Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, assumed near-absolute control of the Caribbean nation in 1930. While successful in reducing foreign debt, modernizing his country and fostering greater economic prosperity for the Dominican people, Trujillo and his heinous human rights abuses—including the torture and murder of thousands of civilians—managed to escape rebuke from the international community for decades.
Although his reputation became tarnished after reports of a massacre against an estimated 20,000 Haitians became public in 1937, it wasn’t until his failed assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt in 1960 that the Organization of American States (OAS) finally voted to sever relations with the brutal dictator. A year later, Trujillo was killed by a group of rebels determined to topple his regime.
Rafael Trujillo's Early Years
Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was the third of 11 children, born to working-class parents in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, on October 24, 1891. After receiving an elementary education, he worked as a telegraph operator and a guard on a sugar cane plantation.
During the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, Trujillo joined the Constabulary Guard and was trained by U.S. Marines. His military career quickly progressed and by 1927 he was named commander in chief of the National Army.
Trujillo's Absolute Power
In 1930, a group of rebels under the leadership of Rafael Estrella Urena planned to overthrow Dominican President Horacio Vasquez for disregarding the constitution by extending his presidential term. General Trujillo, with whom Urena had previously made an arrangement, held his troops back as the revolution unfolded, maintaining his neutrality. With Vasquez in exile and control of the government up for grabs, Trujillo eliminated his political rivals through intimidation or force and won a rigged presidential election in 1930 unchallenged, ushering in the “Era of Trujillo.”
Within months of taking over the presidency, the capital city of Santo Domingo was virtually destroyed and some 2,000 people were killed by a powerful hurricane that ripped through the Dominican Republic in early September. Trujillo responded by placing the country under martial law and quickly began to clear the debris and rebuild the city. Six years later he renamed the capital Cuidad Trujillo in his honor, along with thousands of other streets, monuments and landmarks throughout the country.
During his oppressive dictatorship Trujillo was credited with improving sanitation, constructing new roads, schools and hospitals, and increasing the general standard of living for the Dominican people. But his practice of securing kickbacks on all public works contracts and monopolizing a vast array of lucrative industries ensured that the increase in economic prosperity was disproportionately distributed to his family, supporters and military personnel.
Despite the fact that he technically ceded the presidency to his brother Hector in 1952 and 1957 and installed Joaquin Balaguer in 1960, Trujillo retained ultimate control over the Dominican Republic for 31 years. The secret police force he established included a widespread network of spies that was used to censor the press and to threaten, expel, torture or kill dissenters in orchestrated accidents or “suicides.”
Before a definitive border had been established in 1936, disputes between the Dominican Republic and the neighboring country of Haiti had persisted for centuries. Trujillo feared the “darkening” of Dominican people and publicly promoted anti-Haitian sentiments. In October 1937, in an incident known as the Parsley Massacre, Trujillo ordered the slaughter of an estimated 20,000 Haitians. Punishment for the atrocities amounted to an agreement in which a paltry US$525,000 was paid to the Haitian government.
Trujillo Era Ends
Years later, after discovering that the Venezuelan government of President Romulo Betancourt was plotting to undermine his regime, Trujillo retaliated by sending agents to assassinate Betancourt in Caracas with a car bomb in 1960. The bomb exploded, killing two people, but Betancourt survived with injuries. News of the failed assassination attempt infuriated world leaders and prompted the Organization of American States (OAS) to dissolve diplomatic ties and impose economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, underground resistance movements had arisen in opposition to the dictator since the 1940s, but they were often swiftly suppressed, as in the case of the three revolutionary Mirabal sisters who were brutally beaten and killed by Trujillo’s henchmen in a staged car accident in 1960.
READ MORE: How the Mirabal Sisters Helped Topple a Dictator
On May 30, 1961, however, Rafael Trujillo was ambushed while traveling in his car and gunned down by seven assassins, some of whom were members of his own armed forces.
Following his assassination, the Trujillo family was unable to maintain control over the Dominican Republic, and the capital city of Santo Domingo soon regained its former name.
80 Years On, Dominicans And Haitians Revisit Painful Memories Of Parsley Massacre. NPR.
'I shot the cruellest dictator in the Americas.' BBC.
Oct. 2, 1937: Parsley Massacre. Zinn Education Project.
Biography of Rafael Trujillo, "Little Caesar of the Caribbean." ThoughtCo.
The United States and the Trujillo Dictatorship, 1933-1940: The High Price of Caribbean Stability. Carribean Studies.
International Boundary Study: Dominican Republic - Haiti Boundary. U.S. Department of State.