Dictators in history: Rafael Trujillo

Today, in honour of the fact that Revolution Day is one of my publisher, Crooked Cat’s featured books this week (and available for only 99p/99c!), I thought I would do another in my occasional series of blog posts about the lives of historical dictators, looking for similarities and differences between their careers and characters and those of my own fictional dictator, Carlos Almanzor. This time, the focus is on Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was born on October 24 1891 to a lower middle-class family in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. His early life did not show much promise: he worked as a telegraph operator and later spent time in prison. However, after joining the Army in 1918 and receiving training from the US Marines who were then occupying the country, he enjoyed a meteoric rise from lieutenant to general in nine years, becoming Commander-in-Chief.

When Rafael Estrella Urena launched a coup d’état in 1930 against President Horacio Vasquez, Trujillo cut a secret deal with Estrella and kept the Army on the sidelines, allowing Estrella to oust Vasquez and become acting President. In return, Trujillo was supported in the subsequent election, becoming President on 16 June 1930 with Estrella as his Vice-President. Estrella departed two years later, but Trujillo remained in office until 1938, before nominally handing over to a figurehead President, Jacinto Peynado. Trujillo was President again from 1942 to 1952, stepping down this time in favour of his own brother, Hector. Nevertheless, Trujillo continued to retain ultimate power until his death.

During the so-called ‘Era de Trujillo’ the Dominican Republic enjoyed relative stability and prosperity. However, this came at a heavy price. Even in a region and an era notorious for dictators, Trujillo stands out for his egotism and ruthless brutality. Numerous actual and potential opponents of the regime were subjected to imprisonment, torture, execution or assassination, at first by armed gangs loyal to Trujillo, and later by the apparatus of the state itself. Those living abroad were not immune – in 1960 Trujillo even ordered an assassination attempt on the President of Venezuela.

Trujillo took advantage of his power to enrich himself and his family, acquiring money, land and businesses; and to indulge his prodigious sexual appetite. He developed the cult of personality to an absurd degree: the country’s capital and highest peak were given his name, and churches were required to put up signs saying “Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra” (God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth). He wore so many medals that he earned the nickname “chapitas” (bottlecaps).

Though he welcomed immigrants to the country, including Jewish refugees from Europe, Trujillo had a markedly different attitude to its mostly black Haitian neighbours, despite being of partly Haitian ancestry himself. He ordered the notorious ‘Parsley massacre’ of thousands of Haitian migrants in October 1937.

Trujillo’s eventual downfall came at the hands of a group of conspirators including disaffected generals, who ambushed his car on 30 May 1961. The assassination was the subject of a novel (and later film), The Feast of the Goat, by Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

Trujillo and Carlos

I did not have Trujillo in mind when I created the character of Carlos, but there are nevertheless some obvious parallels between the two. One thing they share is their long reign. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic, as President or wielding de facto power behind a figurehead, between 1930 and 1961. At the start of Revolution Day, Carlos has been in power for 37 years.

Retaining absolute power for decades through the vicissitudes of politics and economics does not come easy, as Carlos discovered early in his presidency. Something of an idealist when he first came to power, over time Carlos has adopted some of the dictatorial measures employed by Trujillo from the very outset of his presidency. Thus he has resorted to blatant rigging of elections, the arrest, torture, execution and sometimes assassination of dissidents and other potential threats; and the cult of his own personality, his rise to power being mythologised in numerous bad films.

Another factor in the lives of both men, in common with many historical dictators, is the fact that their power is ultimately dependent on the Army. Whereas Trujillo was himself a soldier, Carlos (despite his Admiral’s uniform) has no military background and is dependent upon the loyalty of the Minister of Defence, his long-standing comrade Angel. Once the support of the Army is lost, a dictator is finished, as Trujillo’s own fate dramatically shows. Carlos’s ambitious vice-president, Manuel, knows this, and the plot of the novel centres around his efforts, through intrigue, misinformation and blackmail, to drive a wedge between Carlos and Angel in order to secure power for himself.

There is, notwithstanding these similarities, a fundamental difference in the characters of the two men. Trujillo’s career was characterised throughout by a ruthless, all-consuming desire for power and the rewards it brings. Thus, from the very outset, he showed no hesitation in intimidating voters and eliminating opponents in order to secure and consolidate his supremacy, or in exploiting it to enrich himself and his family. Carlos, however, is corrupted by power in a rather different way. His early idealism was genuine, and though he subsequently resorts to increasingly repressive measures to remain in power, he does so with a certain weary distaste, under the delusion that he alone can be trusted to steer the nation through its troubles and must do whatever is necessary to enable him to do so. He lives relatively modestly, and does not indulge in the nepotism for which Trujillo was notorious. Carlos’s fatal flaw is not the lust for power for its own sake, but an intellectual arrogance that leads him to believe that he is uniquely qualified to wield it.

You can read more about Revolution Day, and read excerpts and reviews, here.

Revolution Day (2)


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