The Legacy of Trujillo

David Gorgani | KF17 | Dominican Republic

Rafael Trujillo

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, El Generalissimo

Today marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the strong-handed dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.  Otherwise known as El Jefe (the boss), El Benefactor, El Chivo (the goat) and La Chapita (bottle cap), Trujillo was known for his deep egocentrism.  Here are some examples of Generalissimo Trujillo’s ego in action:

1) For 25 years, Santo Domingo – the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas – was officially named “Ciudad Trujillo”

2) Under Trujillo, the highest peak in the Dominican Republic (and the Caribbean) was renamed from Pico Duarte to “Pico Trujillo”

3) Trujillo erected hundreds of monuments across the country in his honor, and named numerous cities and public works after himself

Still, much more significant than the Trujillo’s unique personality and unrivaled sense of self-worth was his iron-fisted rule.  While the notorious black Volkswagen Beetles of Trujillo’s SIM, or secret police, roamed the streets collecting alleged enemies of the state for imprisonment, torture and execution, Trujillo pursued a series of erratic and often contradictory policies.  While Trujillo left the doors of the Dominican Republic wide open to immigrants from Asia and Europe (including Jews fleeing Europe during World War II), he also oversaw the killing of tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants in what has been termed the “Parsley Massacre”.  And while the Dominican economy expanded significantly under Trujillo’s rule, Trujillo’s close friends and family saw a disproportionate augment to their wealth.  Through his strong anti-communist policies, Trujillo was able to gain the support of the United States, although that support waned as Trujillo’s days neared their end.

As a bit of a fanatic of political history, I’ve spent a great deal of time asking around in taxis, on buses, on the street, in colmados (think the intersection of a convenience store and a bar), and at work about how Dominicans feel about Trujillo.  I’ve heard responses all across the board, some of which were exactly what I expected and some of which came as a big surprise.

Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, originally “Trujillo’s Monument to Peace,” in Santiago de los Caballeros

Of course, the most interesting conversations (as well as the most fun conversations) have been with the “old-timers” who remember what it was like to live under Trujillo’s regime.  In addition to the extravagant (and dubious) stories about how many illegitimate children the Generalissimo has (some say in the hundreds), the majority of these individuals are also quick to recall their complete lack of civil liberties under Trujillo.  The “old-timers” often reference the subjects that simply were not discussed, and many have friends and family that disappeared for various periods of time.

Nonetheless, despite Trujillo’s many ills, a number of the people with whom I’ve discussed this theme have also referenced the ways in which life was better under Trujillo.  Although the Dominican Republic is a relatively safe country, many nostalgically recall the days when people didn’t lock their doors or when the streets of Santo Domingo were safe at all hours.  Many also express concern about the growing income discrepancy in the Dominican Republic and refer to the lower level of extreme poverty (although I’m on the fence about how much I confide in this claim.)

Don’t get the wrong idea, Dominicans overwhelmingly view Trujillo’s iron rule as a dark period in their history.  Still, I’ve been fascinated by the consistently nuanced responses I’ve received from the people I’ve talked to.  Nobody has responded to the question: “How do Dominicans feel about Trujillo?” with good or bad; the norm is generally a long, drawn-out explanation of why it’s such a complicated question.  And that is exactly why I’ve continued asking…

[Source of biographical information: Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator by Robert Crassweller, published in 1966 by MacMillan, New York]

David Gorgani is a Kiva Fellow serving in the Dominican Republic, helping ASPIRE get started as a Kiva Field Partner, helping Esperanza International with borrower verifications, and attempting to learn salsa and merengue on the side.

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