"Era of Trujillo" in the Dominican Republic 1930

[ 1930 ]

The Vásquez administration shines in Dominican history like a star amid a gathering storm. After the country's eight years of subjugation, Vásquez took care to respect the political and civil rights of the population. An upswing in the price of export commodities, combined with increased government borrowing, buoyed the economy. Public works projects proliferated. Santo Domingo expanded and modernized. This brief period of progress, however, ended in the resurgent maelstrom of Dominican political instability. The man who would come to occupy the eye of this political cyclone was Rafael Trujillo.

Although a principled man by Dominican standards, Vásquez was also a product of long years of political infighting. In an effort to undercut his primary rival, Federico Velásquez, and to preserve power for his own followers, the president agreed in 1927 to a prolongation of his term from four to six years. There was some debatable legal basis for the move, which was approved by the Congress, but its enactment effectively invalidated the constitution of 1924 that Vásquez had previously sworn to uphold. Once the president had demonstrated his willingness to disregard constitutional procedures in the pursuit of power, some ambitious opponents decided that those procedures were no longer binding. Dominican politics returned to their pre-occupation status; the struggle among competing caudillos resumed.

Trujillo occupied a strong position in this contest. The commander of the National Army (Ejército Nacional, the new designation of the armed force created under the occupation), Trujillo came from a humble background. He had enlisted in the National Police in 1918, a time when the upper-class Dominicans, who had formerly filled the officer corps, largely refused to collaborate with the occupying forces. Trujillo harbored no such scruples. He rose quickly in the officer corps, while at the same time he built a network of allies and supporters. Unlike the more idealistic North American sponsors of the constabulary, Trujillo saw the armed force not for what it should have been--an apolitical domestic security force--but for what it was: the main source of concentrated power in the republic.

Having established his power base behind the scenes, Trujillo was ready by 1930 to assume control of the country. Although elections were scheduled for May, Vásquez's extension in office cast doubt on their potential fairness. (Vásquez had also eliminated from the constitution the prohibition against presidential reelection.) This uncertainty prompted Rafael Estrella Ureña, a political leader from Santiago, to proclaim a revolution in February. Having already struck a deal with Trujillo, Estrella marched on the capital; army forces remained in their barracks as Trujillo declared his "neutrality" in the situation. The ailing Vásquez, a victim of duplicity and betrayal, fled the capital. Estrella assumed the provisional presidency.

Part of the arrangement between Estrella and Trujillo apparently involved the army commander's candidacy for president in the May elections. As events unfolded, it became clear that Trujillo would be the only candidate that the army would permit to participate; army personnel harassed and intimidated electoral officials and eliminated potential opponents. A dazed nation stood by as the new dictator announced his election with 95 percent of the vote. After his inauguration in August, and at his express request, the Congress issued an official proclamation announcing the commencement of "the Era of Trujillo."

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