first President of the Dominican Republic, and expelled Duarte and other rivals.

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  1. Manuel Vicente Hernández González, La Colonización de la Frontera Dominicana 1680-1795 (Santo Domingo: Archivo General de la Nación,  2006), 273.
  2. Jean-Marie Théodat, Haïti, République Dominicaine: une île pour deux, 1804-1916 (Paris: Editions Karthala, 2003), 123.
  3. Frank Moya Pons, La Domincacion Haitiana, 1822-1844 (Santo Domingo: Universidad Católica Madre y Maestro Santiago, 1972), 105-6.
  4. La Junta Central Gubernativa, “Comienzos de la Guerra. Acciones de la fuente de rodeo y cabezas de las marías. Batalla de Azua. La Junta Central Gubernativa, proclama al pueblo y al ejercito, 21 marzo 1844,” in Guerra Dominico-Haitiana, ed. Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi (Ciudad Trujillo: Impresora Dominicana, 1957), 73-4.
  5. Teresita Martínez-Vergne, Nation and Citizen in the Dominican Republic, 1880-1916 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 83, 93.

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Anti-Haitianism

Dominican Independence brought new concerns for improving national defenses and obtaining economic prosperity. Increasing production required populating the interior. According to Teresita Martínez-Vergne, leaders saw immigration as a prerequisite for prosperity, yet were uneasy with the influx of foreigners, especially Haitians.  She explains, “anti-Haitianism was a complicated sentiment that served well to accommodate worries about national security, disdain for Haiti’s historical and economic development, and condescension for their cultural expressions.”1

In the early 20th Century, the United States occupied both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In Haiti the intellectual elite underwent an identity crisis, and turned to Noirism and Marxism to reconcile their distance from impoverished peasants. In the Dominican Republic, however, elites sought to demonstrate their superiority through machismo and materialism. Lauren Derby writes, “During the U.S. occupation, a sharply vertical cultural taxonomy was carved that left the populacho quite explicitly out. Having lost access to the state, a major source of patronage and class reproduction, and confronted with economic redundancy given the massive infusions of corporate capital investment, the liberal elite had to redefine its raison d’etre. It retreated into an increasingly exclusivist definition of ‘high culture,’ one that claimed superiority within the realm of lifestyle, leisure, and consumption habits, even though it had lost whatever effective hegemony it could claim previously.”2

Disdain for the poor was matched by that for sugar. Dominican elites believed the Americans perverted their country by creating sugar plantations. The scarcity of labor and the arrival of Haitian migrant workers reinforced their revulsion. Berta Graciano recalls the aversion expressed in literature by Moscoso Puello, “En Cañas y bueyes, la presencia de los haitianos es vista desde dos ángulos diferentes: para los trabajadores dominicanos, el haitiano era un ser inferior con el cual no podían comunicarse, no sólo porque hablaban dos lenguas diferentes sino también porque observaban distintas costumbres y religión. Rosendo, uno de los peones del ingenio y de los personajes más desarrollados en la narración es el que claramente expresa estas ideas.”3

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  1. Teresita Martínez-Vergne, Nation and Citizen in the Dominican Republic, 1880-1916 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 83, 93.
  2. Lauren Derby, The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 37.
  3. Berta Graciano, La Novela de la caña: estetica e ideologia (Santo Domingo: Alfa y Omega, 1990), 36.

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The Trujillo Regime

In the late 1920s, the Dominican Republic underwent an economic downturn, and idle and migrant workers became popular scapegoats. Pressure built on Trujillo to alter the migration law. Bernardo Vega explains, “En enero de 1932 Trujillo tomó una decision que, de haberse ejecutado, entre otras cosas hubiera implicado el retorno a su país de la gran mayoría de los miles de haitianos, que en esa época deambulaban por la República Dominicana y hubiera también obligado a los ingenious norteamericanos a substituir su mano de obra haitiana y ‘cocola’ por cortadores dominicanos.” According to Vega, “Las consecuencias de la ley eran obvias. Los haitianos que no laboraban en los ingenious serían condenados a trabajar en las colonias agrícolas y luego srían deportados. La cédula de identidad, establecida un mes antes, creaba el mecanismo de control para lograr estos fines. En el caso de los cocolos y haitianos que trabajasen en los ingenious, el costo de esos permisos, o tendría que ser absorbido por los ingenious, o pagado por los braceros.”1

Meanwhile Trujillo voiced concerns about the encroachment of Haitian peasants in indistinct regions along the line of demarcation agreed to in the 1929 Tratado Fronterizo. William Páez Piantini recalls, “Rafael L. Trujillo Molina, incició conversaciones directas y personales con su homólogo haitano Sténio Vincent, el día 18 de octubre de 1933, en Juana Méndez-Dajabón. Posteriormente se renieron en Puerto Príncipe en noviembre de 1934 y, finalmente, el Presidente Vincent visita la República Dominicana y firman, ambos mandatarios, un Acuerdo Fronterizo.”1 All the while, however, Trujillo was conspiring against Vincent. According to Robert D. Crassweller, “beneath the placid surface of these [diplomatic] events, strange things were being secretly planned. During 1936 and 1937, Trujillo was engaged in a systematic plot to undermine the Haitian Government” with support from Haitian insiders, including Ambassador Elie Lescot. In early October, Trujillo visited Dajaón along the frontier. Crassweller continues, “at a public meeting there he declared in violent language that Haitian trespasses would not be tolerated. That evening… word reached Trujillo that his most important underground agents in Haiti had been discovered and liquidated. The combination of circumstances was too much for his control. The irrational and impulsive elements in his character broke trough to the surface, displacing every caution and restraint. In this mad moment he gave the order to launch the famous massacres that would be forever associated with his name.”3

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  1. Bernardo Vega, Trujillo y Haití, vol. 1 (Santo Domingo: Fundación Cultural Dominicana, 1988), 132-4.
  2. William Páez Piantini, “El Estado Actual de la Frontera. Esencias, Efectos y Vigencias del Tratado Fronterizo de 1929 y del Protocolo de Revisión de 1936,” in La Frontera: Prioridad en la Agenda Nacional del Siglo XXI (Santo Domingo: Secretaría de Estado de las Fuerzas Armadas, 2005), 95.
  3. Robert D. Crassweller, Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966), 153-4.

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Genocide

The genocide commenced in October of 1937, when Dominican soldiers began an orchestrated assault on Haitians. Suzy Castor explains, “Del 2 al 4 de octubre, los haitianos radicados en República Dominicana fueron buscados, denunciados, perseguidos, acorralados y asesinados. El mayor crimen en aquellos días era no poder pronunciar correctamente la palabra ‘perejil,’ incapacidad que delataba al que era haitiano y le valía ser condendado a muerte.”1 In a matter of days the Dominicans killed 20 to 30 thousands Haitians. The harrowing memory of “perejil” has since become the climax of tragic stories by Jacques Stephan Alexis and Edwidge Danticat. In The Farming of Bones, Danticat conjures a defiant refugee, Odette, who when approached by a Dominican soldier “mouthed in Kreyòl ‘pèsi,’ not calmly and slowly as if she were asking for it at a roadside garden or open market, not questioning as if demanding of the face of Heaven the greater meaning of senseless acts, no effort to say ‘perejil’ as if pleading for her life.” Danticat asks, “But parsley? Was it because it was so used, so commonplace, so abundantly at hand that everyone who desired a prig could find one? We used parsley for our food, our teas, our baths, to cleanse our insides as well as our outsides. Perhaps the Generalissimo in some larger order was trying to do the same for his country.”2

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  1. Suzy Castor, Migración y relaciones internacionales: el caso Haitiano-Dominicano (Santo Domingo: Editora Universitaria, 1987), 26.
  2. Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones (New York: Soho Press, Inc., 1998), 203.

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A Diplomatic Resolution

After the massacre, Vincent, Trujillo, and United States President Franklin Roosevelt sought a diplomatic resolution. Vincent feared the powerful Dominican army but was under immense popular pressure to demand justice. The violence appalled Roosevelt. Nevertheless, historian Eric Paul Roorda explains, “Trujillo was a potential ally in the unfolding effort to erect a ‘Fortress America’ against European fascism, and it was not in the administration’s strategic interests to take a hard line against him, even though he seemed to be developing a Caribbean brand of the same ideology. Instead, the massacre was treated as an opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of hemispheric mediation and the Good Neighbor policy.”1  Fearing disgrace, Trujillo refused to support a legitimate investigation, and insisted that his own undertaken by Minister Julio Ortega Frier was sufficient. Trujillo wanted a bilateral resolution with Vincent. Hoping to avoid a multilateral mitigation and any involvement of the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, he wrote Vincent, extending a pledge of peace: “Las vinculaciones de nuestras dos naciones a los principios de moral internacional consagrados por los pactos interamericanos nos improne el severo e ineludible deber de desvanecer categóricamente tanto ese como cualquier otro temor que implique la más mínimo acto contra los ideales democráticos y pacifistas de América.”2 Vincent refused but later agreed to a cash settlement. Trujillo obliged and prepared the accord: “Por cuanto: de acuerdo con las estipulaciones del artículo 3 del Tratado suscrito en la ciudad de Washington, D.C., entre el Gobierno de la República Dominicana y el de la República de Haití, en fecha 31 de enero de 1938, el Gobierno domincano se obligó a pagar al Gobierno haitiano la suma de $750,000.00 pesos moneda americana, por las causas enunciadas en el citado tratado.”3

The relationship between Haiti and Trujillo was henceforth uneasy; and exclusive settlements and secret agreements on a number of occasions jeopardized the legitimacy of Presidents Vincent and Elie Lescot. As Foreign Minister to the Dominican Republic, ethnographer Jean Price-Mars contributed to the ongoing peace process. Our collection has several books and documents about diplomacy after the massacre, including Price-Mars’s La República de Haiti y la República Dominicana made available by the Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Pères du Saint-Esprit.

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  1. Eric Paul Roorda, The Dictator Next Door: The Good Neighbor Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1930-1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998, 2006), 133.
  2. “Cable de Navidad del Presidente Trujillo a Vincent” Documentos del Conflicto Dominico-Haitiano de 1937, ed. José Israel Cuello H. (Santo Domingo: Editora Taller, C. por A., 1985) 147.
  3. “Acta en la Cual el Canciller Haitiano Declara Haber Recibido Del Gobierno Dominicano…” Documentos del Conflicto Dominico-Haitiano de 1937, 483.