Biography of Rafael Trujillo, "Little Caesar of the Caribbean"

One of Latin America's Most Brutal Dictators

President Trujillo Molina in Uniform
President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina of the Dominican Republic in military uniform. Bettmann / Getty Images

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (October 24, 1891-May 30, 1961) was a military general who seized power in the Dominican Republic and ruled the island from 1930 to 1961. Known as the "Little Caesar of the Caribbean," he is remembered as one of the most brutal dictators in Latin America's history.

Fast Facts: Rafael Trujillo

  • Known For: Dictator of the Dominican Republic
  • Also Known As: Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, Nicknames: El Jefe (The Boss), El Chivo (The Goat)
  • Born: October 24, 1891 in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic
  • Died: May 30, 1961 on a coastal highway between Santo Domingo and Haina in the Dominican Republic
  • Parents: José Trujillo Valdez, Altagracia Julia Molina Chevalier 
  • Key Accomplishments: While his regime was rife with corruption and self-enrichment, he also undertook the modernization and industrialization of the Dominican Republic
  • Spouse(s): Aminta Ledesma Lachapelle, Bienvenida Ricardo Martínez, and María de los Angeles Martínez Alba
  • Fun Fact: The merengue song "Mataron al Chivo" (They Killed the Goat) celebrates the assassination of Trujillo in 1961

Early Life

Trujillo was born of mixed-race ancestry to a lower-class family in San Cristóbal, a town on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. He began his military career during the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) and was trained by U.S. marines in the newly formed Dominican National Guard (eventually renamed the Dominican National Police).

General Rafael Trujillo Reviewing Visiting American Sailors
Generalissimo Rafael L. Trujillo (left), Commander -in-Chief of the Dominican Republic armed forces, reviews a complement of the US Destroyer "Norfolk," during a recent visit of the warship here. The nation declared a special holiday in honor of the visiting personnel, who in turn were invited to inspect the thirty naval vessels of the Dominican navy. Bettmann / Getty Images

Rise to Power

Trujillo eventually rose to Chief of the Dominican National Police, all the while engaging in shady business deals related to the purchase of military food, clothes and equipment, from which he began to amass wealth. Trujillo demonstrated a ruthless tendency to remove enemies from the army, place allies in key positions, and consolidate power, which is how he became the commander-in-chief of the army by 1927. When President Horacio Vázquez fell ill in 1929, Trujillo and his allies saw an opening to prevent Vice President Alfonseca, who they considered to be an enemy, from assuming the presidency.

Trujillo began to work with another politician, Rafael Estrella Ureña, to seize power from Vázquez. On February 23, 1930, Trujillo and Estrella Ureña engineered a coup that eventually resulted in both Vázquez and Alfonseca resigning and ceding power to Estrella Ureña. However, Trujillo had designs on the presidency himself and after months of intimidation and threats of violence toward other political parties, he assumed the presidency with Estrella Ureña as vice president on August 16, 1930.

The Trujillo Agenda: Repression, Corruption and Modernization

Trujillo proceeded to murder and jail his opponents after the election. He also established a paramilitary force, La 42, designed to persecute his opponents and generally instill fear in the population. He exerted full control over the island's economy, establishing monopolies over salt, meat and rice production. He engaged in blatant corruption and conflicts of interest, forcing Dominicans to buy staple food products distributed by his own companies. By rapidly acquiring wealth, Trujillo was eventually able to push out owners across various sectors, such as insurance and tobacco production, forcing them to sell to him.

Nixon Visits Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo
Vice-President Richard M. Nixon and General Rafael L. Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (right) exchange warm greetings on Nixon's arrival in Ciudad Trujillo, March 1st. The visit to the Dominican Republic marked the next-to-last stage of Nixon's good Will tour of Latin America. During an official motorcade through the city, Nixon was cheered by some 15,000 schoolchildren. Streets were decked with U.S. and Dominican flags. Bettmann / Getty Images

He also issued propaganda proclaiming himself as the savior of a previously backward country. In 1936 he changed the name of Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (Trujillo City) and began to erect monuments and dedicate street names to himself.

Despite the vast corruption of Trujillo's dictatorship, his fortunes were closely tied to the Dominican economy, and thus the population benefitted as his government went about modernizing the island and undertaking infrastructure and public works projects, such as improving sanitation and paving roads. He was particularly successful in pushing industrialization, creating industrial plants for the production of shoes, beer, tobacco, alcohol, vegetable oil, and other products. Industries enjoyed special treatment, like protection from labor unrest and foreign competition.

Sugar was one of Trujillo's largest ventures, particularly in the post-war era. Most of the sugar mills were owned by foreign investors, so he set about buying them up with state and personal funds. He used nationalist rhetoric to back up his agenda of taking over foreign-owned sugar mills.

At the end of his reign, Trujillo's economic empire was unprecedented: he controlled nearly 80% of the country's industrial production and his firms employed 45% of the active labor force. With 15% of the labor force employed by the state, this meant that 60% of the population depended on him directly for work.

Although Trujillo ceded the presidency to his brother in 1952 and 1957 and installed Joaquín Balaguer in 1960, he maintained de facto control over the island until 1961, using his secret police to infiltrate the population and rout out dissent using intimidation, torture, imprisonment, kidnapping and rape of women, and assassination.

The Haitian Question

One of Trujillo's most well-known legacies was his racist attitudes toward Haiti and the Haitian sugarcane laborers who lived near the border. He stoked the historic Dominican prejudice against black Haitians, advocating a "'deafricanization' of the nation and restoration of 'Catholic values'" (Knight, 225). Despite his own mixed race identity, and the fact that he himself had a Haitian grandparent, he projected the image of the Dominican Republic as a white, Hispanic society, a myth that persists to this day with bigoted, anti-Haitian legislation being passed as recently as 2013.

President Rafael L. Trujillo
A celebration in praise of President Rafael L. Trujillo Sr. The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Trujillo's anti-Haitian sentiment culminated in the murder of an estimated 20,000 Haitians in October 1937, when he traveled to the border and declared that the "Haitian occupation" of the border areas would no longer continue. He ordered all Haitians remaining in the area to be murdered on sight. This act provoked widespread condemnation across Latin America and the U.S. After an investigation, the Dominican government paid Haiti $525,000 "for damages and injuries occasioned by what officially was termed 'frontier conflicts.'" (Moya Pons, 369).

Trujillo's Downfall and Death

Dominican exiles opposed to the Trujillo regime carried out two failed invasions, one in 1949 and one in 1959. However, things shifted in the region once Fidel Castro succeeded in overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. In order to help the Dominicans overthrow Trujillo, Castro armed a military expedition in 1959 composed mostly of exiles but also some Cuban military commanders. The uprising failed, but the Cuban government continued urging Dominicans to revolt against Trujillo and this inspired more conspiracies. One widely publicized case was that of the three Mirabal sisters, whose husbands had been jailed for conspiring to overthrow Trujillo. The sisters were assassinated on November 25, 1960, provoking outrage.

One of the decisive factors in Trujillo's downfall was his attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt in 1960 after discovering that the latter had participated years before in a conspiracy to oust him. When the assassination plot was revealed, the Organization of American States (OAS) severed diplomatic ties with Trujillo and imposed economic sanctions. Moreover, having learned its lesson with Batista in Cuba and recognizing that Trujillo's corruption and repression had gone too far, the U.S. government withdrew its longstanding support of the dictator it had helped train.

On May 30, 1961 and with the help of the CIA, Trujillo's car was ambushed by seven assassins, some of whom were part of his armed forces, and the dictator was killed.

Car in Which Rafael Trujillo was Assassinated
6/5/1961-Ciudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic-Newsmen view the car in which Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was assasinated. The automobile contained about 60 bullet holes, and had blood stains on the back seat where Trujillo was seated. Late June 4th, Dominican authorities reported that two of the assassins had been killed in a gun battle with security police. Bettmann / Getty Images

Legacy

There was widespread rejoicing by Dominicans when they learned that Trujillo had died. Bandleader Antonio Morel released a merengue (the national music of the Dominican Republic) shortly after Trujillo's death called "Mataron al Chivo" (They killed the goat); "the goat" was one of Trujillo's nicknames. The song celebrated his death and declared May 30 a "day of freedom."

Many exiles returned to the island to tell stories of torture and imprisonment, and students marched to demand democratic elections. Juan Bosch, a populist reformer, who had been an early dissident during the Trujillo regime and who had gone into exile in 1937, was democratically elected in December 1962. Unfortunately his socialist-leaning presidency, focused on land reform, was at odds with U.S. interests and lasted less than a year; he was deposed by the military in September 1963.

While authoritarian leaders like Joaquín Balaguer have continued to hold power in the Dominican Republic, the country has maintained free and competitive elections and has not returned to the level of repression under the Trujillo dictatorship.

Sources

  • Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.
  • Knight, Franklin W. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Moya Pons, Frank. The Dominican Republic: A National History. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998.