‘The Ghosts of 1937 Are Warning Us’

‘The Ghosts of 1937 Are Warning Us’

‘The Ghosts of 1937 Are Warning Us’

The past feels dangerously present as deportation and silence devastate Haitian life in the Dominican Republic.


Dajabón, Dominican Republic—The sticky, humid air in the offices of Solidaridad Fronteriza (SF), an advocacy organization in the bustling Dominican border city of Dajabón, was thick with stress. As a bilingual (Spanish-Creole) social worker turned to help the next client, a 30-something woman whose face twitched involuntarily as she held her child, the woman exploded in a rat-tat-tat of questions in Creole. “Eske y’ap voye pitit mwen Ayiti? Ou kaede’m ? Kisa’m ka fè kounyè a?” (Will they send my child to Haiti? Can you help me? What can I do now?)

In a calming tone, the social worker tried to comfort the woman, to no avail. After a couple of minutes of talking in the lobby, the woman rushed off, dejected that she could find no immediate relief.

Like all her colleagues at SF, the social worker was visibly stressed after more than two weeks of dealing with dozens upon dozens of similar situations: immigrant Haitians desperately trying to obtain from the Dominican or Haitian governments the documents that they now need to stay in their homes; Haitians with family members whose homes were raided and who were deported; Haitians united by the two central facts of their lives now: the possibility that their Dominican Republic–born children’s citizenship will be stripped, and the imminent possibility that they will be deported en masse.

In recent days, the sound of Creole in the streets of the Dominican Republic’s hamlets, towns, and cities has largely been silenced. Many immigrants have opted to stay home, leaving their workplaces in the informal and agricultural economy without workers, who fear that the United States–trained Dominican military and border patrol (CESFRONT) will begin mass arrests of Haitians—put them on buses and unload them in mass detention camps before deporting them, as the government has promised. Dajabón, the usually loud border city where the crush of struggling, entrepreneurial blackness erases the boundary between Haiti and the DR, has fallen under the reign of traumatic silence that’s taking hold throughout the country.

On the immediate level, what’s pushing Haitians into hiding and silence is the intensification of abuses by the military and CESFRONT that have accompanied the deportation crisis. SF and a host of other national and international organizations have documented such abuses in Dajabón and across the country. There have been reports of bribery for the processing of documents, of the rape of Haitian women left vulnerable by the process, of houses invaded and property stolen as children and family watch in terror, and of beatings delivered to those who complain about unfair treatment at processing centers. One of the most common complaints, however, is that officials in both the Dominican and Haitian governments have lost or never delivered the documents people need to prove their citizenship. And like their main patron, the US government, the military and CESFRONT have for some time aggressively pursued immigrants in raids and arrests that are less spectacular than the now-promised mass deportations, but that are equally destructive to families and lives. Between last January, when the government launched Operación Escudo (Operation Shield), and March of this year, 40,000 Haitians were detained in and around Dajabón and other border communities, according to the Dominican military.

Operación Escudo, the deportations, and other aggressive policing measures have been on the increase following a 2013 decision by the Constitutional Court that effectively denationalized an estimated 250,000 Dominicans. Anyone born after 1929 who was unable to prove that they had at least one parent of Dominican blood was stripped of citizenship, in an action that was widely condemned by foreign governments and rights groups, including Amnesty International, the European Union, and even the United States (which provides equipment, funding, and training that make the deportations possible on a practical level).

The situation worsened immediately following the court decision, when President Danilo Medina issued a “regularization” decree laying out the process through which undocumented, mostly Haitian persons living in the Dominican Republic were to provide documentation qualifying them for one of several temporary and permanent categories of legal status. Anyone who didn’t qualify for one of those categories—a group made up of hundreds of thousands, not including the children of the undocumented—became deportable after last week’s June 17 deadline. Some estimates say that only 288,000 of the more than 520,000 mostly undocumented Haitian migrants estimated to be living in the Dominican Republic now have applied for “regularization,” leaving hundreds of thousands vulnerable.

* * *

For many years, locals here in Dajabón have known Hilda Peña as one the most outspoken voices denouncing the Dominican government for what they consider its abuse of Haitian migrants.

Looking at the children playing and crawling, some barely able to walk, in Solidaridad Fronteriza’s office, Peña said, “These children and their families come to this office already bearing an enormous amount of fear and trauma.” Peña, a 55-year-old who was raised in the rural part Dajabón province, is the national coordinator of the Jano Sikse Border Network. “The people most directly responsible for that fear and trauma are the military and CESFRONT, who go to people’s homes, rip families apart, steal their possessions, and then deport people who are either born here or want a better life. It stinks of injustice.”

Peña and I visited Fort Beller, a grassy, green-walled military installation on a hill, where the Dominican government is setting up one of four “shelters” that will effectively serve as jails for Haitian migrants awaiting deportation. The sand, gravel, and concrete pit left by contractors completing the “shelter” reminded me of the construction I saw at the Karnes County, Texas, “residential center,” where every Central American woman and child I interviewed told me they were in a “prisión.”

“They’re holding [Haitian] people here without any facilities,” Peña said, with an army colonel and the governor of Dajabón province standing nearby. “Both the Dominican and Haitian governments are responsible for this disaster that’s destroying lives.”

As we viewed Forte Beller, Peña explained the dark history lurking around the installation and the deportations rocking Dajabón today.

“Last year,” she said, “Solidaridad Fronteriza celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Corte.” Called Kout kouto a (the knife blow) by Haitians, the Corte (the cutting) refers to the mass killing in 1937 of an estimated 9,000 to 20,000 Haitians (and Dominicans suspected of being Haitian) perpetrated by the Dominican military, on the orders of dictator Rafael Trujillo, a Haitian-descended mulatto who declared himself legally “white.” The Corte was also accompanied by mass deportations that echo in the silence and stressed faces of Dajabón.

“Since the anniversary celebration, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother telling me about what happened in 1937,” said Peña. “She told me the story of how there was a great persecution of Haitians by the Trujillo dictatorship, and I was very curious. Then she told me the story of how there were two friends of our family who were Haitians and were preparing to escape being killed because of their skin color and how they spoke,” she said.

“The couple had two children, two girls, and asked my grandmother if she could hide them, because, if not, they would be killed as other Haitian children were,” Peña recalled, in the cadences signaling great pride. “So my grandmother had them both hide up a tree, where she and my family provided them with food and safety until it was okay for the girls to come down and escape. Hardly anybody in my family speaks of what happened—except me. And that’s why I do what I do.”

“The ghosts of 1937 are warning us,” she continued, “telling us to beware of what the government and military are doing to Haitians now. So, knowing what I know, I cannot remain silent.”

* * *

“For months, I’ve been civically dead [muerta civicamente],” said Esther Joseph, a 29-year-old aspiring law student born of Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic. She was one of the few Haitian and Dominico-Haitians at the Solidaridad Fronteriza office willing to speak with me. “I’ve been paralyzed and unable to do anything because of the situation. My friends say I’ve been resurrected these past few days because I just got my cedula [ID card] on Monday after applying months ago. Most people I know have not been so lucky. I have friends and some family members who have already left, before the immigration and the military starts deporting them.”

She was at SF waiting for a friend who is desperate to prove her Dominican citizenship. “Imagine what the older people who came here to cut cane 40 years ago, but don’t have papers, are feeling. And how about the thousands of others who arrived more recently and have no papers? They have no hope. All of this makes me angry,” she said, as her tears began to stream. “And when people protest having to wait in lines, only to be told to ‘go home,’ or when they complain, the police beat them.”

I asked the governor of Dajabón province, Ramona Rodríguez, about these reports of abuse when we met at Fort Beller. “I think things are going to go well with the process [of deportations] because that’s what the president wants,” Rodríguez responded. “We Dominicans are very hospitable and have a lot of solidarity. Those are isolated cases that sometimes happen. I haven’t been hearing these reports.”

Pressed further about the abuses, Rodríguez, who was appointed by President Medina, a fellow member of the ruling Partido de Liberación, added, “What I did hear this week were reports of one Haitian throwing rocks at another because, you know, they attack each other mutually.” Haitians, she insisted, are “people who are sometimes very aggressive.”

Like Peña’s family story and its connection to her work, Rodríguez’s statements about the current situation facing Haitians bore a familiar resemblance to her responses to questions about 1937.

“I know something about how that was, of the time when Trujillo sent Haitians back,” she said, in between conversations with nearby military officials. “The Matanza was [perpetrated by] the community itself. It wasn’t Trujillo. It was the comunitarios [Dominican civilians, as opposed to the military]. Trujillo himself didn’t come and tell people, ‘Go ahead do it.’”

The historical record of the events of 1937 is still murky in many aspects, but it differs markedly from the account given by Governor Rodriguez, who is a former teacher. And it is clear about the role of Trujillo, the “Little Caesar of the Caribbean,” in planning and ordering the military to deport and then kill Haitians, plans and orders he delivered in Dajabón.

* * *

“Right there,” says Francisco Mariano Estevez, a social-studies professor at the Technological University of Santiago in Dajabón. “Right there is where there are approximately 5,000 people buried in a mass grave.” He was standing over a five-by-five-foot concrete slab, plastered over a patch of dirt and surrounded on either side by the mini-mausoleums afforded to Dajabón elites in the city’s cemetery, its oldest structure. “There’s no monument, no marker, no nothing to remember what Trujillo did in 1937.”

Though Estevez is one of the locals who has most researched what happened in Dajabón in that fateful year, he is wary of drawing too close a parallel between what happened to Haitians then and what’s happening to them and their Dominican children now. Instead, he advises seeing a kind of family resemblance and shared historical DNA.

“Yes, the state is again using Haitians to build itself,” said Estevez, “but we must not lose sight of the historical circumstances particular to each period. Today there are no mass killings, no mass deportations—at least not yet. There was far less public outcry in Trujillo’s era than there is today, and at least some national and international media are paying attention.” There was an ever-so-slight cadence of hope mixed in with the caution and gloominess that dominate his voice as he looks at the cemetery.

“What does matter,” he said, “is that in Trujillo’s time nobody was held responsible for the crimes against humanity. There were a couple of trials, but they were movie court cases that went nowhere.”

“Some say that today’s Haitians are being used to divert attention from the major problems the country faces—poverty, crime, environmental degradation, and others,” said Estevez. “Whatever the motives,” he added, “the fact remains that what the government is doing today is hurting many Haitians, bringing chaos into their lives. And this we must not forget.”

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