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Rafael Trujillo 

By Sophia Charania '27


Rafael Trujillo, a name connected with tyranny, once said, “He who does not know how to deceive does not know how to rule.” True to his word, he ruled the Dominican Republic through fear, lies, and violence. The question is: how did such a terrible man acquire so much power? 


 It all started when Trujillo joined the military. He started in the military when he was about 18 years old. He quickly moved up through the ranks and became the commander-in-chief of the National Army in 1927. His role in the military allowed him to command power without  becoming president. In 1930 however, he became president by colluding with Rafael Ureña. They brought together a group of rebels and overthrew the original government. Trujillo took the presidency with force, and anyone who tried to run against him was killed. By using the threat of death, Trujillo garnered a majority of the votes and won the election. 

Later during Trujillo’s rule, a hurricane killed thousands of people in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo used this natural disaster to his advantage. While he did provide relief and try to rebuild the country, he did it for himself. In a time of disaster, he used propaganda and controlled the media to appear as a savior. By heavily censoring the media, he let the people see only what he wanted them to see, which left citizens with a lot of false information. During the rebuilding of the country, Trujillo had many statues of himself built, and he named many roads after himself. He used this time of uncertainty and disaster to gain trust, thus increasing his power. 


Even though Trujillo was a corrupt, authoritarian president, he was credited with establishing order in the Dominican Republic, creating more infrastructures, and building up the economy. These accomplishments made him look like a hero, but he did not do what he did out of the goodness of his heart. According to, “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.”  Thus, the “good” Trujillo did was intended to benefit him personally and increase the money he was bringing in. 

Building a bunch of buildings does not excuse him for what he’s done, but it does explain, at least in part, why so many people supported him. One of his supporters was the United States. According to a U.S. State Department official, “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 United States. So that was fine with us.” And the United States was not the only country that supported Trujillo during this time, Under Batista’s rule, Cuba also supported Trujillo. Yet after the Cuban Revolution, relations between the two countries ceased. Numerous countries supported each other because of their ideologies. For example, the dictators in Nicaragua and El Salvador voiced support for Trujillo. It is no coincidence that these dictators decided to support one another. 

Trujillo was also an incredibly racist man. In October of 1937, he ordered the killing of roughly 20,000 Haitians. This is known as the Parsley Massacre. The tension between the Dominican Republic and Haiti started long before Trujillo and was influenced by many factors, including politics, language differences, economic difficulties, and more. The two countries had been alienated from each other before, and Trujillo's racist views did nothing to improve their relationship. However, the Parsley Massacre was not the tragic event that brought Trujillo down. His punishment for killing 20,000 people resulted in an agreement where merely $525,000 was paid to the Haitian government. That means only $26.25 was paid in compensation for each human life. It’s outrageous to think that Trujillo got away with paying such a measly amount.

In addition to ripping people off, there were a lot of shady things going on behind the scenes, such as Trujillo’s secret service that would cover up for him. This service was known as SIM, standing for Servicio de Inteligencia Militar. The SIM would arrest people, torture them, and kill people who threatened Trujillo’s regime. These murders would be covered up (by the SIM) as “suicides.” People were afraid of the SIM, so they would do what was necessary to avoid it, including supporting someone they hated. The SIM instilled fear in people because its members had no problem being ruthless to innocent people.

You would think Trujillo might have stopped killing people because he feared being caught, but no. Instead, he decided to assassinate the president of Venezuela, Rómulo Betancourt. Trujillo had heard that the president was planning to oppose him and his form of government, so Trujillo decided to have Betancourt killed. He must have thought that was a quick and easy way to remain in power, but it was not that simple. A wrench was thrown into his plans when the assassination attempt failed. Although the bomb that had been planted in the car did explode, killing two people, it did not kill President Betancourt. When word got out about the failed assassination attempt, many people were furious, including the Organization of American States. For this reason, the United States finally stopped supporting Trujillo.

Following the attempt to assassinate President Betancourt, Trujillo killed the Mirabel sisters (Las Mariposas). These sisters were members of an anti-Trujillo movement and were, unlike Trujillo, real heroes. They fought for everyone and played a pivotal role in Trujillo’s eventual downfall. Trujillo didn’t want these activists to get in his way so, to prevent this from happening, the SIM staged a car crash to cover up the death of three of the four sisters. However, a car crash does not begin to explain what really happened to them. They were brutally beaten to death. Then their bodies were moved to make it look like their car had fallen off a cliff and they had died in the crash. These sisters were very well-known activists, and when news got out that they had died, people were outraged. This was the final strike against Trujillo. It was agreed that he had finally gone too far. His actions would no longer be tolerated.

On May 30, 1961, Trujillo was ambushed and shot to death with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It’s important to note that, while the CIA is funded by the United States government, it is an independent agency. This means that the agency is allowed to handle a situation in any way it sees fit, without approval from another branch of the government. While many people were happy that Trujillo was dead, the reaction to his death was mixed. Groups such as the military and countries like Nicaragua, and Honduras had benefited from his rule. 

The story of the Trujillo dictatorship serves as a reminder of how ideologies can impact society for the worse. Trujillo’s influence over the Dominican Republic did not end with his death.  After he died, his son Ramfis Trujillo took control and tried to rule in the same way that his father had. Rafael Trujillo’s ruthlessness and cruelty have not been forgotten, and his impact has made it challenging for the Dominican Republic to turn a new page.

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