History and Politics

Títeres en el Caribe: Debunking the Myth of Dominican (In)Dependence: Part 3

Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo was in a 1957 Chevrolet car when he was assassinated on May 30, 1961.

Written by: Jay Espinosa

Every February, the Dominican Republic becomes a bumping cultural stage for carnaval. A historic cultural festival started by enslaved African people, carnaval ends on the week of the 27th, the Dominican day of independence. Yet, the origin and integrity of this independence is rarely questioned. To be truly independent, a country must determine its own political and economic interests. Has this ever been the case in the Dominican Republic? Is the Dominican Republic actually independent?

This is a multi-part series critically analyzing the history of “independence” in the Dominican Republic. You can read part one here: https://lagaleriamag.com/titeres-del-caribe-debunking-the-myth-of-dominican-independence/

You can read part two here: https://lagaleriamag.com/titeres-en-el-caribe-debunking-the-myth-of-dominican-independence-part-2/

1930 – 1965: From Trujillo to Revolution

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930-61, was a devoted anti-communist ally of the United States. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said of Trujillo, “He may be a son of a b****, but he’s our son of a b****.” It did not matter that Trujillo raped women, massacred Haitians and Black Dominicans, banned all political opposition, and assassinated rebels. He hated communism, and that is all the U.S. government cared about.

Yet, Trujillo’s stubborn desire to turn the Dominican economy into his personal family business, and the Dominican Republic into his feudal kingdom, turned off U.S. and Dominican capitalist interests. He fully paid off the government’s debt, reinstated an independent Dominican peso, and claimed U.S. sugar profits through heavy taxation and nationalization. After buying the South Porto Rico Sugar Company in 1957, Trujillo owned 13 of the country’s 16 sugar mills. By 1961, Trujillo controlled 80% of the Dominican economy and was among the ten richest people in the world.

The ultimate sin committed by Trujillo, however, was not the anti-Haitian Parsley Massacre of 1937, or the assassination of Dominicans like the Mirabal Sisters who organized his overthrow, but his 1960 plot to assassinate the Venezuelan president. This led to international sanctions against the Dominican government unanimously approved by the Organization of American States (OAS), an anti-communist Cold War formation that euphemistically aims to maintain “peace, security, cooperation, and democracy” among American nations. Sanctions included an economic blockade banning Dominican exports like sugar. This left the U.S. sugar-dry after refusing to buy it from Cuba following its 1959 revolutionary victory against U.S.-títere president Fulgencio Batista. Due to this incident, Trujillo became expendable and was thus assassinated on May 30, 1961 by CIA-supported Dominican rebels.

The bullet-shattered windows of the car that dictator Rafael L. Trujillo was riding in when he was assassinated. 
A crowd gathers in Ciudad Trujillo, the renamed city of Santo Domingo, on July 7, 1963 for the first anti-government demonstration in more than thirty years.

Although then-vice president Joaquin Balaguer became “president” on paper, Trujillo’s family maintained control. When Trujillo’s son Ramfis and brothers Hector and Jose attempted to reaffirm their family kingdom, the U.S. — already jaded from Rafael’s 31-year reign — threatened to invade. Trujillo’s family instead fled the country after stealing what was left of the Dominican treasury (about $200 million — worth $1.7 billion today).

In a tragic irony, the Dominican Republic was perhaps more independent towards the end of Trujillo’s regime than any other time in its history. Trujillo’s crimes against humanity did not concern the U.S. or OAS, as long as profits flowed uninterrupted. Yet, colonial history shows that Trujillo’s ultranationalist independence from the U.S. would not survive. By 1962, Dominican history was a broken record. Dozens of presidents had been either overthrown or assassinated, over a dozen constitutions had been rewritten, and the nation’s future remained in the hands of Northern empire. Enter Juan Bosch. 

In a depressingly repetitive national history, a Dominican leader arrived seemingly from another planet. In 1909, Juan Emilio Bosch Gaviño was born in La Vega like a phoenix from the ashes of chronic political chaos. A charismatic literary educator, Bosch organized popular support against Trujillo by appealing to the needs of the poor. Inspired by the writings of Puerto Rican writer Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Bosch helped create the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) in Havana in 1939. In the words of Bosch himself, the PRD dared to enter uncharted territory by accomplishing the unknown: “Liberate the Dominican people from economic, political, and military dependence, from ignorance, disease, and unemployment.” 

Bosch and the PRD were organizing a blueprint for a new Dominican society during a time of global political upheaval. In the mid-1930s, U.S. workers won sweeping reforms forcing the federal government to implement new social programs and labor regulations, like public housing, social security, and the 8-hour work day. In 1935, a new constitution was created in Haiti following the nineteen-year U.S. occupation. Four years later, Hitler invaded Poland to spark World War II. In 1940, Cuban Army head Fulgencio Batista was elected president of Cuba. That same year, Puerto Rican Nationalist Party president Pedro Albizu Campos was convicted of breaking the Smith Act of 1940 by conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government; meanwhile, police killed dozens of Puerto Rican nationalists in the 1936 Rio Piedras and 1937 Ponce massacres. And throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the following countries gained national independence: Philippines (1946), India (1947-54), Pakistan (1947), Burma (1948),  Indonesia (1949), Vietnam (1945), Cambodia (1953), Laos (1953), and Sudan (1956).

Juan Bosch meets with Fidel Castro.
The Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (left) and opposing conservative Unión Cívica Nacional (right) parties campaign in 1962 for the Dominican presidency.

Against the backdrop of international turbulence, Bosch and the PRD prepared for the day they would lead the Dominican Republic out of hell. They organized PRD bases in Cuba, New York, and Venezuela, and formed an international coalition of armed revolutionary guerilla fighters against Trujillo. “There were Dominicans, Cubans (including Fidel Castro), Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, and even a North American of Hungarian descent,” remarked Bosch. Their armed boat expedition to the Dominican Republic in 1947, however, was cut short near Haiti by the Cuban navy chief, who was offered money by Trujillo to capture the revolutionaries. Bosch‘s three-day hunger strike to pressure the release of his comrades represented a political ethic rarely known in Dominican history.

When Trujillo was killed, Bosch ended his 23-year exile to campaign for the Dominican presidency on a progressive, social democratic platform. The PRD proposed a new constitution with reforms like democratic participation, taxation of the rich, and land redistribution, which attracted mass support from the urban and rural poor. Hope overwhelmed the Dominican Republic as the PRD motivated 90% of its people to participate in the 1962 election, 64% of whom voted for Bosch.

Juan Bosch’s almost divine presidential victory occurred five days before the celebrated birthday of Jesus Christ. It was the Dominican Republic’s most honest election, won by the country’s most honest presidential candidate, who was sworn-in as president in 1963 on the country’s favorite day: February 27th. Bosch represented a new shining chapter in Dominican history. He began implementing his promised reforms, including the recognition of communist organizations like the pro-China Movimiento Popular Dominicano, the pro-Soviet Union Partido Comunista Dominicano, and the pro-Cuba Movimiento Revolucionario 14 de Junio, named after the 1959 attempt by Cuban-trained Dominican rebels to overthrow Rafael L. Trujillo. Unfortunately, the Dominican Republic’s shining prince that was Bosch soon disappointed the Dominican poor and eventually beamed too bright for Dominican conservatives and their foreign allies.

Juan Bosch delivering his inaugural speech as constitutional president in 1963.
Women of the 14th of June Movement march in Santo Domingo, June 14, 1963.

Bosch’s remarkable ascent to power was matched only by his downfall. While his progressive plans to equalize Dominican society initially attracted allies among the poor, intellectual middle-class, and some communists, they also emboldened enemies among the country’s right-wing conservative elites among churches, the wealthy class, the military, and U.S.-based businesses. In 1963, a high-level U.S. intelligence official said that “the military and police machine built by Trujillo is still largely intact.” While Bosch never identified himself as a communist, he sincerely believed that, “a democratic government cannot be democratic for some and dictatorial for others.” In fact, it was the existence of communist Dominican organizations — and Bosch’s refusal to repress them — that posed the greatest threat to U.S. officials.

It took just seven months for Bosch to be overthrown by loyalistas, led by an anti-communist Dominican air force general named Elías Wessin y Wessin who supported the new pro-U.S. títere president of the Dominican Republic Donald Reid Cabral. The 1963 golpe de estado against Juan Bosch led to splits within the Dominican military between the older pro-Trujillo leadership and the younger pro-Bosch rank-and-file. Unable to satisfy either faction, President Reid became victim to another golpe de estado in 1965. This time, it was led by revolutionary constitucionalistas like Francisco Caamaño, a Dominican military colonel who supported the progressive constitutional reforms of the perredeistas (PRD members) and the reinstallment of Bosch as president of the patria. In 1965, Dominicans had officially — and finally — joined a global struggle for national liberation and independence against tyranny and colonialism.

This is a multi-part series critically analyzing the history of “independence” in the Dominican Republic. The fourth part will be published on August 16, 2020, the 157th year anniversary of the Dominican War of Independence from Spain, which started in 1863. Please note: This article is not an endorsement of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD); La Galería Magazine is not affiliated with any political party.

Jay Espinosa Fabian is an Nuyo-Dominican writer and photographer. He is a native Bronx, New Yorker birthed and raised by parents who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Jay can be followed on Instagram @thejayespi.

Text Sources:

Image Sources:

  1. Photographer unknown. Kross, Peter. “The Assassination of Rafael Trujillo.” Warfare History Network. December 22, 2016. Date Accessed: July 3, 2020. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2016/12/22/the-assassination-of-rafael-trujillo/
  2. Left image: St. George, Andrew, Magnum Photos. 1961. “The Dominican Republic in 1961.” The Robinson Library. Date Accessed: July 3, 2020. http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/america/westindies/dominican/61news.htm
  3. Right image: photographer unknown. “The Dominican Republic in 1961.” The Robinson Library. Date Accessed: July 3, 2020. http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/america/westindies/dominican/61news.htm
  4. Hoy Noticias. “Juan Bosch y el PRD derrotaron a Viriato Fiallo y la UCN.” February 19, 2012. Date Accessed: June 1, 2020. https://hoy.com.do/juan-bosch-y-el-prd-derrotaron-a-viriato-fiallo-y-la-ucn/
  5. Photographer unknown. CASABONA, HASSAN PÉREZ. “FIDEL CASTRO CONDECORÓ A JUAN BOSCH.” Alternativas Noticiosas. November 26, 2016. Date Accessed: June 1, 2020. http://www.alternativasnoticiosas.com/2016/11/fidel-castro-condecoro-juan-bosch.html
  6. Photographer unknown. Pereyra, Emilia. “Las malas horas en que el gobierno de Juan Bosch fue derrocado.” Archivo General de la Nación. https://www.diariolibre.com/actualidad/politica/las-malas-horas-en-que-el-gobierno-de-juan-bosch-fue-derrocado-OC14342950
  7. Photographer unknown. “Hoy se cumplen 53 años levantamiento militar de la guerra abril de 1965, encabezado por el Coronel Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó.” Hispanos Del Mundo. April 24, 2018. Date Accessed: June 1, 2020. http://www.hispanosdelmundo.com/2018/04/hoy-se-cumplen-53-anos-levantamiento.html
  8. Photographer unknown. Quezada, Nelson Montás. “¿Por qué Juan Bosch escogió al coronel Caamaño como presidente provisional?” Diario Libre. January 6, 2019. Date Accessed: June 1, 2020.  https://www.diariolibre.com/opinion/en-directo/por-que-juan-bosch-escogio-al-coronel-caamano-como-presidente-provisional-BI12922012
  9. Photographer unknown. “Women of the 14th of June.” Brown University. Date Accessed: June 1, 2020. https://sites.google.com/a/brown.edu/people-s-resistance-and-memory-trujillato/home/trujillo-s-downfall/rise-to-power-of-trujillo/women-in-the-resistance



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