The ‘Parsley Massacre’ Is a Chilling Example of How Quickly a Genocide Can Unfold
In 1937, social and economic tensions within the Dominican Republic were redirected at its neighbor to the west, Haiti. Events quickly escalated into a genocidal rampage.
Under the direct order of Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, soldiers and civilian conscripts targeted those suspected of being illegal Haitian immigrants throughout the Dominican Republic.
It’s impossible to distinguish people from different nations based on physical appearance alone. Haitians often have a darker complexion than Dominicans, but of course that is not always the case. If there was any doubt as to whether someone was Dominican or Haitian, soldiers supposedly put their potential victims to a test.
A soldier would pull a sprig of parsley from a pocket and ask what it was. Those who answered correctly in Spanish were presumed to be Dominican and were released. Those who mispronounced it were summarily executed or tortured and then executed.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two nations that comprise the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, shared a bloody past prior to the massacre of 1937.
The entire island was a former slave colony, first under Spanish rule and then divided more or less in half between French rule on the western side of the island — then known as Saint-Domingue — and Spanish rule on the eastern side, then known as Santo Domingo.
Fighting and border disputes between the two European rivals continued on the island for hundreds of years, with France controlling all of Hispaniola from 1795–1804.
In 1804, rebel forces led by former slaves declared Saint-Domingue’s independence from France and renamed the territory Haiti, marking the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere.
France later abandoned Santo Domingo, leaving it to Spain once again.
Santo Domingo then seceded from Spain in 1821, and named itself Spanish Haiti. Only months later, Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer invaded the new nation in an attempt to unify the island, consolidate power against the threat of European attack and abolish slavery once and for all in Hispaniola.
The Haitian military faced little resistance and was initially seen as liberators to many in Spanish Haiti. However, relations with the local populace eventually soured as the economy declined and the populace began to see Haitians as rulers rather than liberators. Haiti withdrew in 1844 after 22 years of occupation.
Santo Domingo again declared itself independent and renamed the nation the Dominican Republic, but Haiti continued to invade and briefly occupy the new country off and on for decades. This instilled lingering resentment between the populaces of the two neighboring countries, which was augmented by racial strife between those of African descent, European descent and mixed ancestry.
By the early 20 century relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic had normalized and remained relatively calm for sometime, but internal instability and foreign intervention in both eventually reignited old animosities under the Trujillo regime.
The United States invaded Haiti in 1915, after several coups and rebellions there, and occupied it until 1934. The following year, the U.S. military invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic until 1924, initially because of concerns that Germany might use that country as a base to attack the U.S. mainland while World War I raged on.
During the eight-year period of U.S. occupation of the entire island, international sugar interests facilitated the ease of travel and immigration restrictions for Haitians wishing to work on sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. Much of the land in Haiti was eroded and non-arable.
The ease of emigration and the faltering economy compelled a growing number of Haitians who were struggling to find work in their own country to either cross the porous border in search of available land for sustenance farming or to seek employment in the sugar plantations, where they eventually comprised the bulk of the workforce.
This mass immigration ultimately set the stage for the massacre of 1937.
Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, a former general in the Dominican army who had collaborated with rebels who over through the previous president, came to rule by way of a highly rigged election in 1930. He quickly consolidated power, but by 1937 he faced growing dissent due to his authoritarian policies and economic decline within the Dominican Republic related to the Great Depression.
It’s difficult to decipher exactly why Trujillo issued the order to massacre Haitians in 1937. The Haitians settling along the borderlands and working in the sugar plantations made for easy scapegoats for the Dominican Republic’s economic woes. There had also been some reports, according to the Dominican government at least, of crimes perpetrated by Haitian immigrants in the borderlands.