Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina (October 24, 1891–May 30, 1961) ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Officially, he was president only from 1930 to 1938, and again from 1942 to 1952.
For more than 30 years, Rafael Trujillo and his family held absolute power on the Dominican side of the island of Hispaniola. Popularly, he was known as "El Jefe" (The Chief), but he was privately referred to as "Chapitas" — literally, "bottlecaps" — because of his indiscriminate use of medals. Also was called "el chivo" (The goat) Dominican children emulated El Jefe by constructing toy medals from bottle caps. His tyranny, historically known as "La Era de Trujillo" or "The Trujillo Era", is considered one of the bloodiest of the 20th century, as well as a time of a classic personality cult, when the monuments to Rafael Trujillo were in abundance.
His siblings, all of whom had power in the government, were Rosa María Julieta, Virgilio, José "Petán" Arizmendi, Amable "Pipi" Romero, Aníbal Julio, Nieves Luisa, Pedro Vetilio, Ofelia Japonesa and Héctor "Negro" Bienvenido Trujillo Molina.
His education was sporadic, with a few years at the Juan Hilario Meriño School and later at Pablo Barinas School. At the latter, he was a disciple of Eugenio María de Hostos. When he was 16 years old, his maternal uncle, Plinio Pina Chevalier, secured a job for him as telegraph operator. During the years up to 1916, it was rumored, but not proven, that he was a cattle rustler, a forger and an embezzler, working with his brother José Arizmendi (Petán).
In 1913, at the age of 22, Rafael Trujillo married Aminta Ledesma. Her parents, poor farmers of San Cristóbal, reluctantly allowed the marriage of their daughter to Trujillo, because she was already of questionable reputation, pregnant with Trujillo's first child.
By 1924 they had divorced. Trujillo, who now had better social standing, married Bienvenida Ricardo in 1925, a young woman from a rich family in Montecristi, which did not prevent him from continuing his extramarital love affairs begun with his earlier marriage.
The marriage fell into severe crisis when Trujillo succumbed to the woman who would be his third and last wife, María Martínez, from a respected family although of low social status. In 1937, Trujillo divorced Bienvenida (then pregnant with a girl, Odette) and married María.
María "La Españolita" had a son "Ramfis" when she was married to a Cuban, who rejected him as his son. Subsequently, Trujillo recognized him as his own. Ramfis was born on June 5, 1929. It was by 1935 that Trujillo married his mother. They had a son (Rhadamés) and a daughter (Angelita). Ramfis and Rhadamés were named after characters in Verdi's opera Aida. Also, throughout all this marriage his adulterous escapades were well known and documented, and he made no effort to hide them from anyone. An example of this was his love affair with Lina Lovatón Pittaluga, an upper-class debutante, shortly after marrying Martínez. But María Martínez was a dangerous woman, and Lovatón almost died from poisoning when it became known that Trujillo wanted to marry her.
Two of Trujillo's brothers, Héctor and José Arismendy, were also involved in the government. José Arismendy Trujillo oversaw the creation of "La Voz Dominicana", the main radio station and later, the television station which became the fourth in the continent.
The rebellion against President Vasquez broke out in 1930 in Santiago, and the rebels marched toward Santo Domingo. Trujillo was ordered to subdue the rebellion, but when the mutineers arrived to the capital on February 26, they encountered no resistance. Rebel leader Rafael Estrella was proclaimed as acting-president when Vásquez resigned. Trujillo then became the nominee of the newly-formed Dominican Party in the 1930 presidential election. He won on May 16, officially registering 95 percent of the votes--results that could have only been obtained by means of massive fraud. A judge actually declared the election fraudulent, but was forced to flee. On August 16, the then 38-year-old general took office, wearing a sash with the motto, "Dios y Trujillo" (God & Trujillo). He immediately assumed dictatorial powers.
Three weeks later, the destructive San Zenon hurricane hit Santo Domingo and left more than 3,000 dead. With relief money from the American Red Cross, Trujillo rebuilt the city. On August 16, 1931, the first anniversary of his inauguration, Trujillo made the Dominican Party the sole legal political party. However, the country had effectively been a one-party state since Trujillo had been sworn in. Government employees were required to "donate" 10 percent of their salary to the national treasury, and there was strong pressure on adult citizens to join the party. Party members were required to carry a membership card, the "palmita", and a person could be arrested for vagrancy without the card. Those who did not contribute, or join the party, did so at their own risk. Opponents of the regime were mysteriously killed. In 1934, Trujillo, who had promoted himself to generalissimo of the army, was up for re-election. Although he would have won in any case as there was virtually no organized opposition left in the country, Trujillo dispensed with such formalities. Instead, he relied upon "civic reviews", with large crowds shouting their loyalty to the government. In October 1937, Trujillo oversaw the massacre of Haitians, as described below.
At the suggestion of Mario Fermín Cabral, the congress voted overwhelmingly in 1936 to rename the capital from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo. The province of San Cristobal was created as "Trujillo", and the nation's highest peak, Pico Duarte was renamed in his honor. Statues of "El Jefe" were mass produced and erected across the Republic, and bridges and public buildings were named in his honor. The nation's newspapers now had praise for Trujillo as part of the front page, and license plates included the slogan "Viva Trujillo!" An electric sign was erected in Ciudad Trujillo so that "Dios y Trujillo" could be seen at night as well as in the day. Eventually, even churches were required to post the slogan, "Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra" (God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth). As time went on, the order was reversed (Trujillo on Earth, God in Heaven). Trujillo was recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize by his admirers, but the committee declined the suggestion. When El Jefe received (or summoned) a visitor, his four bodyguards would have submachineguns trained upon the "guest" during a meeting.
Trujillo was eligible to run again in 1938, but, citing the American example of two presidential terms, he stated that "I voluntarily, and against the wishes of my people, refuse re-election to the high office." His handpicked successor, 71 year old vice-president Jacinto Bienvenido Peynado, was nominated by the Dominican Party. The ticket of Peynado and Manuel de Jesus Troncoso won as they were the only candidates on the ballot. Meanwhile, Trujillo limited himself to being the "generalissimo". President Peynado increased size of the electric "Dios y Trujillo" sign, and died on March 7, 1940, with Troncoso serving out the rest of the term. In 1942, with FDR having run for a third term, Trujillo ran for president again, and won overwhelmingly. He served for ten years, and in 1952 stepped aside in favor of his brother, Hector Trujillo.
His daughter Angelita was designated "queen" of the 1955 "International Fair of Peace and Fraternity of the World," a pompous event that cost US$30 million, and his wife María Martínez, a semi-illiterate woman, was declared a writer and philosopher.
Even when not officially the president, Trujillo always exercised absolute power, leaving the ceremonial affairs of state to figureheads. Trujillo was known for his open-door policy, accepting Jewish refugees from Europe, and then exiles following the Spanish Civil War. At the same time, Trujillo developed a uniquely Dominican policy of racial discrimination known as Antihaitianismo (or "anti-Haitian") against the mostly-black Haitians. The receipt of refugees from Europe helped broaden the tax base and to "whiten" what had been a mixed-race nation. Caucasian refugees were favored over others, while Dominican troops were ordered to expel illegal aliens, the result being the 1937 Parsley Massacre of Haitian caneworkers. Claiming, in 1937, that Haiti was harboring his former Dominican opponents, Trujillo ordered an attack on the border, and thousands of Haitians were slaughtered while trying to escape. The number of the dead is still unknown, though it is now calculated between 8,000 and 15,000. It was speculated that Trujillo was hoping for a war with Haiti, and possible control of the entire island of Hispaniola. Instead, a financial settlement (of $525,000 in reparations) was paid to Haiti and apologies were made.
One of Trujillo's main goals was to equip the armed forces. Military personnel received generous pay and perks under his rule, and their ranks as well as equipment inventories expanded. Trujillo maintained control over the officer corps through fear, patronage, and the frequent rotation of assignments, which inhibited the development of strong personal followings. The other leading beneficiaries of the dictatorship--aside from Trujillo himself and his family--were those who associated themselves with the regime both politically and economically. The establishment of state monopolies over all major enterprises in the country brought riches to the Trujillos through the manipulation of prices and inventories as well as the outright embezzlement of funds. Ideologically, Trujillo leaned toward capitalism. However, Trujillo was not an ideologue, but a Dominican caudillo expanded to monstrous proportions by his absolute control of the nation's resources. His anti-communism tended toward a peaceful coexistence with Washington; during World War II Trujillo had sided with the Allies. As always, self-interest and the need to maintain his personal power guided Trujillo's actions. Trujillo encouraged diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S., but his policies often caused friction with other nations of Latin America, especially Costa Rica, and Venezuela.
Trujillo used fear and torture to maintain his tyranny. In 1994, Julia Alvarez published her novel, In the Time of the Butterflies telling the story of the torture and murders in 1960 of the Mirabal sisters for their roles in an underground movement to topple his government.
Trujillo began interfering more and more in the affairs of other nations. He did have cause to resent the leaders of some nations, such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, who assisted a small, abortive invasion attempt by dissident Dominicans in 1959. Trujillo, however, expressed greater concern over Venezuela's president Rómulo Betancourt (1959-64). An established and outspoken opponent of Trujillo, Betancourt had been associated with some individual Dominicans who had plotted against the dictator. Trujillo developed an obsessive personal hatred towards Betancourt and supported numerous plots of Venezuelan exiles to overthrow him. This pattern of intervention led the Venezuelan government to take its case against Trujillo to the Organization of American States (OAS). This development infuriated Trujillo, who ordered his foreign agents to plant a bomb inside Betancourt's car. The assassination attempt, carried out on June 24, 1960, injured but did not kill the Venezuelan president. Years before, the Spaniard Jesús de Galíndez, a professor at Columbia University in New York, had been kidnapped and murdered in the Dominican Republic.
The firestorm caused by the Betancourt incident inflamed world opinion against Trujillo. The members of the OAS, expressing this outrage, voted unanimously to sever diplomatic relations and to impose strong economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic.
Finally on the night of the May 30 1961, Rafael Trujillo was shot to death on San Cristobal Avenue, Santo Domingo. He was the victim of an ambush plotted by Modesto Diaz, Salvador Estrella Sadhalá, Antonio de la Maza, Amado García Guerrero, Manuel Cáceres Michel (Tunti), Juan Tomás Diaz, Roberto Pastoriza, Luis Amiama Tió, Antonio Imbert Barrera, Pedro Livio Cedeño, and Huáscar Tejeda. According to American reporter Bernard Diederich, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had supplied some of the guns used to kill the president. In a report to the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, CIA officials described the agency as having "no active part" in the assassination and only a "faint connection" with the groups that planned the killing. However, an internal CIA memorandum states that an Office of Inspector General investigation into Trujillo's murder disclosed "quite extensive Agency involvement with the plotters."
His funeral was that of a man of state, with the long procession ending in his hometown of San Cristóbal, where his body was first buried. Then-president Joaquín Balaguer gave the eulogy. After this, the people voted for the Trujillo family to leave the country, so his son, Ramfis Trujillo, came back to take his father's body away from the country. Trujillo was buried in Paris, in Cimetière du Père Lachaise Cemetery, at the request of his relatives.
Trujillo reorganized the state and the economy and left a vast infrastructure to the country. During this time the country more developed more stability and prosperity than before. However, this came at a great cost. Civil rights and freedoms were virtually nonexistent, and much of the country's wealth wound up in the hands of his family or close associates.
To this day, Trujillo's influence in bureaucracy, military and some aspects of the culture is still present. Incredibly, a few families and men who became powerful - or already were - during the regime, are untouchable, even if they are related to crimes or illegally possess money or lands.
There are Dominicans who still defend Trujillo, longing for the times of order and peace.