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In Trujillo’s Wake

Latin America and the Caribbean

Santo Domingo. Image courtesy Aaron Leonard.

It was just before sunset and we were driving along Avenida George Washington, which borders the Caribbean Sea along Santo Domingo’s Malecon, when the older gentleman serving as my guide, pointed out a series of monuments on the side of the road. “This is where Trujillo was killed,” he said. Taken aback, I asked if we could pull over.

It was on May 30, 1961 that, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, aka El Jefe, was driving along that same strip, near his home in Ciudad Trujillo, a city he modestly named after himself, when he was forced off the road by another vehicle. What ensued was a fusillade of bullets, the end product of planning of eight Dominican conspirators – with the support of the CIA and the Kennedy administration fearful that Trujillo’s intransigence would end in a Castro-like rule in the Dominican Republic. With this act, the reign of one of the more brutal dictators of the twentieth century came to an end. It was a moment of celebration for the Dominican people, who had lived in a country stamped in every respect with the imprint of Trujillismo. The site of his assassination is prominently marked, two sculptures and a plaque commemorating the assassins. My guide, a young man at the time, was then an ally of the social democrat, Juan Bosch, who would for a brief time serve as President of the Dominican Republic before being thrown out in a coup d’etat, with a polite nod from the U.S. He remembers the time of Trujillo, when he and all Dominicans, held their politics very close, as if their lives depended on it, because they did.

Today the Dominican Republic has no Trujillo — though there are those who long for the days when he ruled. What it does have is system of capitalism, one that predated Trujillo and remains in his absence. Its signs are everywhere. In the capital of Santo Domingo, there is industry; such things as petrochemicals, plastics, and cement. Then there is the all-important Ministry of Tourism, with the crucial foreign dollars it brings.

Statue at the site of Trujillo’s assassination. Image courtesy Aaron Leonard.

Throughout the city are the ubiquitous car dealerships, luxury good shops, and malls, serving the middle and ruling class. All of this exists amid a confusion of housing built pell-mell and everywhere, some quite nice; quite a bit else that is the definition of squalor. The latter of which houses sections of the workforce that resides in the shadow of the official economy; selling goods by the roadside, driving the ubiquitous motorcycle-taxis, engaged in the drug trade, etc. This is to say nothing of the diaspora, hooked into this economy through the remittances home from working in disparate conditions in the United Sates and other countries. Official statistics on the size of the unofficial economy are hard to come by, but a friend with knowledge of such things put the number at 60 per cent of the workforce. Marx called this the, ‘relative surplus population‘ — marginal yet essential to the overall accumulation process. It is a definition that manifests itself in every public space and dark corner of this country.

Beyond Santo Domingo, lay a vast countryside, brimming with sugar, cashews, oranges, mangos, bananas, plantain, coffee — it is a wonder of abundance in a country with so much poverty. One sees this clearly in the Dominican Southwest. Here live among others, Dominican-Haitians, perfectly bilingual in Spanish and Creole, yet living caste-like, at the bottom of society. One sees them hand carrying the sacks of beans along the roads and mountain paths — utilizing tools from another era. You can take a picture of such things and in seconds send it anywhere in the world. In a country often without electricity, the wireless networks are to be found nearly everywhere. Such is the caprice of capitalist ‘development.’

On a ride to the country’s southwest, my host, a consultant who has volunteered his efforts to develop projects for people living in the countryside, offered a short course in the island’s complicated and often horrific, history. The French exploited the fertility of the land on the western end of the island of Hispaniola to the maximum, up to the time when they confronted their own Revolution in 1789 and history started to get out of hand for them. Before that they reaped the fruits of the massive sugar cane and coffee plantations. This made some rich beyond imagination and it was done through slave labor — a particularly savage one. As my friend told me, it was a system that replaced unproductive slaves with productive ones, i.e. the dead, with the living. Contrarily, the Dominican Republic did not have a large-scale slave economy, not out of any overriding moral concern, but because of the contingency of economics. What did happen in the DR is that Africans who were brought as slaves, Spanish men (who came without women) and Taino’s mixed, thus creating the unique Dominican identity.

These differences — the heterogeneousness of Haitians (and a legacy of Haiti at one point occupying the Dominican Republic), and blending of the Dominicans — have historically charged Dominican racial politics. Here are two cultures, unique and distinct, yet intertwined and interdependent. Which underscores the awfulness of the recent decision by the Dominican Constitutional Court upholding a law decreeing Haitian children born in the Dominican Republic, going back to 1929, are not Dominican. The immediate effect of that ruling is that over 200,000 people were made stateless. The ability to legally work, go to school, or get basic government support has vanished.

School for Haitian children in the Dominican southeast. Image courtesy Aaron Leonard.

It is a law that penetrates everywhere, as I discovered when my partner and I made our way up a mountain path, taking in the breathtaking views of the tropical forest framing the ocean only a few miles off. Half way up we encountered a structure made of sticks and corrugated metal — a building that seemed a museum piece from the 18th century. As it turned out, it was a school, about to begin instruction for the day for grades one to four. The students, who live and work on the mountain, are these self-same stateless Dominican-Haitians. The teacher an open and generous Dominican man, took time out of his preparation for class to tell us of the challenge he confronts. The Haitian parents who have born their children here cannot enroll their children in official Dominican schools. His school has been set up to fill in the gap, but after 8th grade, there is no school for these children, just as there is no place in official society.

A woman worker at a foundation back in Santo Domingo voiced her frustration to me. She pointed out that there are others nationalities in the country who are immigrants, but this law applies only to Haitian. It was her feeling that there are problems of immigration that need attention, but this law is no answer. Indeed the only ones who seem to benefit from this law are those profiting off the divisions and control it affords.

Earlier in my visit, I talked with someone who was a young woman at the time of Trujillo and she relayed a story from those days. It seems that at one of Trujillo’s infamous parties, where among other things he would choose which young woman he would sleep with, (think, In the Time of the Butterflies), the band began to play what was then a popular Haitian song. El Jefe immediately shouted, “Coño! We are Dominican, Not Haitian!” The music stopped as the crowd nervously looked around at one another. One hears such things and realizes anew the meaning of the commemorative statute of Trujillo atop a burning funeral pyre. On one level things have changed considerably since Trujillo’s demise; unfortunately his absence does not seem to have impacted all of what still so desperately needs changing.

Aaron Leonard is a writer and journalist for numerous progressive organizations. He work can be found at [](


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