"The Rise of Trujillo" by Lauren Derby, Ph.D.

Derby is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (2010).

Son of a cattle rustler, Rafael Trujillo rose up through the ranks of the U.S.-formed National Guard, taking power in a thinly disguised coup in 1930. A mestizo, his mother from a wealthy Haitian family who had moved to Santo Domingo during the Haitian Occupation (1822-44), Trujillo was a social outsider who represented a populist challenge to the liberal elites who had ruled since independence, and their doctrine of open markets and export agriculture which had transformed the economy into a monoculture based on sugar grown for the U.S. market and largely with first West Indian and later Haitian labor.

As the economy crashed during the Great Depression, this model came to be seen as a disastrous failure, and support grew for a nationalist strongman who would protect Dominican sovereignty by establishing protectionist economic measures and firm borders through keeping out the U.S. Marines, and Haitian migrants. He did this by buying out much of the sugar economy, encouraging import substitution, as well as to the savage slaughter in 1937 of upwards of 20,000 Haitian-descended border residents, most of whom had  lived peacefully for generations on Dominican soil, and were thus Dominicans by the constitution. During the 1930 San Zenón hurricane, which razed the capital city of Santo Domingo as most of the downtown was reduced to rubble, Trujillo cast himself as a man of people, and was a constant presence on the streets, assisting the homeless and directing medical aid. 

Yet in actual fact he established a form of rule based on wide-scale repression and crony capitalism, as the commanding heights of the economy were turned over to himself, his family and his close associates.  He burnished a populist political image through employing official panegyrists who wrote books extolling the virtues of his modernization and development of the nation through public works.  One of these writers was Sander Ariza, whose propagandistic text titled Trujillo, The Man and his Country (which was paid for and published by the regime) was described in characteristic understatement by Foreign Affairs as a "very friendly portrait of the Dominican ‘strongman’."  Texts of this kind helped burnish Trujillo’s image as a progressive nationalist, notwithstanding and rule of terror which included the murder of political enemies as far away as New York, and extensive corruption in which he siphoned off enough cash to make him one of the richest men in the Americas by the 1950s.