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Rafael Trujillo

President of the Dominican Republic

Rafael Trujillo

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina was the third of eleven children born to a middle class family in San Cristóbal on October 24, 1891. He received his education from informal schools held in villagers' homes. At the age of 16 he got a job as a telegraph operator, but lost that job after joining a street gang and committing a series of crimes that ended with an arrest for forging a check.

Marriages and Children

In 1916 he married Aminta Ledesima, with whom he had two daughters -- Genoveva, who was born and died in 1914, and Flor de Oro Trujillo Ledesma, born in 1915 and who later married Porfirio Rubirosa. The marriage ended his criminal career, and that same year he got a job on a sugar plantation. Trujillo's marriage to Ledesima ended in divorce in 1925. In 1927, he married Bienvenida Ricardo, with whom he had one daughter, Odette Trujillo Ricardo. This marriage ended in divorce in 1935, the same year he married María de los Angeles Martínez Alba, with whom he had been having an affair since about 1928. This affair and marriage resulted in three children -- Rafael Leonidas Ramfis, born on June 5, 1929; María de los Angeles del Sagrado Corazón de Jesus, born in Paris on June 10, 1939; and Leonidas Rhadamés, born on December 1, 1942. In 1937, he began having an affair with Lina Lovatón Pittaluga, with whom he had two more children -- Yolanda, in 1939, and Rafael, born on June 20, 1943.

Rise to Power

In 1916 the United States sent an occupying force to the Dominican Republic to prevent the country from defaulting on foreign debts. The U.S. Marines established a Dominican National Guard to impose order, and Trujillo joined that force in 1919. Trujillo took to military life easily, and had risen to the rank of General by the time U.S. occupation ended in 1925.

In February of 1930, a rebellion against President Horacio Vásquez broke out in Santiago. Trujillo secretly cut a deal with rebel leader Rafael Estrella Ureña; in return for allowing Estrella to take power, Trujillo would be allowed to run for president in new elections. As the rebels marched toward Santo Domingo, Vásquez ordered Trujillo to suppress them, but Trujillo kept his men in their barracks. On March 3, Estrella was proclaimed acting president, and Trujillo was named head of the police and army. By the time presidential elections were held on May 16, Estrella had been pushed aside by Trujillo, who emerged victorious with "99 percent" of the vote. The president-elect immediately began to arrest opponents and take other dictatorial measures even before being sworn in on June 16.


Three weeks after Trujillo took office, Santo Domingo was devastated by a hurricane. With money from the American Red Cross, Trujillo completely rebuilt the city.

At the same time he was rebuilding the capital city, Trujillo was also strengthening his hold on power. By the time he came up for re-election in 1934, Trujillo had eliminated all organized opposition and, not surprisingly, was re-elected as the sole candidate on the ballot. By 1936 Trujillo's hold on the Dominican Republic had become so strong that he was able to get Congress to change the name of the capital city to Ciudad Trujillo; in addition, the province of San Cristóbal was changed to "Trujillo", and the nation's highest peak, Pico Duarte, was renamed Pico Trujillo. Trujillo also had statues of himself erected across the country, and numerous buildings and public structures were named in his honor; many other buildings, streets, landmarks, and other structures were named for various members of his family.

Trujillo was eligible to run again in 1938, but, citing the U.S. example of two presidential terms, he stated: "I voluntarily, and against the wishes of my people, refuse re-election to the high office." Trujillo's handpicked successor, 71 year old vice-president Jacinto Peynado, was subsequently elected to succeed him. Peynado died in 1940, and his term was finished by his Vice-President, Manuel de Jesús Troncoso. Although he was officially out of office, Trujillo's control over Dominican affairs never waned, and neither Peynado not Troncoso exercised more than ceremonial functions of state.

In 1942, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt having run for a third term in the United States, Trujillo ran for president again and was elected unopposed. He served for two terms, which he had lengthened to five years each. In 1952, he ceded the presidency to his brother, Héctor. Despite being officially out of power, Trujillo organized a major national celebration to commemorate twenty-five years of his rule in 1955 that included having gold and silver commemorative coins minted with his image.

Although Trujillo maintained his hold over the Dominican government primarily through suppression of opposition, the majority of Dominican citizens saw their standard of living improve. Under Trujillo, all major industries in the country were placed under government control, foreign debt was eliminated, the currency was stabilized, the middle class expanded, and the literacy rate was greatly improved. Even Trujillo's desire to have his name on as many structures as possible helped his country, as it resulted in major improvements to the nation's infrastructure. And, he managed to accomplish all of these things while simultaneously padding his own bank accounts.

Despite his violent suppression of opposition, Trujillo's strongly anti-Communist sentiments initially made him a friend of the United States and other nations. That friendship was challenged in 1937, however, when Trujillo ordered the massacre of some 20,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic in retaliation for the discovery and execution by the Haitian government of his most valued covert agents in that country. When news of the atrocity reached the United States, Secretary of State Cordell Hull demanded internationally mediated negotiations for a settlement and indemnity. Trujillo finally agreed to a payment of $750,000 to Haiti, but by the next year the amount had been reduced to $525,000. Although the affair damaged Trujillo's international image, it did not result in any direct efforts by the United States or by other countries to force him from power.

Trujillo's standing in the international community began waning after World War II, as his direct involvement in plots against other Latin American leaders increased. One leader he plotted against was Cuba's Fidel Castro, who had aided a small, abortive invasion attempt by dissident Dominicans in 1959. While the United States was willing to tolerate Trujillo as long as he was a mutual enemy of Castro, it could not support Trujillo's actions against Venezuela's President Rómulo Betancourt. An established and outspoken opponent of Trujillo, Betancourt had been associated with some individual Dominicans who had plotted against the dictator. In return, Trujillo supported numerous plots of Venezuelan exiles to overthrow Betancourt. This pattern of intervention led the Venezuelan government to take its case against Trujillo to the Organization of American States (OAS). This development infuriated Trujillo, who ordered his foreign agents to assassinate Betancourt. The attempt, on June 24, 1960, injured, but did not kill, the Venezuelan president. The incident inflamed world opinion against Trujillo, and the OAS voted unanimously to sever diplomatic relations and to impose economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic. The "Betancourt Incident" forced the United States to review its policy toward Trujillo. In August 1960, the United States embassy in Santo Domingo was downgraded to consular level.

On May 30, 1961, Trujillo was assassinated by a group of machine gun-wielding men on a road outside the capital. The plotters failed to take control immediate of the government, however, and Trujillo's family was able to get Rafael Trujillo, Jr. installed in his father's place before any foreign government could intervene in Dominican affairs. The Trujillo family was unable to hold power long, however, as a military uprising later that same year forced Rafael Jr. out of office. Initially prevented from leaving the country, Rafael Jr. was allowed to relocate his father's remains from the cemetery in San Cristóbal to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris, France, on August 14, 1964; six years later they were moved to the El Pardo cemetery near Madrid, Spain.

See Also

Rafael Leonidas Ramfis Trujillo, Jr.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Cordell Hull
World War II
Fidel Castro

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The Robinson Library >> Dominican Republic

This page was last updated on 09/05/2018.