Excerpts from

Why the Cocks Fight:
Dominicans, Haitians and the Struggle for Hispaniola

by Michele Wucker

(New York: Hill & Wang, 1999. Copyright Michele Wucker. Used by permission)

The border itself was officially only eight years old. When the American-backed Dominican President Horacio Vasquez and Haitian President Louis Borno in 1929 drew a permanent border, the strokes of their pens created a large foreign population on Dominican land. After so many years of ambiguity, the people who lived there, who had just been arbitrarily assigned a new country, were not about to change where they lived just so they could remain on Haitian or Dominican territory. Haitians did not stop speaking Kreyol just because the land they lived on now happened to be Dominican. With time, the population of the area might have begun to match the nationality the new 1930 boundary assigned them. But when Trujillo saw the border, its inhabitants did not appear Dominican enough.

Still, on his first trip to the new border in August 1937, Trujillo was surprised to see so many Haitians even though a thousand or more had been coerced into helping build the new highway. It also struck the dictator as strange that despite the expanses of grass in the valley around Pedro Santana, there were no cattle. To his questioning about the cattle, peasants and town officials at each little town along the path of the new highway responded that Haitians had stolen their livestock. His mind fixed on the reports of robbery, Trujillo called Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Emilio `Niñí' Castillo, chief military official of the North of the Dominican Republic, to meet him in Dajabón to discuss the incursions of Haitians across to the Dominican side of the border. The problem was not new.

A decade earlier, waves of Haitians had crossed into the Dominican Republic to find work cutting cane on the vast sugar plantations, which were pushing to export more and more to a market that paid over twenty cents a pound for the sweet white stuff. But in 1929, Black Monday hit, catapulting world markets into the Great Depression. Sugar fell to just four cents a pound. With the market all but destroyed for Dominicans' biggest export, Haitian workers were no longer needed.

By 1931, the Dominicans were already seeking ways to send the Haitians packing. In July 1937, just three months before Trujillo's party at Doña Isabela's in Dajabón, a new Dominican law forced foreigners to register with migration officials. In late summer, Dominican authorities deported eight thousand Haitians who had immigrated without proper papers. But the deportations barely began to satisfy anger over the country's economic straits.

By the time of Trujillo's October trip to the border, rumors were flying about `incidents' that had taken place over the previous few days. A little over a week before Trujillo's visit, the Montecristi provincial governor complained to the president that a group of three hundred deported Haitians had returned to the hills around Montecristi. The interior ministry was alerted and the army mobilized. Whispers passed that just south of Dajabón, Dominican soldiers killed a group of Haitians. In Sabaneta, it was said, Haitians had died. Other reports circulated of deaths in confrontations between Dominican soldiers and Haitians awaiting deportation from barbed-wire detention camps.

The tension did not dampen the festivities over the president's visit to the region; indeed, they seemed to heighten Trujillo's revelry. Amid the jovial atmosphere at Doña Isabela's banquet for him, Trujillo assured the guests: `I have learned here that the Haitians have been robbing food and cattle from the ranchers. To you, Dominicans, who have complained of this pillaging committed by the Haitians who live among you, I answer: I will solve the problem. Indeed, we have already begun. Around three hundred Haitians were killed in Banica. The solution must continue.' For emphasis, the dictator stomped his boot on the floor.

In the wee hours of the third of October, the killing of Haitians began. No longer a series of isolated `incidents,' the confrontation on the border became a massacre. `That day, such horrors took place under the torrential rain, that your mouth tasted of ashes, that the air was bitter to breathe, that shame weighed down on your heart, and the flavor of all life indeed was repugnant. You would never have imagined that such things could come to pass on Dominican soil,' Haitian author Jacques Stephen Alexis wrote later in his novel about the massacre, Compère Général Soleil. (Alexis himself would become a martyr in 1961, stoned to death in Haiti for his efforts to unseat the dictator FranÁois Duvalier.)

Trujillo's soldiers used their guns to intimidate, but not to kill. For that, they used machetes, knives, picks and shovels so as not to leave bullets in the corpses. Bullet-riddled bodies would have made it obvious that the murderers were government soldiers, who possessed guns, unlike most Dominicans. But death by machete can be blamed on peasants, on the simple men of the countryside who rose up to defend their cattle and lands. Even a bayonet leaves wounds like enough to a simple knife to mask the true authors of the crime. The elaborate facade left out one crucial detail: if the massacre was, indeed, the result of a Dominican peasant uprising against the Haitians, why were there not casualties on the Dominican side? And why did a number of Dominicans, at a great risk to their own lives and livelihoods, hide Haitians in efforts to protect them from Trujillo's murderers?

For six years, Trujillo had ordered local military posts to submit to him thrice-monthly reports of the results of their patrols of the Dominican-Haitian border. In early fall of 1937, the patrols were heightened; the reports that came in each ten days failed to mention their sinister achievements on their rounds: Manzanillo Bay, Tierra Sucia, Capotillo, El Aguacate, La Peñita, El Cajuil, Santiago de La Cruz.

The tales of the survivors brought out the truth. Trujillo's men searched the houses and estates of the region one by one, rounding up Haitians and initiating deportation proceedings against them; once the paperwork was done, the Dominican government had `proof' that the Haitians had been sent back to Haiti. The Haitians then were transported like cattle to isolated killing grounds. The soldiers slaughtered them at night, then carried the corpses to the Atlantic Ocean, at the customs port in Montecristi, and threw the bodies to the sharks. For days, the waves carried uneaten body parts until they washed up on the beaches.

Often, the soldiers did not even bother with the charade of covering up their crimes. Entire families were mutilated in their homes. For Haitians away from their homes, in the streets or in the fields, the soldiers applied a simple test. Since Haitians are considerably darker than most Dominicans, soldiers would accost a man or woman with dark skin. Holding up sprigs of parsley, Trujillo's men queried their prospective victims: `Como se llama ésto?' `What is this thing called?' The terrified victim's fate lay in his pronunciation of the answer. For Haitians, whose Kreyol language uses wide, a flat `R', it is difficult to pronounce the trilled `R' in the Spanish word for parsley, `perejil.' If the word came out as the Haitian `pe'sil,' or a bastardized Spanish `pewehí' the victim was condemned to die. The few who managed to escape back to safety in Haiti arrived across the border in the town of Ouanaminthe (pronounced `Uahna-ment') with grisly reports of their ordeals. The name Ouanaminthe, ironically, was a phonetic version of the name Juana Méndez, a woman who helped the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture during his 1801 foray into Santo Domingo, where he commanded troops briefly loyal to the Spanish.

Cime Jean fled to Ouanaminthe from El Fundo September 28 after barely escaping the hands of the Dominican soldiers. After an early morning of work, he reported, he returned home to see Dominican soldiers entering his backyard. Before they saw him, he fled, thinking their presence had to do with an arrest. When Cime Jean returned hours later, he found slain on the ground outside his house nearly all his family: his forty-year-old wife, his parents-in-law, his three children, his nephew and the nephew's six children, two cousins, his daughter-in-law and her two children. Cime Jean's son escaped with his life but not his mind, tormented by the horrors he had seen.

When he passed by his neighbors' homes, he saw the same brutality repeated. Telling Haitian authorities at Ouanaminthe about what he had seen, he estimated the dead at sixty. Cime Jean's story was but one of tens of thousands. Loyal servants of Dominicans were not spared. Nor were Haitian husbands and wives of Dominicans. Sometimes, if they were lucky, the victims convinced their murderers to let their children flee to Haiti. `The children cry in Spanish now. Who will understand them in Haiti?' Dominican Freddy Prestol Castillo wrote in his novel about the massacre, El Masacre se pasa a pie (You Can Cross the Massacre by Foot)

As the killing progressed, reports of the carnage leaked out of the country. Not wanting to bother with criticism from the world, Trujillo finally ordered an end on October 8, after the massacre had gone on for more than a week. The worst excesses stopped, though some of Trujillo's men used an additional week or so to finish off the remaining details by giving up the fiction of machetes and kitchen knives, and resorting to their rifles to complete their vicious assignment more efficiently.

By the time El Corte was finished, Trujillo's men had the blood of at least 15,000 Haitians on their hands. Haitian President Elie Lescot put the death toll at 12,168; in 1953, Haitian historian Jean Price-Mars cited 12,136 deaths and 2,419 injuries. In 1975, Joaquín Balaguer, who was interim foreign minister at the time of the massacre and later became president, put the number of dead at 17,000. Other estimates compiled by Dominican historian Bernardo Vega rose as high as 35,000. When journalist Quentin Reynolds traveled through Santo Domingo and Haiti for Collier's magazine shortly after the massacre, he saw hundreds of victims who had survived. At hospitals, he stared horrified at machete wounds, deep, jagged, crude caverns in the flesh of children with mangled hands and disfigured heads.

From his interviews in Haiti's hospitals, Reynolds flew to Santo Domingo to hear President Trujillo's side of the story. Over the finest champagne Reynolds had ever tasted, the oozing dictator insisted that `the incident' had been exaggerated. It had merely been an uprising of Dominican farmers against Haitians trying to steal their livelihood. `It was a truly lamentable incident, and nobody feels worse about it than I do,' the general cooed.

He maintained the fiction that his soldiers could not have done the killing, since the victims died under thrusts of knives and machetes, and everyone knew that the Dominican army used rifles and revolvers in situations where force was necessary. It was a stunning performance, Reynolds noted, a show of disdain that flew in the face of the mutilated bodies it had left behind and of the facts of life in a country where very little happened without the dictator's blessing.

Some references:

Cuello, José Israel. Documentos del conflicto dominico-haitiano. (Santo Domingo: Taller, 1985).

Moya Pons, Frank. The Dominican Republic: A National History (New York: Hispaniola Books, 1995). Moya's bibliography on Dominican-Haitian relations is published in Wilfredo Lozano (ed.) La cuestión haitiana en Santo Domingo (Miami/Santo Domingo: North-South Center/FLASCO, 1992).

Castor, Suzy. Migraciones y relaciones internacionales, el caso haitiano-dominicano. (Santo Domingo: Editora Universitaria UASD, 1987). A Haitian historian, Castor drew on documents from the Mexican National Archives.

Cuello, Jose Israel. Documentos del conflicto dominico-haitiano. (Santo Domingo: Taller, 1985). A Dominican publisher, Cuello has compiled the files of the Dominican Foreign Ministry into a comprehensive and sobering book.

Vega, Bernardo. Trujillo y Haiti Vol. 1 (1930-1937). (Santo Domingo: Fundacion Cultural Dominicana, 1988); and Trujillo y Haiti Vol. II (1937-38) (Santo Domingo: Fundacion Cultural Dominicana, 1995). Vega, a Dominican economist and historian, has worked the U.S. and Dominican national archives extensively and compiled his research, reproducing many key documents.


Prestol Castillo, Freddy. El Masacre se pasa a pie (Santo Domingo: Taller 1973) A Dominican novel about the 1937 massacre.

Alexis, Jacques Stephen. Compère Général Soleil (Paris: Gallimard, 1955) (Comrade General Sun; English translation pending Caraf Books, Charlottesville: Virginia UP). A novel about the massacre by a Haitian writer, who was later stoned to death by Duvalier for his political organizing against the dictator in Haiti.