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Dominican activists challenge Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship (Fourteenth of June Movement), 1959-1960
Rafael Leónidas Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from the moment he won the fraudulent elections of 1930, up until his assassination in 1961. Through his more than thirty-year rule, Trujillo demanded strict obedience from all Dominicans, and had no qualms in using repressive actions to force compliance or eliminate dissent. In fact, Trujillo and his regime were accountable for more than 50,000 deaths.
Many different attempts were made against Trujillo’s life, although for many years most of the population acquiesced or supported the regime and its policies. The dictatorship had a very extensive coercive network, and the government used spies to keep the population in check. Nonetheless, in January of 1959 a few elite activists decided to forge a resistance campaign to end the dictatorship. Manuel Tavárez, Leandro Guzman, and the three Mirabal sisters: Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Patria, were some of the initial organizers of the campaign. Most were inspired by the recent deposition of Latin American dictators, such as Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and Marcos Perez Jimenez in Venezuela. Therefore, the rise of democratic ideals in Latin America, along with the limited freedoms possessed by the Dominican population, galvanized activists to work for social change by ousting the military regime.
The activist’s first step was to organize the Dominicans that opposed the regime, yet had failed to forge a common association due to fear of government repression. The campaign was initially unnamed and covert, yet external events unexpectedly impacted its development. On June 14, 1959, a group of exiled Dominicans aided by the Cuban government lead an unsuccessful invasion of the island. Trujillo’s forces were able to quell the invasion, and they brutally tortured and murdered all survivors. Consequently, out of solidarity for their fallen compatriots, the domestic campaign adopted the name “Fourteenth of June Movement”. Moreover, the brutality of the government produced a dramatic increase in the members of the resistance. Information of the rising campaign was silently spread throughout the country, and activists recruited members from different socioeconomic status and professions. Middle-class students formed the bulk of the resistance campaign, and many defied the cautious warnings of their family members. Actually, many young resisters’ parents were members of the military regime. Among the actions taken by these participants were the handing out of leaflets and pamphlets against the regime, camouflaged meetings of protest, symbolic reclamations throughout the countryside, some public declarations, and attempts to recruit government officials or their family members.
The movement formally stated its objectives at a general meeting on January 10, 1960. Leaders openly declared their campaign for democracy and a new regime, as well as for some economic adjustments. As expected, shortly after the regime discovered the movement, the military began to imprison, torture and sometimes even murder its members. Those affiliated with the movement were sent to a special prison called “la 40”, where they were tortured until they provided officials with adequate information. Members of the movement spread the stories of the tortures against women and students, and they recounted the infamous conditions inside the prisons. As a result, the repression and tortures augmented public support for the campaign, since many members of the population were outraged by the treatment bestowed upon their fellow citizens.
In addition, though the scope and tactics used by activists were limited, the repression they endured spurred opposition from third party actors against the regime. The Catholic Church, which had previously supported the dictatorship, became an active opponent of the government. It voiced its opposition through all of its churches, where priests read official pronouncements denouncing the regime’s violation of human rights. Similarly, government repression provoked international condemnation. Particularly, Romulo Betancourt, the president of Venezuela and a known enemy of Trujillo, led the OAS member states to sever diplomatic relations with the dictatorship. An economic trade embargo was put in place to debilitate Trujillo’s government, and many embassies provided asylum to political dissidents. Moreover, the United States ceased its support of the dictatorship and withdrew its ambassador. Therefore, third party allies helped delegitimize the regime and weaken some of its traditional bases of support.
Nevertheless, the government was not significantly deterred by external pressure, and it continued to persecute its opponents. Most notably, on November 25, 1960, the three Mirabal sisters were assassinated, and the military staged the murder to make it look like a car accident. This action was easily uncovered, and it infuriated the public. Though the government had effectively eliminated most of the movement’s leadership, it also sparked the reprisals that contributed to its own undoing. Despite the fact that the Fourteenth of June Movement was essentially dismantled, brutal government actions gave rise to more belligerent factions within Dominican society. As it happens, Trujillo was assassinated by a group of armed men on May 30, 1961.
However, the assassination of Trujillo does not imply the success of the nonviolent campaign. The campaign’s goal was to replace the dictatorship with a democratic government, yet Trujillo’s death did not change the militaristic nature of the regime. Nonetheless, the campaign was not entirely ineffective. It managed to develop a unified network of resistance against the dictatorship, promote democratic ideals and aspirations, and delegitimize the regime.