• RSS icon
  • Share icon
  • Printer-friendly version

Rafael Trujillo

Last modified 10 September 2011.

First published 11 August 2006.

Full name Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. AKA 'El Jefe' (The Chief), AKA 'El Chivo' (The Goat), AKA 'Chapita' (Bottle Top).

Country: Dominican Republic.

Kill tally: Around 20,000 Haitians killed in 1937. (Estimates of the number of Haitians killed vary from several hundred to 30,000.) An unknown number of Dominican dissidents and opposition figures killed during his 31-year reign.

Background: The Dominican Republic (República Dominicana) is established in February 1844. The Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Haiti occupies the western third.

Despite initial optimism a tradition of dictatorial "strong-man" (or "caudillo") rule comes to be entrenched in the Republic, reaching its zenith 100 years later during the rule of Rafael Trujillo.

At the same time, longstanding tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti will assume a growing racial component as the fairer-skinned Dominicans come to feel threatened by and at the same time superior to their darker-skinned neighbours.

At the start of the 20th Century the United States begins to take a greater role in Dominican affairs, culminating in a US occupation that begins in May 1916 and continues to July 1924, when Horacio Vásquez Lajara is inaugurated as president and control of the country returns to the Dominican parliament.

A feature of the US occupation is the growing use of Haitian labourers in Dominican sugar plantations owned by US sugar companies. More background.

Mini biography: Born in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic, on 24 October 1891. He comes from a humble, mixed-race background (his grandmother is Haitian), receives a rudimentary education, engages in some petty theft and works in various low-paid jobs, including sugar plantation guard and telegraph operator. As a child he collects bottle caps, earning him the nickname 'chapita' (bottle top).

1918 - On 9 December Trujillo enlists in the National Police, a new force being organised and trained by the US Marines. In 1921 he is sent to officer's school. Following graduation he rises quickly through the ranks, becoming a captain in 1922, captain and inspector of the First District in 1923, major-commander in 1924, lieutenant-colonel and chief-of-staff in 1924 and colonel and commander-in-chief of police in 1925.

1927 - President Vásquez extends his term from four to six years and removes the prohibition on presidential reelection, a move that calls into question the validity of the country's constitution and provides fuel for his political opponents.

After three years of economic growth and stability under Vásquez the political climate in the Republic once again begins to break down.

Meanwhile, the National Police are transformed into the National Army (Ejército Nacional). Trujillo remains as commander-in-chief and is promoted to brigadier-general.

1930 - Trujillo and the political leader Rafael Estrella Urena strike a deal that will enable Estrella to take power without interference from the army. In February Estrella proclaims a revolution and marches on the capital. Trujillo declares his "neutrality" and keeps his troops in their barracks. Vásquez flees and Estrella assumes the provisional presidency in lieu of the outcome of elections scheduled for May.

The elections proceed but, following intimidation of potential opponents by the military, Trujillo is the only candidate. After claiming his election as president with 95 percent of the vote he has the parliament issue an official proclamation announcing the commencement of "the Era of Trujillo."

There will not be a free and fair election in the Republic for another 31 years.

To maintain his hold on power Trujillo uses a secret police force (the Military Intelligence Service, or SIM) to monitor and silence opponents at home and abroad.

Trujillo remains commander-in-chief of the army, cultivating his forces with pay rises and privileges while suppressing the development of officer cliques.

State monopolies are formed over all major enterprises in the country to enrich Trujillo, his family, and his supporters. During his reign Trujillo comes to control the production of salt, milk, beef, tobacco and most of the sugar industry. He also takes over the lottery, the media and trade unions. By 1958 his personal wealth is estimated at US$500 million.

The capital, Santo Domingo, is renamed Ciudad Trujillo (Trujillo City). The Republic's highest mountain (Pico Duarte) is renamed Pico Trujillo (Trujillo Peak). (Both the capital and the mountain will revert to their original names after Trujillo's death.)

Trujillo also gives himself many awards and titles, including 'Great Benefactor of the Nation' and 'Father of the New Dominion'.

The political process is dominated by his Dominican Party (Partido Dominicano), headed by Trujillo, which becomes the only legal political party in the country. The courts are stacked with Trujillo cronies, leaving the legal system neutered.

While social freedoms are curtailed the standard of living does eventually improve for average Dominicans and economic and political stability is maintained. The middle class prospers, infrastructure is developed, the public education system is expanded, illiteracy declines, health care is improved and a pension plan is established.

In foreign affairs the country's foreign debt is repaid and the Republic joins the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Initially, however, Trujillo's ascension coincides with the onset of the Great Depression, which cuts the market price of sugar and causes plantation owners to look for ways to reduce expenses. Using cheap Haitian labour is seen as one such means and more and more Haitians are brought in to work.

By 1935 an estimated 50,000 Haitians have joined the plantation workforce, despite objections from Trujillo, who calls for the use of domestic labourers.

1931 - The Haitian legation in Santo Domingo protests massive violations of the Haitian itinerants' human rights and the quasi-institutionalisation of forced labour on the Dominican sugar cane plantations.

1935-1936 - Trujillo and Haitian President Stenio Vincent sign agreements ending the long-standing dispute over the border between the two countries. The settlement marks a high point between the two nations. Trujillo visits the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, where he is warmly received.

However, the cordial relations do not last long as Trujillo seeks to close the border to the Haitian itinerants.

1937 - Dominican covert agents working in neighbouring Haiti are discovered and executed by the Haitian government. Trujillo uses the episode as an excuse to enforce border control and cleanse the Republic's borderlands of dark-skinned Haitians. On 2 October he orders their massacre.

The Dominican Army goes to work, slaughtering around 20,000 largely unarmed Haitian men, women and children, mostly in border areas, but also in the western Cibao. (Estimates of the number killed vary from several hundred to 30,000.)

Victims are identified by being asked to pronounce "perejil", the Spanish word for parsley. If they cannot trill the "r" in the correct Spanish fashion they are deemed to be Haitian and executed.

The massacre comes to be known as 'El Corte' (The Cutting) because of the machetes used by the soldiers to conduct the slaughter. Only those Haitians working in US-owned plantations are spared.

In a speech given later in October Trujillo describes the massacre as a challenge to Haitians, who he characterises as an inferior race which because of its numeric superiority had dominated and humiliated Dominicans for more than a century.

A program of "Dominicanisation" is introduced along the border. White immigrants are encouraged to settle in the region and an anti-Haitian propaganda campaign is launched, eventually becoming formalised into an ideology known as "antihaitianismo".

On hearing of the massacre the US Government demands an internationally mediated settlement. Trujillo agrees. However, though his international image has been tarnished, he remains in power.

1938 - Trujillo does not run for president in elections held that year but continues to hold absolute power behind the scenes, retaining an office in the presidential palace and ensuring that top bureaucrats report directly to him.

Meanwhile, despite being an admirer of European fascists like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, Trujillo agrees to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, offering farmland and visas to those who want to migrate to the Republic.

He also opens the country to Republican Spanish escaping Franco's regime.

1939 - When the Second World War breaks out in September Trujillo sides with the antifascist Allies.

1942 - Trujillo again takes the title of president.

1944 - A plot by Dominican agents to kill Haitian President Elie Lescot is foiled. The following year a 16-page letter vilifying President Lescot and signed by Trujillo is widely circulated. The letter will contribute to the downfall of the Lescot government in January 1946.

1949 - On 14 June a group of exiled Dominicans stage the so-called 'Luperion Invasion' in a bid to oust Trujillo. A small force flies into the country but is quickly crushed.

1952 - The title of president is passed to Trujillo's brother Héctor Bienvenido, though Trujillo retains absolute power.

Meanwhile, as Trujillo comes to control more of the Dominican sugar industry, he begins to see the value of cheap Haitian labour and reverse his attitude to cross-border migration. During the year he and signs a bilateral contract with Haiti to regulate the import of Haitian labourers.

1953 - Trujillo assumes the foreign ministry. He will retain the post until his death.

1959 - Dissident Dominicans, aided by Cuba's Fidel Castro, stage a small, abortive invasion attempt on 14 June, sailing from Cuba. The failed invasion spawns the Catorce de Junio Movimiento (14th of June Movement), an underground opposition group that will play a key role in Trujillo's demise.

Trujillo also faces regional opposition from Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt.

In retaliation, Trujillo supports numerous plots by Venezuelan exiles to overthrow Betancourt, leading the Venezuelan government to take its case against Trujillo to the OAS.

1960 - The 14th of June Movement hatches a plot to assassinate Trujillo on 21 January. However, a day before the assassination attempt the secret police sweep, arresting many of the leaders of the movement, including the Mirabel sisters and their husbands.

The sisters are released but soon after are murdered. The story of the sisters will later be dramatised in the film 'In the Time of the Butterflies'.

Meanwhile, Trujillo orders his foreign agents to assassinate Betancourt. The attempt, on 24 June, injures but does not kill the Venezuelan president.

The incident ignites world opinion against Trujillo. The members of the OAS vote unanimously to sever diplomatic relations and to impose economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic. In August the US embassy in Santo Domingo is downgraded to consular level.

At the same time, an economic crisis brought on by heavy expenditures on armaments, the depletion of domestic capital by the large sums sent abroad by the Trujillos, and a boycott imposed by the OAS on certain goods adds to the growing levels of dissatisfaction inside the Republic.

After several priests are arrested and deported for allegedly assisting rebels even the once supportive Catholic Church begins to voice objections to Trujillo's repressive regime.

Worried that the Dominican Republic may go the way of Cuba the US Central Intelligence Agency begins to cultivate conservative opponents of the Trujillo regime, promising support for any new government they may form after the ousting of the dictator.

In an unexpected move, Trujillo resigns as commander-in-chief of the army and head of the Dominican Party. His brother Héctor resigns from the presidency, which is handed to the vice president and Trujillo crony Joaquín Balaguer Ricardo.

1961 - Trujillo is assassinated on 30 May, dying in a hail of bullets when his car is ambushed on a road outside the capital in a plot organised and executed by members of the country's wealthy elite. It is reported that the CIA supplied the weapons used by the assassins and provided other assistance.

Trujillo's body is later buried in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris.

The overthrow of the government planned to follow the assassination does not eventuate. Most involved in the assassination plot are arrested and executed.

Joaquín Balaguer Ricardo remains as president. Trujillo's son, Rafael Trujillo Martínez, or Ramfis, returns from Paris to assume control, directing the security forces to hunt down all known participants in the assassination plot. When captured the plotters are tortured then executed.

Ramfis Trujillo's brutal rule lasts until November when his exiled uncles, Héctor and José Arismendi Trujillo Molina, return to the Republic and take control.

However, the uncles are quickly forced back into exile when the US objects to their seizing power and deploys warships off the Dominican coast. They join Ramfis and other prominent members of the Trujillo clan who have fled the Republic under US protection.

The story of the lead-up to and aftermath of Trujillo's assassination is later dramatised by the acclaimed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in his book 'The Feast of the Goat'.

1962 - On 1 January Balaguer enters a power-sharing arrangement with a seven-member Council of State which includes Trujillo's two surviving assassins, Antonio Imbert Barrera and Luis Amiama Tío.

Fifteen days later the council is overthrown it in a coup d'état staged by Air Force General Pedro Rodríguez Echavarría. However, the coup is short-lived and the council is restored without Balaguer.

The Republic's first open elections in over 30 years are held on 20 December. They are won by Juan Bosch Gavino and his reformist Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano - PRD).

1963 - A new constitution separates church and state, guarantees civil and individual rights and endorses civilian control of the military. These and other reforms are too confronting for the conservative elite and, following tacit approval from the US, the government is overturned in a military coup on 25 September.

1965 - On 24 April dissatisfaction with civilian junta installed following the 1963 coup boils over into revolution followed by a brief civil war.

On 28 April the US intervenes, sending in troops to secure the capital and restore order. An OAS-sponsored peace force later supplements the US forces.

1966 - Fresh elections are held on 1 July. One-time Trujillo crony Joaquín Balaguer Ricardo returns to power, winning the presidency with 57% of the vote. His Reformist Party (Partido Reformista - PR) wins majorities in both houses of the parliament. Balaguer will serve as president for 12 years.

1969 - Ramfis Trujillo dies on 28 December in Spain from injuries sustained in a car accident.

1978 - Silvestre Antonio Guzmán Fernández is elected as president. Guzmán works to depoliticise the military. In 1982 he is succeeded by Salvador Jorge Blanco.

1986 - Balaguer is again elected president. He is reelected in 1990 and again in 1994 but only serves until 1996.

Comment: Cynical, opportunistic, cunning, ruthless: these are some of the key traits that define Trujillo; and of these opportunism seems to have been paramount. Though he admired Europe's fascist dictators, Trujillo provided refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and for leftist Spaniards escaping Franco's execution squads. He didn't appear to care, as long as their skin was white. He sided with the Allies during the Second World War; probably a wise choice given the Republic's proximity to and dependence on the United States. He reversed his policy towards Haitian labourers when he realised there was money to be made from their sweat.

Opportunistic, and conflicted; a type of Latin Ion Antonescu, the antisemitic Romanian dictator who was engaged to two Jewish women and married a third. Trujillo denied the heritage of his Haitian grandmother and tried to cover it up, but, behind the mask, it was forever there.