|One of the few surviving images of Haitian victims of the so-called Parsley Massacre.|
If Americans recall Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, the brutal and avaricious dictator of the Dominican Republic, at all it is for winding up dead in a bullet ridden Chevy in 1961, the victim of an abortive coup d’état arranged with the wink-and-not support of the Central Inelegance Agency (CIA.) His death unleashed a decade of turbulence in the Caribbean nation which eventually “required” the intervention of American Marines yet again.
His death was just one bookend of a career as President and/or power-behind-the-throne for more than thirty years. The other book end was his rise to power as an officer in the Dominican Army, the protégée of Marines who occupied the country on behalf of United Fruit and other American interests through most of the 1920’s.
He was Army Chief of Staff in 1930 who allowed a revolution to topple a previous dictator, then quickly assumed power as President winning 99% of the vote in an election that a U.S. State Department official admiringly reported earned him more votes than there were voters.
Before he even donned the Presidential sash for the first time his soldiers and police were rounding up and quietly disposing of any possible opponents. He ruled with an iron hand, directly or indirectly until peppered with rounds from CIA supplied M-1 carbines.
On one hand, Trujillo set off on a modernizing campaign that built highways to tie the nation more closely to the Capital Santo Domingo which he eventually modestly renamed Ciudad Trujillo as well as schools and hospitals. He and his family also appropriated most of the nation’s cattle and dairy production as well as vast sugar cane plantations and other local economic powerhouses.
One key element of his nationalist policy was assuring the continued mastery of a White elite in the face of a nation that was largely Mestizo, with a rapidly growing Black population. That population included not only a high birthrate for the decedents of Spanish slaves, but increasing numbers of Haitians spilling over a porous and contested border from the Creole French speaking western portion of the island of Hispaniola.
Relations between the two countries had always been difficult. Haiti had invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1822-44. When Trujillo took power, the western provinces were poorly connected to the capital and to Dominican markets, naturally trading across the border to Haiti. In the sparsely populated northwest as Haitians, lured by jobs in the sugar industry, had been taking up residence for decades. Many now were second or third generation and while speaking Creole, were at least nominal Dominican citizens.
The border was poorly defined and both nations had outstanding territorial demands of the other. Trujillo was concerned that Haiti would use majority pockets of Haitian immigrants and their descendants to make further claims. In 1933 and 1935, Trujillo met the Haitian President Stenio Vincent to settle the border issue and in 1936, they reached and signed a settlement.
But that settlement did not include repatriation of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo had other plans for that.
For years his tightly controlled press had hyped any and all reports of crime committed by Haitians. When there was not enough, he would manufacture it. He particularly pointed out nearly non-existent rustling of cattle from the large herds of local ranchers—of which he and his family were the most important. In the kinds of tactics Hitler would later use to justify the invasion of Poland, depredations were made up and highly publicized.
On October 2, 1937 the President publicly signaled a brutal new policy already underway in a speech given in the northwest provincial province capital of Dajabón.
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.
Indeed five days of unimaginable horror and brutality that came to be known in English as the Parsley Massacre was underway. In a well-organized campaign elements of the Army, police, and Trujillo’s security force, the dreaded Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (SIM), fanned out across the border region searching for Haitians. They were not hard to find.
The story circulated that soldiers brought with them sprigs of parsley—perejil in Spanish. Creole speaking Haitians were supposed to be unable to trill the r in the word. Those who failed the test were executed on the spot, along with family members found with them. Afro-Dominicans who passed the test were allegedly let go. This tale, while popularized in the Anglo press, is largely mythical. And in fact many Afro-Dominicans as well as Haitians were swept up in the blood bath.
Dominicans and Haitians have two different names for the five days of killing that followed. Dominicans call it el corte—the cutting. Haitians call it kouto-a—the knife.
Because many of the attackers were in civilian garb, surprised Haitians—many of them longtime residents and citizens—at first expected the Army to rescue them. Instead they were shot, hacked to death by machetes, and bludgeoned with clubs and baseball bats. Whole villages were surrounded and wiped out. Those attempting to escape by fleeing across the Artibonite River to Haiti were intercepted on its banks and killed or drowned trying to reach safety on the other side.
In the five day killing spree, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 suspected Haitians were killed. Murders continued on a more subdued level across the region for years.
The government of Haiti naturally protested the massacre. But the black ruled nation was largely a pariah to neighboring Spanish speaking Caribbean and Latin American nations. The U.S. State Department conducted an investigation and determined that, despite Trujillo’s claims that the killings were the work of outraged Dominicans and not the state, that the killing were indisputably the policy of the government and carried out by its forces.
The Roosevelt administration toyed with the idea of another intervention to save the Haitians, but was effectively blocked by powerful Southern Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate who saw nothing wrong in killing Blacks. Some were also the recipients of Trujillo’s gifts and largess.
Despite a moment or two of international embarrassment, Trujillo easily rode out the controversy. He would subsequently kill an additional 30,000 suspected opponents of his regime in his long tenure.
In the end, the State Department accommodated him as the country’s economy prospered and so did the profits of American investors.
But by the ‘50’s Trujillo’s heavy handed meddling in the affairs of its neighbors including Haiti and Cuba began to concern American authorities. After he tried to assassinate his biggest Latin American critic, Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt an aerial bombing attack on his car, the U.S. had enough and the CIA began its intrigues with the potential Dominican junta.
After ten years of chaos and the intervention of the Marines, the CIA finally turned to a Truillo protégée, Joaquín Balaguer returning one of the late dictator’s puppet presidents to power as a bulwark against a Cuban style revolution.
For their part Haitians on both sides of the border remained mired in poverty, repression, and hopelessness.