The Dictators: Rafael Trujillo

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1891. At age 16, he got a job as a telegraph operator before becoming a professional criminal; he formed a criminal gang called “The 42”, which perpetrated acts of fraud, robbery and violent crime. In 1916, the United States invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic when it became clear that the latter would most likely default on its foreign debts. The US established a special Dominican paramilitary force to try to help it keep order; Trujillo joined and gained a commission as a Lieutenant. This was the start of his meteoric rise in the army, as he went from lieutenant to Commander-in-Chief of the Army in a short 9 years. In 1930, a rebellion broke out against President Horatio Vasquez. Trujillo did a deal with the rebel leader, Rafael Estrella, whereby, in exchange for not opposing the coup, Trujillo would be allowed to run for president in the next election. In the new regime, Trujillo was made head of both the police and the army, and ran for president with Estrella as his running mate. The army was used to prevent effective opposition, and the Trujillo ticket won with a dubious 99% of the vote.


Within a year of his assumption of the Presidency, Trujillo established the Dominican Party, and made it the sole legal party in the country. The Dominican Party’s methods were reminiscent of organised crime; government employees were “advised” to “donate” 10% of their salaries to the Party, while ordinary citizens were strongly pressured to join. Party membership cards could be used to get away with minor crimes. Any dissidents mysteriously disappeared. Trujillo came up for re-election in 1934, where he was the only candidate; he predictably won a landslide victory. After this, Trujillo’s dictatorship really took off. A textbook Cult of Personality was set up, with the capital being renamed “Trujillo City,” and the nation’s highest mountain “Trujillo Peak.” The media sang his praises endlessly. Opposition was dealt with; he kept an “execution list,” which was exactly what it sounds like, and at one point allowed an opposition party to form just so he could identify the dissidents and have them killed. Although eligible to run again in 1938, he declined to do so and had a puppet, Jacinto Peynado, nominated. Trujillo kept his positions as head of the Dominican Party and Generalissimo of the Army. Peynado died in 1940, and after his Vice President served his remaining two years, Trujillo reversed his earlier decision and ran again in 1942. He lengthened the presidential terms to five years, and served until 1952, when he again turned over nominal control to his brother while remaining in real power.

Trujillo is the central figure in the black suit.

Trujillo is the central figure in the black suit.

Trujillo depended on the United States for support; he negotiated a treaty in 1940 which ended US control over many aspects of Dominican finance, and declared war on Germany and Japan on December 11th 1941, although little was done to help the Allies. The first incident which damaged his US support was the Parsley Massacre. Trujillo had always had very poor relations with Haiti, and in 1937 claimed that the Haitian government was harbouring his political opponents. He ordered a large-scale military attack, in which between 20,000-30,000 Haitian civilians died. Although the Dominican Republic agreed to pay compensation to the victims, the corrupt Haitian government took almost all of the money. Initially, Trujillo had had equally poor relations with Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba. However, when it became apparent that Castro might win, Trujillo began to support the Cuban government with military supplies. When Batista was overthrown, he came to the Dominican Republic, where he had to pay 4 million US dollars for Trujillo to agree to allow him to go to Portugal. Thus, by the late 1950s, the Dominican Republic was internationally isolated, and facing increasing domestic opposition. The President of Venezuela had openly sponsored Dominican exiles, so Trujillo tried to have him assassinated by car-bomb. The attempt failed, the Dominican Republic was sanctioned by several states, and after the horrific murder of the 3 dissident Mirabal Sisters, dropped by the United States as well. On May 30th 1961, Trujillo was ambushed in his car and assassinated outside the Capital. There is some evidence of CIA involvement, but it is not known for certain. With his death, the Dominican Republic descended into complete chaos. The plotters failed to seize control of the country, the secret police went on a retaliatory murderous rampage throughout the country, and the military revolted in November. Trujillo’s son escaped with his remains to France and then Franco’s Spain, where they are still buried in Madrid. After a series of events including a military coup, one democratically elected president and another US invasion, Joaquin Balageur took power and established another dictatorship.



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