The Dominican Republic (DR) is widely known in the US as the producer of sugar, coffee and Major League Baseball players.
But exactly fifty years ago today, one of the bloodiest dictators of the Americas was assassinated in the DR
Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina ruled the DR with an iron hand for almost thirty years, tolerating no opposition, while imprisoning, torturing and murdering thousands. Among the worst atrocities he committed was the racially-motivated mass murder of Haitians living in the country in 1937 (the infamous Parsley massacre).
After seizing property and businesses for himself and his family and close associates, Trujillo awarded himself medals and military titles and established a kind of personality cult similar to those found in Communist Eastern Europe.
He even renamed the capital city “Ciudad Trujillo,” and dubbed the country's highest mountain as “Pico Trujillo.”
Yet, there were some unusual elements to Trujillo’s rule. For example, DR was one of the few countries in the world that accepted Jewish refugee immigrants from Europe. Trujillo also welcomes Japanese immigrants during the 1930s.
He also maintained relatively good relations with the US for much of his rule. However, relations with Washington soured after it was revealed that Trujillo was behind the assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela, Romulo Betancourt.
The US closed its embassy in DR and recalled the ambassador, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly sought to make a regime change and replace Trujillo. However, by the time John F. Kennedy came into office, the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba raised fears in Washington of Communist spreading in the Caribbean, including DR.
Nonetheless, on May 30, 1961, Trujillo was shot to death in an ambush by seven men in a gun battle on a road near the city of San Cristobal.
One of the assassins was General Antonio Imbert, who is still alive and considered a national hero.
Imbert, now 90, told BBC: Trujillo was wounded but he was still walking, so I shot him again, he says.
Then we put him in the car and took him away.”
Following Trujillo’s murder, his son Ramfis took over and promptly arrested most of the assassins, including members of their families who had no part in the conspiracy. Most were imprisoned and executed.
Imbert’s life was saved because the Italian consul helped hide him in his house for six months.
In 1965, a brief civil war raged in DR, helped brought to an end by the efforts of US military intervention as well as by the Organization of American States (OAS).
The following year, DR established a constitution which called for tripartite government with an executive, a congress and an independent judiciary.
This action allowed the DR to gradually move towards some measure of political stability and rising prosperity.
The Miami Herald reported that “five decades after Trujillo, the DR is one of the region’s least militarized societies, with an enviable freedom of expression, religion and movement. There are no political exiles, prisoners or firing squads. Opposition — reflecting all ideologies — is tolerated, and the private business sector and the labor movement thrive.”
Poverty remains rampant in the DR, but the country has made tremendous progress in the past 40-plus years. In 2010, he DR’s economy grew by 4.2 percent.