It is no question that in the 1920s, the Dominican Republic was in bad shape. Political instability is an understatement; the country had 28 revolutions in a 50 year span. The country was in debt to the US, for which repayment the United States took over the Dominican militarily, as well as taking control of the country’s customs and currency. The economy was small and stagnant; life expectancy was short. It is no wonder, then, that a man like Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina would come to power, ushering in a thirty year dictatorship in the name of “national greatness.”
In Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone sits the Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance, a small but well-curated series of exhibits from the rise of Trujillo through the turmoil following his 1961 assassination. While the displays are solely in Spanish, admission (less than $3) includes an audio guide in English.
When the United States occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916, some of the officers of the national police were trained by the US Marines. Rafael Trujillo was one of these. Born in 1891, his early life was characterized by his criminal acts, like cattle theft. After his time with the Marines, he rose to prominence in the national police, eventually heading it, and the new Dominican military. As such, in 1930, his forces were well-positioned to use intimidation tactics to ensure he was the only viable presidential candidate.
Trujillo’s early years in power were marked by a combination of economic growth (especially his own personal wealth) and a creation of a Dominican identity (one that he thought should be free of blacks). In 1937, Trujillo had the Dominican peso reinstated as official currency, replacing the US dollar. However, via his control over the central bank, more than 12% of the new currency went directly to him. During that same year, Trujillo embarked on a campaign of genocide against Haitians living in the country. Publicly, he said it was to reclaim jobs for Dominicans, but privately, he believed that Haitians (mostly black non-Catholics) were genetically inferior. (Trujillo himself was part Haitian, but was said to have used makeup to whiten his own skin in an effort to hide it.) Estimates range up to 30,000 massacred in less than a few months.
The self-styled Generalissimo (also called Chief or the Benefactor) created a widespread cult of personality around himself. This ranged from his appearance (impeccable dress uniforms to academic robes, all of which ended up in portraiture or statuary) to renaming much of the country for himself, including the capital Santo Domingo, which was officially Ciudad Trujillo from 1936 to 1962.
As the museum explains, Trujillo spent those earlier decades securing his own personal wealth and power. He would come to own more than half of the industry in the country, with an estimated net worth of more than $800 million by the time of his death. He installed loyalists into key posts in the government and military, exiled dissidents, took over the press, and rewarded his supporters with lush contracts for building a new nationwide infrastructure through which they could enrich themselves.
As Trujillo was able to fully consolidate power and control, his methods became more brutal. While early outspoken critics were able to leave the country, the 1950s and 1960-61 saw a huge increase in assassinations, both within the country and of anti-Trujillo voices elsewhere. Three events are specifically talked about in the museum as being key turning points in the regime.
In 1956, Trujillo ordered Spanish writer and politician Jesus Galindez kidnapped from New York, and ultimately murdered along with US citizen Gerald Murphy, who had flown the plane carrying Galindez back to the Dominican Republic. This led to a deteriorating of what had once been a cozy relationship with the US (more on that in a bit), once it was definitively proven that Trujillo himself ordered the event to take place.
In 1960, Minerva Mirabal and two of her sisters, leaders of an anti-Trujillo communist group, were murdered, their Jeep driven off the roadway as they returned from visiting their incarcerated husbands. Incredibly popular, their deaths (declared an accident by the regime) helped to stir up popular resentment.
Finally, also in 1960, Trujillo ordered the assassination of Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt. While Betancourt survived the attempt, it led to widespread international condemnation and sanctions, including by the US. This, in turn, caused rampant inflation within the Dominican Republic, and even more popular protest against the regime.
In May 1961, Trujillo’s car was ambushed driving along the coast between Ciudad Trujillo and his hometown of San Cristobal, a conspiracy assisted by the CIA, and led by former Trujillo loyalists. He died at the scene.
While Trujillo’s personal story ends there, the museum continues with the instability following the assassination. Trujillo’s son Ramfis and other loyalists embarked on a campaign of revenge against the conspirators and their families, and pro-Trujillo forces in the military overthrew the newly elected government of Juan Bosch in favor of Trujillo crony Joaquin Baleguer, with the help of the US.
The museum discusses American involvement at length, and not only in this final chapter. As in much of Latin America, the US meddled incessantly in the affairs of the Dominican Republic, not only looking the other way, but actively supporting Trujillo, first for his pro-American business interests (keeping the sugar and coffee coming at good prices for American consumers) and then for being anti-communist. Only when American support was seen as embarrassing due to the overreach of Trujillo and his attempted (and successful) political assassinations did that change, and even then with active involvement in arming the conspirators, only to help overthrow a more communist-sympathetic Bosch government after it was elected. It is painful for me to learn such things, but par for the course as I travel this part of the world.
The museum tour ends with a small exhibition on torture, featuring an electric chair (the Throne) used by Trujillo’s intelligence services. Disturbing is an understatement.
The Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance honors those who gave their lives to help restore Dominican democracy from a ruthless dictatorship. It also cautions that, while today some speak of the Trujillo era nostalgically due to its economic growth and a sense of pride, those things are remembered through incredibly rose-colored glasses. The truth of the era is one of violence, torture, subjugation, and even genocide.
One of the most rewarding parts of travel, for me, is to learn the histories (good and bad) of the places I visit. This is a chapter of Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic that is difficult to talk about, but important to learn and to remember.
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