Monday, April 30, 2012

T is for Trujillo

My A-Z of the Dominican Republic continues with letter T and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina who was the President of the Dominican Republic for 30 years.  As Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and we went to the cinema to see ‘101 Dalmatians’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, Trujillo was busy being one of the worst tyrants ever in the history of Latin America, responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 people.

Trujillo was born on 24 October 1891 in San Cristobal, to the west of the capital Santo Domingo, and was the third of eleven children in a working class family. His grandmother was Haitian and later in life he wore pancake make-up to lighten the traces of colour he had inherited from her. As a child he was a petty thief and also liked to collect  bottle tops which were called chapitas and so he was known as El Chapita. He hated the name and when he became President he banned the word from the vocabulary.
He had various jobs including a telegraph operator, but when the US invaded the Dominican Republic in 1916 they established a National Guard which he joined. He rose rapidly through the ranks to become a Lieutenant and then a General and in May 1930, using strong arm tactics he won the elections and was declared President.
From the start he used brutal oppression of actual or perceived members of any opposition and his death squad would drive through the streets in a red Packard, known as the death car.

He was obsessed with race and status and in 1937 was told that the Haitians in the border area were taking jobs away from Dominicans, especially in the sugar industry, and were stealing animals and crops. On 2 October 1937, whilst drunk at a party in Dajabon on the border with Haiti he gave orders for the solution to the Haitian problem by saying,

 “To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labour, I have responded, ‘I will fix this.’ And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Bánica. This remedy will continue”

All along the border, Trujillo's men asked anyone with dark skin to identify sprigs of parsley which they held up. Haitians have problems with the ‘r’ in the Spanish word for parsley, "perejil." If they could not pronounce it, they were killed with machetes which the Dominican soldiers used so they could say the carnage was the work of peasants defending themselves. Had they used bullets it would be easily identified as government work as only the government could afford bullets.
The massacre was henceforth known as El Corte, the cutting, alluding to the machetes, or the Parsley Massacre and people living in the far north west of the Dominican Republic at that time remember hundreds of Haitian body parts being washed up on the beaches.

Jewish refugees in Sosua

There was condemnation of the Parsley Massacre and to try and improve his international popularity, whilst at the same time continue with his plan to ‘whiten’ the Dominican population, Trujillo offered to take Jewish refugees.

Around 5000 arrived, however many left for the US and the 700 who remained founded the community of Sosua. Unfortunately for Trujillo many were married and of those who were not, very few went on to marry Dominicans, so his ‘whitening’ plan did not succeed.

Known as El Jefe meaning the Boss, he was a total megalomaniac. He changed the name of the capital from Santo Domingo to Cuidad Trujillo; the name of the highest mountain from Pico Duarte to Pico Trujillo. He insisted that churches use the slogan, “Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra” which means “God in heaven, Trujillo on earth.”  He had an insatiable sexual appetite and people would try and send their daughters away, rather than risk them being taken by Trujillo. Refusal to hand over your daughter resulted in death.

The Mirabel sisters

By the late 1950s, opposition to Trujillo's regime was starting to build to a fever pitch. A younger generation of Dominicans began to call for democracy which was met with even greater repression. However, the repression began to lead to international condemnation and the Venezuelan president, Romulo Betancourt was outspoken against him. Trujillo responded by arranging for an assassination attempt, a car bombing which injured but did not kill Betancourt. This incident inflamed world opinion and diplomatic relations were severed by many countries. Trujillo became increasingly paranoid and on Friday November 25 1960 he gave the order to murder the three Mirabel sisters, Patria, Maria Teresa and Minerva. The sisters, known as the Butterflies after Minerva’s underground code name, were outspoken opponents of Trujillo and were beaten to death. Trujillo had now become an embarrassment to the USA, whose Secretary of State had previously said, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.”

On May 30 1961, whilst driving to the home of his mistress in San Cristobal, Trujillo’s car was ambushed and a wounded Trujillo exited the car in order to fire back at his attackers. He was subsequently riddled with bullets, and killed. Some say the Americans were behind the assassination, given he was such an embarrassment; others say it was organized from within the country with no external assistance.

Trujillo's car after the ambush

Supporters of Trujillo claim that he reorganized both the country and the economy. He built roads, schools, ports, airports, infrastructure, and paid off all the foreign debt.   They say his rule saw more stability and prosperity than most living Dominicans had previously known. And even today, in fact more often as crime increases, he is seen as a guardian of law and discipline, and more and more people are saying, “What we need is another Trujillo”. They speak with fondness about the fact you could leave money lying in the street and no one would take it. There is a growing nostalgia for the social order he imposed.

Monument at the spot where Trujillo was assassinated

His opponents claim that civil rights and freedoms in the Trujillo era were virtually nonexistent, and much of the country's wealth wound up in the hands of his family or close associates. It cannot be denied however that this one man had a profound influence on the Dominican Republic.


  1. Really nice post. I was particularly interested in your comment that "There is a growing nostalgia for the social order he imposed." I have not seen that in my limited political conversations, but my spanish is still in it's infancy, so my political interests far surpass my ability to converse with my Dominican family and friends.

    As an American who was schooled in the northeast, I find there is so much rich history on our doorstep (in addition to the familiar European history), that we are not privy to. This guy was a world class monster, yet very few Americans know of him.

    And yes I second the vote for UASD for your "U" entry. The Santo Domingo location (don't know about the others), is an interesting place, with it's strikes, Professors who do not show up for classes, etc...and students taking a decade or more to complete studies....all new to me!!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post. The comment about nostalgia is amongst the over 60s really who perhaps living in the campo and had no idea what was going on. They just remember the lack of delinquency. Good idea re UASD - I will start researching it!

  3. Lindsay,
    I do not know if you have seen this documentary called " Black In Latin America" produce by a Harvard Professor Dr. Louis Gates. When he covered this part of Dominican history I was shocked that when he asked the majority of Dominicans how they classified themselves racially and ethnically they used adjectives like " Indio, Moreno, Taino but never once black. The irony was most of them would be considered black in the USA. I am not sure how they would function in a world outside of the Dominican where there reality of race is very skewed. I find it pretty sad that they cannot accept ,acknowledge or embrace their black heritage. If it is not too personal can you tell me How does your husband and sons describe themselves.

    1. Race in the Dominican Republic is a very complex issue but basically the lighter skin you have the better. The people are a mix of Spanish settlers, Taino indians and black slaves. The Spanish were encouraged to marry the native indians and the slaves hence most people in the country are brown or mulatto. Although it is true that the majority of Dominicans prefer to be lighter, there is less overt race discrimination here than anywhere I know - I have never had any issues being white with a black husband. My husband describes himself as Indio - that is what it says on his cedula - the national identity card. Most people like that description not just for the colour connotation but because they like the idea of being descended from the original settlers. One of the reasons they do not want to be black is they see that as Haitian - a country with which they were at war on and off for years. It really is a complex subject - perhaps I should blog on it sometime!

  4. In response to the last post, I have been going to the Dominican Republic for the last 10 years and I can definitely say that the color of ones skin is very real reality of how they will be treated at the condo that I stay at the gate-men are very dark skin and I assume are of Haitian descent, they are treated very poorly its almost embarrassing.

    My other point is I live quite close to Washington Heights in NYC which has a very high DR population and the reality that the Dominicans have to face quite quickly when they come to the states is regardless of how light their skin appears the world sees them as being black. Also they soon realized that they are Afro-Americans and other blacks in the US that are way lighter than they are and are categorized as black. But I guess it is understandable when one considers the history, however, its 2012 and lots of changes have happen in the world since then where blacks have contributed so much to the world and have risen to great social , economic and political heights. I guess Lots of education needs to happen in the DR.

    1. It is hard for me to explain as personally I just don't see colour and I don't really think Dominicans do - they see Haitian. There are also black Dominicans who are known as cocolos whose grandparents came from the English Caribbean islands to cut cane here years ago. I can imagine it would be a shock for Dominicans to be considered black in the USA, just as we English find it hard to understand how a person with a small amount of black blood can say they are black when they look white. In my experience black Americans have a totally different outlook on race to Dominicans, but the latter have not the same history nor have been subjected to the same appalling prejudices, although I know there is prejudice against some Haitians. I don't see the need for education as to how much blacks have achieved, as they are fiercely proud of being Dominican which is more important to them than the colour of their skin.

    2. Joer Lindsay, realmente me encantó leer tu comentario...

  5. I agree with everything you have written except: ...."I know there is prejudice against some Haitians." I think there is tremendous prejudice against most Haitians. The ways that I have seen Haitians treated is horrible. It is like they are animals and not humans. I agree that is not the dark color of their skin as much as it is the fact that they are Haitians.

    1. Maybe I have just been lucky. When I arrived here 11 years ago I could speak no Spanish, but I could speak French. So most of my friends then were Haitian as I could speak with them. i have always had Dominican and Haitian friends and neighbours since then, and the only prejudice I saw was the police rounding up the illegal Haitians to send them home. However I know that some Dominicans are anti Haitian - but not all. The history between the two countries is a long and bloody one, and I don't claim to understand the real roots of the problem.

  6. A fascinating story, supremely well told, Lindsay! I've read that the USA's rulers have never forgiven Haiti (the Haitians) for killing almost all the white plantation owners during it fight for independence from France. Could be, I suppose. I wonder if the wars between Haiti and DR have had anything to do with the US's determination to control its Caribbean backyard. I visited both nations way back in 1966 on a budget vacation by myself, and was very kindly treated by both sets of people. So I'm neutral, though I feel more for the Haitians.

    1. There was definitely USA control here. When Trujillo died the US came in again - I think the threat of communism scared them. It must have been a very different country in 1966 than now, and I agree that both sets of people are very friendly. Hopefully one day the Haitian people will have a Haiti they can earn a good living in but I don't see that day coming any time soon.