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Life With The Generalissimo

June 2024
8min read

We Americans don’t understand very well what it is to live under a dictatorship, so we tend not to become too disturbed when our government helps some general stay in power. A few million dollars to prop up his failing economy, some tanks and planes to promote his domestic tranquillity—we rationalize measures like these because the dictator is friendly to the United States. Usually that means that American business investments appear more secure under the present, known regime than under the unknowable conditions that would result from the dictator’s fall from power.

I am a native-born American who spent his childhood (1928-39) in the Dominican Republic. I grew up thinking that conditions there under Trujillo were the way things were everywhere. I left for school, college, and military service in the United States and went back to the Dominican Republic two decades later. As an American I was insulated from most of the direct effects of Trujillo’s rule, but even so, I felt his presence everywhere. Let me describe a bit of my daily life there.

First, all dictators require a title. Hitler’s was Führer. Mussolini’s was Il Duce. Trujillo’s was ten times as grandiloquent. In every newspaper article, radio announcement, and speech, he was referred to in the initial mention with a string of Spanish words that translate to: the clearly perceived as Generalissimo Dr. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, Benefactor of the Fatherland and Father of the New Fatherland. His reign lasted more than a quarter-century, ending only with his assassination in 1961.

The Dominican Republic is a country of seven million people that shares with Haiti the island of Hispaniola, between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Like the other two islands, it is mountainous, hot, humid, and poor, producing tropical crops such as coffee, bananas, and—the basis for American economic interest—sugar in great quantity at low cost.

I lived there until I was almost eleven. My father managed the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) in San Pedro de Macorís until he was transferred in 1939.1 went back in 1957, at the age of twenty-nine, to work for an American firm, the South Porto Rico Sugar Company, which operated what was at the time one of the largest single sugar mills in the world. Newly married, I was eager to make good, yet I lasted less than a year, which I attribute to my change in viewpoint from childhood to maturity.

On my first day at work, in the high-ceilinged office with slowly turning fans, Mr. Furet, the office manager, clued me in on office customs and hierarchy. “See him?” He pointed with his chin to a seedy-looking elderly man who wandered aimlessly around the offices without anyone paying him any attention. “He’s the government spy. Too stupid to earn a living any other way. We laugh at him.”

I noticed, though, that my coworker whispered and didn’t look directly at the wretched-looking agent. Later I learned that this was only the “obvious” spy, there to distract attention from the real spies, whom we never identified.

Those other spies did exist, though, because nothing took place in our company without the government in Ciudad Trujillo (the generalissimo’s new name for the 450-year-old city Santo Domingo) knowing about it instantly. This was true even though my employer was a gigantic, powerful, and secretive American firm that cultivated more than 120,000 acres.

Trujillo demonstrated both his power and the extent of his intelligence operation the week after I arrived. He arbitrarily raised the minimum wage from $ .75 per day to $1.50. That’s per day , not per hour. This caused howls of agony from our financial managers both locally and in New York. Nevertheless, the Dominican government, with its intimate inside knowledge, knew to the penny what the company could afford. After a few internal adjustments and, no doubt, a slight reduction to the next dividend, the company went on as before.

To the Dominican and Haitian field laborers, however, the increase in daily pay meant the difference between bare subsistence and being able to buy a new pair of shoes once a year. I used to see these laborers lining up daily at the company store with empty Pepsi bottles to buy cooking oil for their next meal, which they would prepare in the fields. For a nickel they received one inch of oil. They couldn’t afford more at one time. You can see how with the stroke of a pen Trujillo bolstered his extraordinary popularity with the poor, who alone had the numbers to topple him.

Other laws were equally arbitrary. Though technically we foreigners in our cloistered company houses were immune from interference by the government, in practice we weren’t. An example was the statute regarding automobile accidents. Police arriving at the scene of a collision were required to arrest everyone in both cars. The idea was that someone in the group had to be the person responsible. Since blameless parties were assumed to be able to prove their innocence, whoever was left in jail must therefore be culpable.

The result was that no foreign employee was allowed to operate a car. Instead the company maintained a motor pool and a cadre of presumably expendable Dominican drivers for the convenience of those of us who had business away from the compound or who wanted to travel the sixty miles to Ciudad Trujillo to shop.

On such trips, as the car reached the edge of each small village, it was flagged down at a guard’s kiosk. The soldier noted down our names, village of origin, destination, and the time. Then he waved us on and immediately telephoned the next kiosk ten or fifteen miles down the road. If we did not arrive after a reasonable interval—say, twenty-five minutes—a truckload of armed soldiers would be sent to search for us. When located, we would be arrested and would have to provide a good reason for the delay. In this manner Trujillo prevented the assembly of persons from different cities who might be plotting to overthrow him.

In actuality we foreigners could get along well without ever leaving the compound. We had movies, dances, the beautiful Caribbean to swim in, and our rent-free little houses in which to entertain one another. Servants were plentiful at twenty to thirty dollars a month, though it was universally understood that they supplemented their incomes by reporting on us to the Dominican secret police. As a result, none of us ever said the name Trujillo in his own home.

Trujillo was not always lacking the grace or guile, as he demonstrated in the incident of the fifty jeeps.

“Did you see what ‘someone’ said in El Caribe yesterday?” a guest might whisper to her hostess.

Or, “I see where ‘Mr. Smith’ is vacationing in Colombia,” her husband might murmur to the host over a cigar.

El Caribe was the nation’s major newspaper. So far as I know, it was the only one, which made the printed news easy to control.

It took a while for newcomers to grasp that spies were everywhere and that one’s tongue must be constantly guarded. There were no blatant trappings of despotism like the banners and storm troopers of Nazi Germany to remind you that the country was a bloody dictatorship. Often it was a single incident that brought home the terror that underlay the pervasive order and discipline.

In my case it was a stolen bicycle. In this land of grinding poverty, a bike was a major instrument of freedom for a populace that could not afford a gallon of gasoline, let alone an entire automobile. Having a two-wheeler meant that one could travel where a job was offered or visit relatives in another village without having to walk ten, twenty, or fifty miles.

So one night my venerable Raleigh disappeared. I had paid only ten dollars for the bicycle at Harvard, where it had served several generations of students, but I greatly enjoyed pedaling it around the huge compound. Thoughtlessly I reported the theft to the local army post, which also served as the police station in La Romana, the town outside the estate. Looking over the dull-eyed soldier who crankily wrote up my report, I gave the bike up as gone forever.

About ten-thirty that evening, however, soon after my wife and I had gone to bed, I was roused by someone in front of our house calling out my name. Going out in my pajamas, I found the soldier holding my bicycle by the handlebars with his left hand while his right grasped the filthy collar of a wizened, shabby laborer.

“Is this your bicycle, Señor?” he asked. I identified it. Silently he thrust it forward, and I took it.

Then he hurled the thief to the ground and began cursing him. As the man tried to crawl away, the soldier kicked him brutally, sending him sprawling. He continued to kick the man down the road, alternating the kicks with blows from his fists.

I ran after them and called at the soldier to stop, that the old man could have the bicycle, that I wouldn’t press charges, because I’d decided I didn’t want it anymore. All to no avail. The soldier replied brusquely that this was no longer my affair and that I should get back into my house immediately. I was left in no doubt about who was in charge, even if the property he was treading on belonged to an American company.

I still wonder what happened to that thief, and I fear the worst, because Trujillo had decreed that there could be no beggars, thieves, or prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. His method of enforcement was simple. His soldiers took any citizens found engaging in forbidden activities to La Fortaleza, a waterfront prison in Ciudad Trujillo. Once they went in, they were never seen again, although shark-bitten bodies were regularly found floating near a chute that emptied into the ocean lapping at the prison’s rear wall.

Trujillo’s methods worked. Dictators’ methods usually do. He was not always lacking in grace or guile, though, as the incident of the fifty jeeps demonstrated.

Our company had purchased the vehicles in assorted bright colors—red, green, blue, yellow, and orange. In the past we had used oxen to pull the cane carts, and horses as field mounts for the supervisors. We were testing whether the jeeps would prove more economical. The spies duly reported these shiny new arrivals to Ciudad Trujillo.

A few weeks later, in a seemingly unrelated incident, an army truck pulled up one afternoon at one of the corrals where we bred and raised our horses. The sergeant in charge opened the back and led down a world-famous Thoroughbred from Trujillo’s renowned racing stable.

“El Generalisimo is pleased to accord you the use of one of his horses for stud,” the soldier said, placing the lead into the hand of our astonished foreman. He got into his truck and drove away.

Our general manager, Mr. Marionneaux, was anxious over this. Not only was the horse of enormous value, but the loan presaged some favor Trujillo would ask in return. For a couple of months men guarded that animal night and day, in terror lest it catch a cold or injure a limb.

One day the sergeant came back with his truck. “El Generalisimo is pleased to take back his horse,” was all he said.

Two weeks later a convoy of gray army trucks carrying fifty soldiers entered the compound and snaked its way over to the motor pool. An officer got out of the lead truck and saluted the pool manager.

“El Generalisimo is pleased to accept your kind offer of the loan of fifty jeeps,” he said. Dropping the salute, he bellowed at the soldiers, who scrambled to man the jeeps on hand. Those left over sat down to await the return of the vehicles still out in the fields. After all the jeeps had departed, our general manager wondered when, if ever, they would be back. In the meantime the field supervisors went back to using oxen and horses.

The following week we read in El Caribe of the annual military review, a late-summer event in which Trujillo invited the heads of other Latin states to stand on the balcony with him while Dominican armed might marched and motored below them. This military patchwork consisted of some old tanks and trucks, plus every organization that could muster a uniform, including the Boy Scouts. It was rumored that some of the scanty mechanized forces looped around to pass in review more than once, to bolster the impression of large resources. One front-page photo showed platoons of jeeps occupied by stern-faced soldiers.

The next day, the truck convoy returned, followed by the borrowed jeeps. “El Generalisimo is pleased to give back your jeeps,” the officer said.

Each jeep had been painted gray, tires and all, with the thickest, gloppiest paint imaginable, and not carefully. The instruments were painted, and so were the floors. It was as if buckets of battleship paint had simply been poured over the little cars, which might indeed have been the case. Our motor pool manager got tears in his eyes when he saw them.

I could go on with such stories, but they all would convey the same message: that life in a totally controlled society buys its vaunted orderliness at an intolerable cost. That cost is the demise of the human spirit. Even for those who reside, as my wife and I did, as guests in a totalitarian regime, the pressure can become insupportable.

After a mere eight months I resigned, and we departed. Getting off the plane in Miami, I was overwhelmed by a great wave of emotion. While the vacationers behind me gaped, I dropped my hand luggage and knelt down on the runway. I kissed that oily, baking, stinking concrete and cried aloud, “Thank God for the U.S.A.”

That was in 1958. I’m still saying it four decades later.

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