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Racist massacre in the Dominican pigmentocracy


'Pigmentocracy' by Chris JohnstonAn Australian-issued drivers license specifies your driving conditions, like wearing glasses and the vehicle classification permitted. A USA license will specify your gender, height, weight, eye and hair colour, as it doubles as an ID.

And in the Dominican Republic, the state will also classify your skin colour: white (blanco), light indigenous (indio claro), dark indigenous (indio oscuro), almost black (moreno) or black (negro).

Since Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship in the DR, skin colour has been used to define the nation against 'the other'; its only border is with Haiti, whose rural poor are 'black' and speak creole not Spanish. That means the first four skin colour categories are for Dominicans ... and the last likely means society will brand you as Haitian.

Perhaps no 'nation' is more imagined than the Dominican: two of the categories refer to indigenous Tainos who had died out — or been killed off — within 30 years of 'The Discovery' of the Americas by Columbus in 1492.

However, the terms were reintroduced and European immigration and eugenics encouraged during Trujillo's repressive regime to 'create' a predominantly mulatto people, superior to their 'black' neighbours. The majority of Dominicans fall into the three middle categories.

Understanding the Dominican 'pigmentocracy' is especially relevant now, on the 75th anniversary of the worst peace time human rights abuse of civilians in the Americas during the 20th century (28 September–4 October).

In 1937, Trujillo ordered the massacres of Haitians in DR border regions, to promote 'nationalism', assert sovereignty, and control specific strategic and economic resources. Figures are debated, but not the brutality: 10–20,000 men, women, elderly, children and babies were butchered with machetes, shot, or thrown to sharks.

The victims were identified by their skin colour, and then by their creole pronunciation; but historians have also shown victims from English colonies.

Yet although many massacred were Haitians working in the DR, many others were born there and legally were Dominicans. Racism was the primary mechanism in the massacres; all victims were equally 'black' to the vicious murderers, who were released from jail and directed by the military to kill.

The massacres are central to history and culture on both sides of the border. But they are not commemorated by Dominican state or society; instead they are justified by actual and perceived 19th century Haitian abuses. This needs to change, to redefine the 21st century bilateral relationship through acknowledgement of the past.

Positive signs exist, especially the humanitarian relief from Dominican state and society following the devastating 2010 earthquake that left over 200,000 dead in Haiti.

However, the history of violence still infuses current relations. Two months ago the DR fronted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the massacre of six Haitian migrant workers who entered without documentation in 2000, and were shot on the back of a truck by the armed forces. State and societal racially based repression still occurs, and has led to responses by Haitians.

Due to societal concern over approximately 800,000 Haitians currently living in the DR, citizenship by birth was removed from the Constitution in 2010: two weeks after the earthquake. Furthermore, socioeconomic studies clearly correlate skin colour to education and economic attainment in the DR.

The 1937 massacres are an unhealed wound in Dominican-Haitian relations, and show how the pigmentocracy leads to human rights abuses. Their 25th anniversary occurred during political turmoil and repression following Trujillo's assassination. Their 50th anniversary occurred whilst Balaguer, Trujillo's right hand man, was still president, through a mixture of repression, electoral fraud and blatant vote buying.

Their 75th anniversary can be different: Danilo Medina, recently elected President of the Dominican Republic, has the opportunity to redefine the relationship. In last month's inaugural address, he expressed interest in pursuing a free trade deal to link the two countries that share an island, but otherwise did not mention Haiti. The new international norm is that free trade agreements include human rights discussions, which Medina can begin by honestly appraising the 1937 ethnic cleansing.

This is essential, because Haitian migrant workers past and present are the lifeblood of the Dominican economy: in agriculture, construction and tourism, their hard work for little pay has provided the DR with food security and economic development.

By doing so, the DR can also truly commence discussions on societal inequality due to its pigmentocracy. Danilo's campaign slogan was' to change what is bad, and do what has never been done before': what better chance than by healing the wound of racism to move forward as two countries arm in arm.

Jeremy TarboxJeremy Tarbox worked with the Combined Banana Program of the United Nations Development Program in the DR during 2011–12 as part of his Rotary World Peace Fellowship.

Topic tags: Jeremy Tarbox, Haiti, Dominican Republic, pigmentocracy



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Existing comments

A most interesting and informative article- thanks Jeremy!

Sue Newnham | 02 October 2012  

What you people don't understand about that dark time in our Dominican history is that we do not start it this, because between 1822 and 1844 the Haitians invators did the same thing or worst than Trujillo, also that during Trujillo era the spanish langauge was prohibit it in schools by Haitian teachers in those border towns and that any Dominican kids that dare spoke spanish in school was slap in the face, so in other words in order for any foreigner to realy understand the relationship between Dominican Republic and Haiti you need to go back to 1822 and then start from there to count from there in order to make a real statement about both countries history. Also that is inbred in all haitian kids when they born that this country belong to them as well.

bernie cordero | 02 October 2012  

Racism is really bad in the Hispaniola. While visiting Haiti and DR, I was stunned to see how much you’re skin color matters. They treated their darker skin people like second citizen. In 2012, we’re still can’t treat everyone like human being..

Lucky | 02 October 2012  

Dear Berny, Thanks for your comments. Firstly, I encourage you to reread the article, I discussed the points you made. The article encourages Dominicans, especially President Medina, to change the dynamic from ‘they did this, and so we can justify that’. In conflict resolution, the group that ‘started’ things is much less important than who can influence the future. Secondly, the article is written from a human rights perspective. There were abuses of Dominicans by Haitians in the past, such as denial of Spanish language, but in living memory there were not systematic massacres of thousands of unarmed men, women, children, elderly and babies. Dominicans cannot claim their human rights, and in the same breath deny them to Haitians: whether in the past, present or future. Thirdly, you start with “what you people don’t understand”: I assure you I have lived in the Dominican Republic and researched its history extensively. I recommend you read well-known books based on the massacres, such as “The Farming of Bones” by Edwidge Danticat and “You can cross the Massacre on foot” (El masacre se pasa a pie) by Freddy Prestol Castillo; but especially history books by Rafael Dario Herrera Rodriguez or Bernardo Vega.

Jeremy Tarbox | 03 October 2012  

Congrats on your article. Hope the Haitians get IDs as well. Thousands remain undocumented and have no chance to fulfil requirements to obtain them.

Vera Pérez Guarnieri | 05 October 2012  

Congratulations Jeremy! This is a very good and balanced assessment of the "situacion dominico-haitiana". I am a "dominicana ausente" who lives in Texas. But who also believes that our Haitian neighbors are just as human as the Dominicans.

Nancy Baez | 05 October 2012  

I would like to read what a Dominican or Haitian's opinion is of Australia's race/human rights record - especially since both have citizens so desperate to escape poverty that they risk their lives on rickety boats to try and get to Puerto Rico (US territory) or even the US. With Australia's disgraceful turn-the-boats-back policy or mandatory detention policy - we are hardly in a position to give advice to two Caribbean countries who's current racial conflict is a remnant of the slave trade to produce sugar for Europe and the US - and still does - and still treats plantations workers like slaves.

AURELIUS | 06 October 2012  

bernie cordero , you are wrong we haitians, we never did any types of genocide on you,we invaded you in order to keep the island safe from "la france" at this time we were so powerful that if we wanted to eliminate you all , we would,you know that.
so stop looking for a reason the cover the evil acts of trujillo.

jerry fabra | 12 January 2013  

The main problem is that such "200,000 Haitians" as the vast majority of them in the DR, do not have documentation and must prove that they were born in the DR to obtain their nationality, are claiming nationality that they never obtained or that by imprudence and responsibility Of their parents as illegal did not bother to register them in their respective Haitian embassy in the country, as established by their Haitian constitution in its art. 11, therefore they did not remain stateless, because they do have a nationality that not even they (the Haitians) want to inherit, the Haitian state itself forbids the entrance of its people to Haitian soil to request identity documents, they appeal to that they do not have Documentation to prove that they are Haitians, even though they speak Creole and have all the physical characteristics that betray them but it is a strategy of the Haitian government to accuse the Dominican Republic to international forums that it does not give documentation to Dominicans of Haitian descent , The never seen !!!

THE INSTRUCTOR | 09 May 2017  

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