Rafael Trujillo: boss of a banana republic

The rule of Rafael Trujillo was a dark time for the Dominican Republic. James Ferguson remembers the man who called himself “The Benefactor”

Illustration by James Hackett

It might seem hard to believe these days, but 50 years ago the Caribbean was one of the United States’ biggest foreign-policy headaches. If today the region has receded into near-insignificance compared to the Middle East or China, in the 1960s it gave State Department and CIA officials sleepless nights.

Fidel Castro had recently come to power in Cuba and survived the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, an episode that dealt a terrible blow to the newly elected John F Kennedy. Strategists meanwhile worried that a now openly socialist Cuba would take advantage of the wretched and corrupt dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier to support, or even launch, a communist takeover in Haiti.

And then there was the Dominican Republic. Here there was another dictator, and another dreadful mess of poverty, human rights abuses and embezzlement. But here, unlike Papa Doc, the dictator in question was to a large extent the creation and friend of the US. The State Department hence faced a painful dilemma: on the one hand, continuing to support the Dominican dictator was not only distasteful but also threatened to create the conditions for “another Cuba”, a popular uprising like the one that had brought Castro to power. On the other, intervening – as the Bay of Pigs had shown – was not an easy option and might in any case lead to something worse.?
In the end, the Kennedy administration made its choice: the dictator would have to go.

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, also known as “The Benefactor” or simply “The Boss”, had run the Dominican Republic like his private fiefdom for 30 years. Sometimes he was president, at other times he was happy to let a puppet occupy the presidential palace while he pulled the strings. He had various sons, all as rapacious as their father, and the Trujillo clan made a fortune from controlling the most lucrative parts of the Dominican economy.

Trujillo was born in 1891, came from a humble background and received little education. He worked as an overseer at a sugar plantation and reputedly as a part-time horse thief. His big break came in 1916 when the US, alarmed at the Dominican Republic’s mounting economic and political turmoil, sent in the Marines and started an eight-year occupation.

During that time the American authorities revamped the Dominican military in a bid to bring order to the troubled country, and Trujillo rose rapidly through the ranks. By the time the US pulled out, Trujillo was effectively in charge of the now-powerful National Guard. His meteoric rise had fuelled his ambitions, and in 1930, after a renewed period of unrest, he stood for the presidency and won. Rather ominously, he received more votes, it later emerged, than there were voters.

Fraud and intimidation became Trujillo’s trademark over the three decades of La Era de Trujillo, as he liked to call his dictatorship. Thousands of opponents were murdered, jailed or exiled. Free speech was banned, and a wide network of spies reported to Trujillo, who took pleasure in overseeing the torture of dissidents.

His vanity knew no bounds. The capital, Santo Domingo, was renamed Ciudad Trujillo, and the country’s highest peak was likewise re-baptised. Offices, shops and schools all displayed the obligatory portrait of The Benefactor, while a large neon sign carrying the message Dios y Trujillo (God and Trujillo) was visible, day and night, in the centre of the capital. The immodest dictator even allowed himself to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – and this after he had ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians on the border between the two countries.

To the outside world the Trujillo regime must have looked like a grotesque parody of a banana republic. Other Latin American and Caribbean countries were outraged, and many harboured Dominican refugees and exiles who had fled their homeland. Yet the US persisted in supporting Trujillo, offering preferential prices for the country’s sugar harvest and arms for his military. And this was largely because Trujillo regularly warned the State Department that if he left power, the communists were sure to take over. Furthermore, some high-ranking American diplomats and officials were charmed by the dictator and willing to accept his lavish hospitality.

Like Somoza in Nicaragua, Trujillo was termed a son of a bitch, but he was at least their (the Americans’) SOB. That was their cynical relationship for many years until the rise of Castro suddenly made Trujillo’s hitherto empty threats about communism suddenly look real. But ironically, the changing political realities of the Caribbean were not to keep the dictator comfortably in power. According to Red Heat, a fascinating new history of the Cold War in the Caribbean by Alex von Tunzelmann, the fear of “another Cuba” instead made the CIA decide to ditch their erstwhile ally and look for moderate alternatives.

So it was that on the evening of May 30, 1961, half a century ago, Trujillo set out in his Chevrolet, reportedly to visit one of his several young mistresses. Suddenly, on a quiet stretch of road, his car was blocked by another vehicle, and machine guns opened up. These weapons, according to von Tunzelmann’s sources, had arrived several weeks earlier courtesy of the CIA. After a brief exchange of fire, Trujillo fell to the ground and his body was bundled into the back of one of the conspirators’ cars. La Era de Trujillo was over.

The plotters may have had the covert support of the CIA but they were hunted down in an orgy of vengeance by Trujillo’s family. The remnants of the regime clung on to power for some months, but by 1962 elections were won by the liberal and ill-fated reformer Juan Bosch. The Marines were to return again in 1965 after a coup and popular uprising.

But perhaps the last words should be those attributed to US Consul Henry Dearborn, who knew Trujillo well: “He had his torture chambers, he had his political assassinations. But he kept law and order, cleaned the place up, made it sanitary, built public works, and he didn’t bother the US. So that didn’t bother us.”