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The Parsley Massacre; also referred to as El Corte (the cutting) by Dominicans and as Kouto-a (the knife) by Haitians; was a government-sponsored genocide in October 1937, at the direct order of Dominican president Rafael Trujillo who ordered the execution of the Haitian population living in the borderlands with Haiti. Estimates of the total number of deaths vary considerably and range from a low of 5,000 to a high of 25,000. The lack of the discovery of a single mass grave since 1937 does not tend to support the higher estimates.
The popular name for the massacre came from the shibboleth that the dictatorial Trujillo had his soldiers apply to determine whether or not those living on the border were native Afro-Dominicans or immigrant Haitians. Dominican soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley to someone and ask what it was. How the person pronounced the Spanish word for parsley (perejil) determined their fate. French and Haitian Creole pronounce the r as a uvular approximant—thus, their speakers can have difficulty pronouncing the alveolar tap or trill of Spanish. The Dominican soldiers realized that most Haitians had difficulty pronouncing perejil, so if the person could pronounce perejil with a trill, they considered that person Dominican and let him live. However, they considered people who pronounced perejil without the trill as Haitian, and executed them.
Though this term was used frequently in the English-speaking media during the commemoration of 75 years after the event (October 2012), most scholars recognize that this is a misnomer as research by Lauren Derby shows that this explanation is based more on myth than on personal accounts.
Trujillo, a proponent of anti-Haitianism (anti-Haitian bias) made his intentions towards the Haitian community clear in a short speech he gave in 2 October 1937 at a dance in his honor in Dajabón. He said,
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.
Trujillo reportedly was acting in response to reports of Haitians stealing cattle and crops from Dominican borderland residents. The massacre killed an estimated 20,000 Haitians living in the Dominican border—clearly at Trujillo's direct order. For approximately five days, from 2 October 1937 to 8 October 1937, Dominican troops killed Haitians with guns, machetes, clubs, and knives. Some died while trying to flee to Haiti across the Artibonite River, which has often been the site of bloody conflict between the two nations. Of the tens of thousands of ethnic Haitians who died, a majority were born in the Dominican Republic and belonged to well-established Haitian communities in the borderlands, thus making them Dominican citizens.
The Dominican Republic, formerly the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, is the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola—and occupies two-thirds of the land while having ten million inhabitants. In contrast, Haiti, the former French colony of Saint Domingue, is on the western third of the island and is heavily settled, with an estimated 500 people per square mile.
This has forced many Haitians onto land too mountainous, eroded, or dry for productive farming. Instead of staying on lands incapable of supporting them, many Haitians migrated to Dominican soil, where land hunger was low. While Haitians benefited by gaining farm land, Dominicans in the borderlands subsisted mostly on agriculture, and benefited from the ease of exchange of goods with Haitian markets.
Due to inadequate roadways connecting the borderlands to major cities, “Communication with Dominican markets was so limited that the small commercial surplus of the frontier slowly moved toward Haiti.” This threatened Trujillo’s regime because of long-standing border disputes between the two nations. If large numbers of Haitian immigrants began to occupy the less densely populated Dominican borderlands, the Haitian government might try to make a case for claiming Dominican land. Additionally, loose borders let contraband pass freely, and without taxes between nations, depriving the Dominican Republic of tariff revenue.
Furthermore, the Dominican government saw the loose borderlands as a liability in terms of possible formation of revolutionary groups that could flee across the border with ease, while at the same time amassing weapons and followers.
Despite attempts to blame Dominican civilians, it has been confirmed by United States|U.S. sources that "bullets from Krag rifles were found in Haitian bodies, and only Dominican soldiers had access to this type of rifle." Therefore, the Haitian Massacre, which is still referred to as el corte (the cutting) by Dominicans and as kouto-a (the knife) by Haitians, was, "...a calculated action on the part of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo to homogenize the furthest stretches of the country in order to bring the region into the social, political and economic fold," and rid his republic of Haitians.
Thereafter, Trujillo began to develop the borderlands to link them more closely with urban areas. These areas were modernized, with the addition of modern hospitals, schools, political headquarters, military barracks, and housing projects—as well as a highway to connect the borderlands to major cities.
Additionally, after 1937, quotas restricted the number of Haitians permitted to enter the Dominican Republic, and a strict and often discriminatory border policy was enacted. Dominicans continued to deport and kill Haitians in southern frontier regions—as refugees died of exposure, malaria and influenza.
In the end, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Haitian president Sténio Vincent sought reparations of $750,000, of which the Dominican government paid $525,000 (US$ 8,525,173.61 in 2014 dollars). Of this 30 dollars per victim, survivors received only 2 cents each, due to corruption in the Haitian bureaucracy.
Despite the staggering number of reported deaths, and following over half a century of agricultural expansion and population growth which may have led to the accidental unearthing of human remains, not a single mass grave containing the bodies of murdered Haitians has ever been found. Similar events in which mass executions have taken place, like those during the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi and Soviet massacres of World War II, Pol Pot's reign in Cambodia, the ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars, or the Rwandan genocide have left ample forensic evidence and witness accounts.
Nonetheless, the lack of graves does not prove that the killings did not take place, however, it does suggest that the number of dead were in reality much less than those commonly reported, or that the bodies may have been disposed of by using uncommon methods. Reports from the day have numbers ranging from as little as 1,000 dead up to 12,000; even the upper end of the scale is dwarfed by the 30,000 victims which are commonly reported in the present. This inflation of the tally is attributed by some to the propaganda of anti-Trujillo exiles who wanted to rally international support against the dictator.
On the Dominican side, there are no known formally-documented first-hand witness accounts by military personnel carrying out the executions—be it out of regret, or from aberrant arrogance—nor from civilians. Historian and former Dominican ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Vega, has cited that not many weeks after the alleged end of the killings, Haitians were once again lining up for work at Dominican sugar cane plantations, something he considers as strange as "lambs willingly walking into the slaughterhouse".