“Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.”
His name was Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. He was dictator and chief of the Armed Forces in the Dominican Republic from 1930 until the day that he was assassinated in 1961. When the USA invaded the Dominican Republic in 1919 (The Dominican government had defaulted on a loan) Trujillo saw an opportunity. He joined the National Guard that Americans had created to preserve some form of order. He worked hard and was noted for his loyalty to the stars and stripes. A series of promotions followed until in 1930 he was strong enough to be able to depose the local government.
The United States was delighted. Trujillo was smart and driven. He was vigorously anticommunist. He was ready to negotiate; to offer Dominican friendship (and a shield against communism) in exchange for American money and weapons. He received everything that he felt that he needed to remain in power.
On the surface the results were positive. Schools were expanded and improved. Highways were built. Industry moved in. The foreign debt was paid off in full. The budget was balanced. “Law and order” were kept. A vibrant middle class emerged. An unprecedented era of prosperity came over this small country that shared an island with Haiti.
But there were problems. A secret police called SIM was created. Presumably to help with military intelligence, but its job was to infiltrate and destroy any semblance of opposition. Friends could no longer get together at an informal neighborhood party and complain about the government, no matter how innocent the comment. A mentally ill man who made fun of Trujillo’s penchant for wearing numerous medals disappeared. Politicians who organized opposing parties were tortured, killed, or exiled. Even outside the Dominican dissidents were not safe. A prominent professor at Columbia University in New York City was abducted and murdered right in NYC. The president of Venezuela, who was openly critical of Trujillo, narrowly survived a car bomb in Caracas.
Trujillo was fond of his family, and he was one of many children. Any successful business owner lived in constant fear that Trujillo would steal his or her means of making a living. If you owned a thriving store or restaurant, one of his family members would come by and offer to buy it for a few dollars. People who refused to hand over the keys were made to disappear. His family went on to control a huge array of businesses. Many times, they ran these businesses to the ground. No matter: they would go out and get some more. Many industries became family monopolies.
Anywhere between 10,000 and 25,000 Haitians were massacred because they were living in Dominican soil; because their skin was dark; because maybe they were working in jobs that Dominicans could have had. The government of Haiti was unable to help because there was little outcry from the local population. Trujillo demonized these people. He accused them of being criminals and rapists. Very few people complained when he unleashed his army and secret police against them. After all, they were in Dominican soil illegally. They did not speak Spanish. Who felt sorry for them?
Ironically, there is a good chance that Trujillo’s mother had Haitian ancestors. He turned against his own people because they gave him a convenient excuse to appear as if he were trying to shield his country from outside invaders.
Statues and portraits of the “benefactor” were made by the thousands. People who did not prominently showcase one of these in their homes were looked upon with suspicion. The capital city and numerous buildings and landmarks had their name changed to his. It was impossible to walk a few steps without seeing his name or face plastered. He told his countrymen that he and he alone was responsible for their relative prosperity.
He developed a penchant for debutantes. One of the functions assigned to the cabinet member closest to him was to scout out local high schools. This individual attended hundreds of volleyball games, theater performances, and graduation exercises. When he saw an attractive sixteen-year-old girl among the crowd, orders were given to deliver her to one of Trujillo’s homes that evening. Anyone who complained was tortured or made to disappear. He kept a string of young women captive in his homes. Luxurious quarters in every corner of the country were at his beck and call, 24/7. At the end of the workday he decided which home he would go to, and which victim he would sleep with that evening.
Yes, he also had a wife. Three of them, plus numerous (voluntary) lovers in addition to the captive girls. One of his wives enjoyed opera and named two of his sons after characters in Aida.
The problem is: he was popular. People figured that his brutal hold on power had to be excused because he had brought peace and prosperity to the land. The State Department knew of the abuses, but they were happy to continue to provide him with weapons to bolster his military, since he was no communist. A prominent American legislator was quoted as saying: “He’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” The pope gave him a medal because he subsidized Catholic churches. Schools allowed their students to be victimized because he built gyms and libraries.
Things began to fall apart in the 1950’s. The State Department finally had enough when Dr. Galíndez was abducted and murdered in American soil, and when the president of a sovereign nation was almost killed. The Organization of American States joined the chorus that called for his ouster. More significantly, Trujillo began to ask his cabinet ministers, the people that were in charge of running the country, to deliver their wives and daughters to him.
All of a sudden it was no longer OK to let this monster feed his lust on innocent young women. Local opposition to his regime increased. There were demonstrations. American legislators developed some backbone. They asked Generalissimo Trujillo to tone things down.
Money and weapons were withdrawn. Sanctions were established. The regime began to teeter. Members of Trujillo’s inner circle consulted with the CIA. Weapons were provided in case a rebellion got started. In 1961 a number of prominent citizens ambushed his car close to one of his homes. Sixty bullets hit the car; seven found Trujillo’s body. He got out of the car screaming profanities and firing his weapon. Combative to the end.
The rebellion was a failure. All but one of the plotters were tortured, executed, or both. Trujillo’s son, a notorious playboy, came home from one of his many sojourns with the wealthy elite to claim the country as his. Inexplicably, many people helped him to become president. His regime did not last long.
The Dominican Republic eventually held free elections. Today it is a democracy, full of the uncertainty, corruption, crime, and inconvenience that is endemic to many young nations. No one wants the dictatorship back. I think that the country’s prognosis is good.
We’re in the middle of a messy electoral campaign. A large percentage of our population feels disenfranchised. They resent government’s inability to help their lot. Over the past decade radio talk show hosts have made it acceptable to refer to the people in power as corrupt and immoral. They have convinced a large section of the population that government, any government, cannot be trusted. Hate and irrational fear are the order of the day. Many social media posts advocate armed revolution if things do not go their way.
People are tempted to rally around figures who promise that, if given enough power, they and they alone can fix the most pressing issues. Polls show that partisans of either the left or the right are willing to settle for some immorality and illegal behavior in exchange for increased prosperity and decreased anti-government demonstrations. That it is OK to jail a bunch of innocent people as long as all of the bad ones are caught.
We should keep Trujillos’ story in mind. It is not OK to have more employment if those employed will not be protected by the rule of law. If they are not paid a living wage. It is not OK to espouse blanket condemnation or extermination of any ethnic group, even if it seems that some of them are criminals or are taking our jobs away. It is not OK to look the other way when a woman is being violated, even if the plan is to reward this woman with a raise or a promotion.
Because if these things were happening to us we’d complain. We would be scared.
Democracy is messy. It moves slowly. Sometimes it feels as if it moves backwards. It allows some guilty people to get away, in order to protect those who are not guilty. There is always some corruption. There will always be people who want life handed to them and get away with it. Freedom is a very inefficient way to get things done. Yet it is the only way. Anyone who tells you that these problems can be completely eliminated is lying.
This is America. Hundreds of millions of people from all over the world look up to us as a place where those who work and help out are protected and revered. Where we have a rule of law that keeps the powerful from taking away our businesses and our children. Where people are free to voice dissatisfaction with the way things are going. Where a government employee is allowed to keep his job if he blows the whistle on nefarious behavior within his department.
We must keep it that way. If for no other reason that somewhere down the line the powerful may be coming after us, and at that point we will not have the protection that we let them steal from us. Stand firm.