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Despots and Borderlands

For some months, I have traveled and traversed the border in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, ‘I will fix this.’ And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Bánica. This remedy will continue.
— Rafael Trujillo, October 21, 1937
I will get this done for you and for your family. We’ll do it right. You’ll be proud of our country again. We’ll do it right. We will accomplish all of the steps outlined above. And, when we do, peace and law and justice and prosperity will prevail. Crime will go down. Border crossings will plummet. Gangs will disappear. And the gangs are all over the place. And welfare use will decrease. We will have a peace dividend to spend on rebuilding America, beginning with our American inner cities. We’re going to rebuild them, for once and for all.
— Donald Trump, August 31, 2016

October 2016 will mark the 79th anniversary of the so-called Parsley Massacre in the Dominican Republic. In the fall of 1937, the soldiers and police under the command of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo killed an estimated 10-15,000 Haitians living along the Artibonite River, which flows along a stretch of border between the two countries. The genocide went by many names: "El Corte," ("the cutting" in Spanish), Kout kouto (the "knife blow" in Creole), and the massacre du Percil (the Parsley Massacre) in French. The latter name originated from multiple accounts that Dominican soldiers differentiated between Haitians and Dominicans by holding up sprigs of parsley and forcing their potential victims to pronouce the Spanish word for the herb, perejil. Those who could not roll their Rs in convincingly Spanish fashion were immediately executed.

In the decades before the massacre, Haitians and Dominicans along the border had mixed fluidly. "Before the massacre," one Haitian survivor recalled, "in the frontier, although there were two sides, the people were one, united." In fact, families of both cultural heritages had lived together peacefully on both sides of the border for generations. Historians Richard Turits and Lauren Derby argue that the Parsley Massacre’s victims were in fact integral parts of a peaceful, multiethnic borderland community—one that had shown little sign of ethnic fracture. The society they had made together was Rafael Trujillo’s true target.

That society ended as quickly and violently as the lives taken by Trujillo’s soldiers. By 1939, every Haitian living near the border had either been killed or chased away. The Dominicans who remained were compelled by their government to guard against the Haitians’ return, and thereby socially reprogrammed to regard their former neighbors with hatred and suspicion (a trend that persists today). When confronted by the US about the atrocities, Trujillo justified the mass killings as a defensive move against an imaginary “pacific invasion” by Haitians. But the real objective of El Corte was the centralization and consolidation of state power in the Dominican Republic via the utter destruction a syncretic border culture and the militarization of its frontier. In that regard, it succeeded. Not coincidentally, the violent reconquest of the borderlands also aided Trujillo in his own quest for absolute political power, which he retained until his death in 1961.

The Parsley Massacre is one of many modern historical examples of the violent imposition of state power on national frontiers by despotically-inclined governments seeking to consolidate political power within an ethno-nationalist construct. To varying degrees, the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide all targeted borderlands and frontier regions as sites of ethnic cleansing and genocide, in the service of nation building and consolidation of political authority.

During his run for the presidency, Donald Trump has drawn a number of comparisons to various historical autocrats. His appeals to xenophobic nationalism, pathological self-regard, and crypto-authoritarianism find parallels in the examples of other well-known despots. Recently, Omar Encarnacion of Foreign Affairs explicitly likened Trump to Rafael Trujillo, placing the Republican nominee squarely within the caudillismo tradition of charismatic authoritarianism, common in modern Latin American history.

I have no idea how accurate these comparisons are. I hope we don’t have to find out. But I’m particularly struck by the similarities between the Trump and Trujillo quotes at the beginning of this post. Both of them take it as given that transnational borderland cultures are problems--problems that they alone, using the full legal and military might of the state, can solve. Both characterize non-natives and ethnic minorities as innately lawless and dangerous, and both posit border militarization and even ethnic cleansing as state-strengthening remedies. "Without a border," as Trump is fond of saying, "we just don't have a country."

The long and bloody history behind this kind of rhetoric is worrisome—particularly in border states like Texas, which already have violent and racially-charged borderland histories. (My friend and colleague Miguel Levario has written an excellent and moving history on the militarization of the Texas border.) But the fact that these words come from a candidate with no sense of—or respect for—the limits of presidential power makes them more frightening still.

A full year and a half into this campaign, it’s still basically impossible to make any predictions about what a Trump presidency would mean for domestic and foreign policy, because his policy proposals are so vague. But his proposed “big beautiful wall” and forced deportation of 11 million people aren’t just policy proposals, they’re threats. And though it may be difficult to predict what he'd actually do, it's pretty clear who and what he is threatening: the people, economies and cultures of La Frontera.

Eric Busch

2300 Red River Street, University of Texas at Austin, TX, 78712

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