Historical and Cultural Connections: La République dHaïti and La República Dominicana
by Prof. Alan Belén Cambeira
The island of Hispaniola, part of the Greater Antilles group, is the second largest (after Cuba) of all the Caribbean Islands. Two distinct countries today share a common border of some 375 km (232 1/2): Spanish-speaking República Dominicana in the eastern two-thirds; Kreyòl and French-speaking République dHaïti in the western end. This relatively slim border from time to time throughout the islands lengthy history has been the provocation of some of the ugliest and most shameful events involving the two neighboring countries.
The indigenous Arawak-Taíno people were the islands first inhabitants, arriving at least 3000 B.C., maybe even earlier according to archaeological evidence. Substantial theories suggest that the Taíno had migrated into the region from the South American mainland, proceeding from the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela and the Guyana Highlands. The earliest arriving group called their island Haytí, meaning "Land of Mountains" or "High Mountain". The later Taíno culture called their island Quisqueya, "Mother of all Lands." These, then, were the alternating names for the island of Haytí-Quisqueya well prior to the fateful arrival in 1492 of the Spaniards, commanded by Admiral Cristóbal Colón, who renamed the territory Hispaniola, or "Little Spain." With colonization, the island became the cradle of Spanish civilization and the strategic launching point for Spains aggressive and brutal campaign of expansion, exploration, conquest, and subsequent exploitation throughout the early 16th century.
The name of the island changed to the more preferred Santo Domingo ("Holy Sunday") during the 17th century. The Spanish Crowns rigidity on economic policy for the island ¾ unquestioned monopoly and isolation provided the impetus for the surfacing of a prominent buccaneer society within the larger society of 17th century Hispaniola. These buccaneers (alternately called pirates or corsairs) were an international assortment of individuals whose faces reflected Africa, Asia, and Europe. These renegades settled first on the tiny island of Tortuga, lying just six miles off the northwestern coast of Hispaniola, before moving into the uninhabited portions of the northern and western zones of Hispaniola itself. This would thus be the early beginnings of European settlement in what would later be Haiti. French aggression intensified in the western part of the island until the late 1670s, when France was able to force Spain to relinquish this western territory by means of the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), thus officially recognizing the existence of two separate colonies. The Spanish-speaking eastern portion would be called Santo Domingo, while the French-speaking western territory would be called Saint-Domingue. The French colony would soon play a key role in forming the fundamental commercial and trade policies of 18th centuy Western Europe. Saint-Domingue in the period of the 1780s was producing nearly one-half of all the sugar and coffee being consumed in Western Europe and the Americas. By the end of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue clearly had reached the unrivaled position of being crowned not just the richest colony in the Caribbean region, but the worlds richest colony.
Anti-Haitian Phobia: A Legacy of Hatred
To suggest that relations between the two sister republics sharing the same island traditionally have been strained and tense would be a true understatement. I am among a growing number of serious investigators, Haitian as well as Dominican, who trace todays often ugly and senseless socioethnic relations to a series of unfortunate historical incidents. In late summer of 1791, for example, the slaves of the Plaine du Nord, at a site called "Bois Caïman", responded to the call to arms from a dynamic maroon leader named Boukman and launched a violent, indiscriminate assault against plantation owners of the region. "The destruction was quick and far-reaching. Boukmans campaign was executed with unrelenting vengeance to destroy the colonys slave system.1" A few days later in that August of 1791, slaves throughout Saint-Domingue officially began the rebellion, which lasted about 12 years. The successful slave revolt led by former slave General Toussaint LOuverture ¾ the heroic saga now quite familiar to most individuals ¾ gained absolute control of the French colony. By 1800 Toussaint had carried the war directly into the neighboring Spanish territory of Santo Domingo. He proceeded to unify both portions of the island under a new constitution, by first abolishing slavery (1801). A new society and a new reality were being forged ¾ all to the expressed horror of European settlers everywhere. The chilling image of a free Black population in total charge of Frances most prized Caribbean jewel produced nightmares for Europeans: there was a mass exodus of Caucasians from Hispaniola to places seen as safer, more comfortable and accommodating for slave owners (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Louisiana).
The question may therefore be pondered: did the vindictive, uncontrollable obsession for personal freedom from enslavement ¾ with further campaigns under the successive command of ex-slave leaders Dessaline and Christophe ¾ weigh more heavily than any measure of collective concern for a newly-found nationalism and urgently needed restoration of the national economy? It must be remembered that former slaves had captured the wealthiest plantation system in the hemisphere. But also clearly contributing significantly to the ruined economy was this fact: "after the war, France had negotiated a sizable financial settlement with Haiti in which her former colony was to pay in reparation for damages incurred during the war 150 million francs in gold."2 What a price to pay in exchange for Pariss recognition of Haiti as an independent Republic!
Black Haiti, from the very start, was viewed as a definite threat: these "gilded Africans" (as Napoleon contemptuously called Haitians) had defeated the experienced, elite armies of France, Spain, and England. Now these ex-slaves and free coloured were daring to structure laws for the new society in attempts to build a cohesive nation. To what degree, one might further wonder, did genocidal practices and naked hatred against Caucasians during the bitter and violent Revolution exact a lasting toll on the psyche of the Dominicanos next door? Remember, of course, that while the majority of Dominicanos are not now, nor have they ever been Caucasian, they nevertheless often perceive themselves as being such. Even in todays República Dominicana only about 10% of the population are clearly of European descent (Caucasian); the remaining 90% are of African descent, with hues running the gamut of blacks and browns (called mulattos), who would readily be classified as simply Black in the social reality of contemporary United States.
Turning again to historical context, we next look at Dominican-Haitian relations under Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818-43), when Boyer invaded Santo Domingo in 1822 with the idea of complete unification of both territories. His first public act, which outraged plantation owners in the Spanish-speaking sector, was the abolition of slavery. (Toussaint had done so earlier when his forces invaded the eastern territory in 1801, but the French reestablished slavery once they gained control of the Spanish colony soon afterwards.) The Haitian occupation and domination of the east was to last twenty-two years (1822-44). The resentment and hostility of the Caucasian and Mulatto elite among the populace of Santo Domingo finally erupted into open rebellion against the Haitians. Among the collaborators in the war against Boyer were many influential Haitians who fought alongside the Dominicans. Santo Domingo won its independence from its western neighbor in 1844 ¾ February 27 becoming the proclaimed Day of Independence. Boyers dream was forever crushed ¾ a dream whereby all the islands inhabitants were to be converted into "verdaderos haitianos, fueron estos blancos o libertos, negros o mulatos" ["True Haitians, whether they be White or free, Blacks or Mulattos"] 3
Enter Trujillo and His Haïtian Phobia (1930-61)
Dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo was the orchestrated product of the U.S. Military Invasion and Occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916-24. A year earlier, 1915, United States military forces had invaded neighboring Haiti ¾ remaining there until 1934. The United States had put into place a highly efficient military machine and named Trujillo its commander-in-chief. In terms of his socio-personal character, Trujillo was relentless in his attempts to gain acceptance into the select inner circles of the White Dominican bourgeois elite. He had never been regarded as "one of them." He possessed neither the prerequisite family genealogy nor the racial stock that traditionally typified the composition of this exclusive sector of Dominican society: Trujillos maternal grandmother was actually Haitian! Quite early in his career he had learned to manipulate to his best advantage a given situation or event that had potentially explosive elements if ignited. Haiti would provide the Trujillo Machine the handy excuse needed to execute its agenda. One such project was the campaign of blanqueamiento: a scheme to whiten or bleach a nation that he personally felt was simply "too dark in complexion".
Since the era of the First Republic (1844-61) Haitian immigration into Dominican territory went unchecked. Not engaged in just agriculture, these Haitians became heavily involved in commerce as traders and merchants. Intermingling in every sense, as well as intermarriage became commonplace. When President Trujillo traveled to the border town of Dajabón in 1937, he is reported to have used the occasion to launch a venomous tirade against the growing presence and influence of Haitians now settled throughout the border zones. "Los haitianos. Su presencia en nuestro territorio no puede más que deteriorar las condiciones de vida de nuestros nacionales. Esa ocupación de los haitianos de las tierras fronterizas no debía continuer. Está ordenado que todos los haitianos que hubiera en el país fuesen exterminados." 4 [Haitians! Their presence in our territory cant do anything else but worsen the living conditions of our own people. The Haitian occupation of the border zones must not continue. It is so ordered that all Haitians that are in the country be exterminated.]
A few days later, Trujillo gave the order literally to kill Haitians wherever they might be found throughout La República Dominicana. Thus began the campaign of genocide against thousands of Blacks ¾ both Haitian and Dominican alike. The River Dajabón after the indiscriminate butchering became known as the Rio Masacre. The macabre and sinister operacion perijil (the parsley test) was concocted as one supposedly foolproof method of detecting whether an individual was actually Haitian or not among the Black population residing on Dominican soil. Trujillos nefarious scheme was to have the Dominican soldier simply hold up in front of the "suspected Haitian" a leaf of parsley and ask the individual, "What is this?" Haitians living among Dominicans, although quite fluent in Spanish, often still have difficulty pronouncing the Spanish "r" and "j" ¾ which is indeed troublesome for speakers of French or Kreyòl. Thus, a person would be killed on the spot for not rolling the "r" fast enough or without satisfactory "authenticity". What had truly provoked this Caribbean holocaust? Was Trujillo seriously uneasy about the widening sociopolitical influence of the Haitians residing in the border zones? Was he motivated, perhaps, by the already evident racism that was a traditionally persistent element in the psyche of the dominant social stratum into which the dictator himself fought so obsessively to penetrate? Or perhaps there was an element of severe self-hatred because of his grandmothers being Haitian? In the aftermath of the massacre, the Haitian government itself acted without shame in accepting the offer of $750,000 from Trujillo as compensation for damages and wrongs resulting from what officially began known in Dominican history as "border conflicts."
The hotly contested presidential elections of 1990, 1994, and 1996 in República Dominicana witnessed the frightening ugliness of ethnic and racial phobias resurface with the successive candidacy of the late Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez (who died of cancer in the spring of 1998). This internationally renown, Harvard University-trained economic and social activist ¾ although born on Dominican soil ¾ was proclaimed by the Dominican press and by his political adversaries to be Haitian! And correspondingly, his ultimate political agenda, as was widely rumored, was "to reunite the two republics". Peña Gómez lost each time, even though the 1994 and 1996 elections were found to be fraudulent by international election observers, showing "el haitiano" (as this candidate was referred to in the Islands leading newspaper Listin Diario) the easy victor.
So then, we see how this indeed sad situation remains to haunt present-day relations between the two societies that share this island. It is a situation whose origins can be traced back to a distant historical past shrouded in gross suspicions and distrust. Fortunately for future generations on both sides of the Artibonito, there are committed women and men of good will and positive faith who are laboring arduously to improve relations and understanding, ultimately to remove altogether the smoldering animosities and ill will that have long plagued Haytí-Quisqueya
1 Cambeira, Alan. Quisqueya La Bella: The Dominican Republic in Historical and Cultural Perspective. New York: M.E. Sharpe Publishers, 1997, p. 130-3 1.
2 Desmangles, Leslie G. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992, p.40.
3 Moya Pons, Frank. Manuel de Historia Dominicana. 10a edición. Santo Domingo: Caribbean Publishers, p. 226.
4 Cambeira, p. 184.
Prof. Alan Belén Cambeira Specialist, Caribbean & Latin American Cultures Clark Atlanta University and Clayton College & State University.
Professor Alan Belén Cambeira was born in Samaná, República Dominicana, where he initiated his studies. When he was fifteen years old, his family was forced to flee the country in the aftermath of Dictator Trujillos 1937 genocide campaign against Haitian and Black Dominicans. The family emigrated first to Barbados, then to the U.S. Belén Cambeira is a recognized specialist in Caribbean & Latino cultures and has studied in Barbados, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the U.S. He has written two major books: "la fobia antihaitiana en la cultura dominicana" (1987) in Spanish, and "Quisqueya La Bella: The Dominican Republic in Historical & Cultural Perspectives" (1997) in English. Prof. Belén Cambeiras current literary project is a novel, using as a backdrop the exploitation of Haitian & other Afro-Caribbean laborers in the sugar industry of the Dominican Republic. The educator/writer teaches Spanish and Caribbean Cultures at Clark Atlanta University and Clayton State University.
Last revised on 11/05/2004