The Genocide You Never Knew About

Though it occurred just hundreds of miles from Miami, the Parsley Massacre is one of the least-known acts of genocide in the 20th century. The killings took place in the Dominican Republic, which shares the small island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

In October 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the indiscriminate killing of Haitian migrants along the countries' border. To differentiate between black Dominicans and Haitians, so the story goes, soldiers obliged rural workers to say “parsley” (perejil in Spanish). Pronouncing the “r” is difficult for native Creole speakers, and failure in the linguistic test could mean execution. Between 9,000 and 20,000 Haitians died over a five-day span, an episode that then-U.S. ambassador in Santo Domingo called “a systematic campaign of extermination” in a communiqué to Franklin Roosevelt.


Antihaitinismo (anti-Haiti sentiment) is a historically strong component of Dominican nationalism. After its independence in 1804, Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for over 20 years, infuriating the country’s elites. During the 19th and early 20th century, the Dominican intelligentsia extolled their Hispanic and Catholic roots to distinguish themselves from the African and vodou elements of Haitian culture. This strain of antihaitinismo reached a new level under Trujillo, who, apart from exterminating Haitians immigrants, criminalized vodou and commissioned prominent intellectuals to defend his hardline approach.

On the 76th anniversary of the Parsley Massacre, those of Haitian descent continue to suffer from violence and discrimination. And the situation is not improving. Just last week, the Dominican Constitutional Court upheld a policy that denies citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. The country used to bestow nationality on any born within its borders until 2010, but a new constitution has since laid out stricter requirements. Many assumed that it would affect only those born after the policy change, but officials are applying it retroactively to include anyone who immigrated since 1929. The decision will impact 200,000 of the 1.2 million people of Haitian ancestry living in the Dominican Republic, many of whom have few or no ties to their homeland after decades of living abroad.

Life for these migrants will become especially difficult since Dominicans are required to present a birth certificate for routine purchases, such as cell phones, or to attend school. Complicating matters further is that these documents must be renewed every few months. Already, 40,000 people have been denied identity documents, even if they had previously possessed them, while the status of another 16,000 is currently under review. A few days ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights blasted the policy as “disastrous,” leaving tens of thousands in a state of “constitutional limbo,” stateless, and without access to basic services.

Government officials assert that there will not be mass deportations as a result of this policy, but since August 2012, over 47,000 undocumented Haitians have already been deported. This figure is double that of the previous year.

Not only are these campaigns large-scale, watchdog groups have criticized the deportations as inhumane. Over the summer, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the death of Jean Robert Lors, a young Haitian man who died at the hands of agents during an immigration sting. The same operation, the Commission feared, also resulted in the serious head injury of a 3-year-old child. The IACHR has also filed a lawsuit against the country for what it characterizes as “collective and mass expulsions of individuals, affecting both Dominicans and foreigners, and both documented and undocumented persons who had their permanent residence in the country and strong employment and familial ties with the Dominican Republic.” Phenotypically African characteristics and dark skin, the Commission concludes, are “decisive factors” during repatriation operations in which individuals are deported to Haiti without any legal recourse.


Dominican officials assert that they cannot be expected "to bear the brunt of the human and economic costs of the dire situation faced by the Haitian people, for which they see no better solution than to emigrate across an extremely porous border to the Dominican Republic." But as the country's history demonstrates, border protection can provide a guise for serious human rights abuses.

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Cameron Combs

Cam Combs works at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, and has been published in TheAtlantic.com, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, World Politics Review & Huffington Post. Portfolio at cameroncombs.com

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