Tag Archives: Rafael Trujillo

Latin American Regime Change, Proposed by Uruguay?

When examining the experience of Latin American states in the twentieth century, intervention and overthrow are at the heart of the discussion. Typically, the United States, who regularly intervened in the affairs of its neighbors and ousted many governments it found “troublesome,” is portrayed as the architect of Latin American regime change. However, the United States was not alone in seeking to reshape the politics of the hemisphere. In the late 1940s, inspired but the democratic rhetoric of the Second World War and the human rights ideals of the United Nations, many Latin Americans dreamed of eliminating dictatorial governments from the Americas. Some called for peaceful change through public and international pressure, while others advocated for military intervention.

Among the latter was Eduardo Rodriguez Larreta, the Foreign Minister of Uruguay, who proposed that the American republics work multilaterally to remove any non-democratic elements. In a letter to other American governments, Larreta defended the principle of non-intervention, however he argued that it did not protect “the notorious and repeated violation by any republic of the elementary right of man and of the citizen.” According to the Larreta Doctrine, as it came to be known, dictators like Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic could no longer abuse their citizens while hiding behind the non-intervention. As a means of ending this maltreatment, Larreta called for the pursuit of “multilateral collective action, exercised with complete unselfishness by all other republics of the continent, aimed at achieving in a spirit of brotherly prudent the mere reestablishment of essential rights.” It was also important that the intervention follow international law and not “injure the government affected” because it was “being taken for the benefit of all, including the country which has been suffering under such a harsh regime.”

Initially the United States supported the proposal, however the Cold War quickly forced the U.S. policymakers to change their tune. The United States could not support ousting the region’s dictators because they were its closest anti-communist allies. Without U.S. support, many Latin American countries also withdrew support for what came to be known as the Larreta Doctrine.

However, Latin American democrats, such as Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt and Guatemalan president José Arévalo, saw the doctrine as a means of removing what they saw as a blight on the hemisphere. These leaders began sponsoring national liberation movements, headed by democratic exiles, bent on ousting the likes of Somoza and Trujillo. These democratic revolutionaries became known as the Caribbean Legion and launched a series of invasions of Caribbean states over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s. The Caribbean Legion, despite giving Caribbean despots many sleepless nights, existed only in their imaginations. Although many of the revolutionaries shared resources and logistics, there was never a cohesive army made of Caribbean democrats, only individual bands of insurgents largely divided by nationality. Nicaraguan exiles represented a large portion of the Caribbean Legion, with many aiding Jose Figueres in overthrowing the despotic regime of Teodoro Picado Michalski in Costa Rica. In 1954 and 1959, Nicaraguan exiles unsuccessfully attempted to oust the Somoza regime, and with the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the antidictatorial struggle became the purview of communist national liberation movements.

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Brains, Beards, and Butterflies

Following the success of the Cuban Revolution in early 1959, the dictators of the Caribbean feared that bearded revolutionaries would soon invade their shores and oust them from power. These fears were not unfounded as Castro had made Cuba a safe haven for exiles of the region’s antidictatorial struggle.

In the Spring of 1959, a number of revolutionary movements, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, attempted to overthrow the governments of Haiti, Panama, and Nicaragua. All of these movements proved to be disastrous failures, but they put the region’s tyrants on alert. In the face of possible aggression Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic warned any possible revolutionaries to stay away from his shores unless they wanted “to see their beards and brains flying about like butterflies.”

In June of 1959, Trujillo made good on his word to make the “beards and brains” of his enemies fly when the Dominican National Guard repulsed an invasion of Dominican exiles. Although the invaders were mostly Dominicans, they received logistical and financial support from the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. The incursion exacerbated the already tension situation and resulted in Cuba and Venezuela severing relations with the Dominican Republic. By the end of the 1950s the Caribbean was a hotbed of tensions between the region’s democratic, communist, and dictatorial elements, and would remain that way for decades to come.

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Duel Across the Border: Somoza’s Challenge to Figueres

On January 11, 1955 a group of roughly five hundred Costa Rican expatriates entered Costa Rica with the intent of ousting the then president Jose Figueres. For two weeks the insurgents fought government troops in northern Costa Rica until the Organization of American States intervened and put an end to the violence. Although he denied it, the insurrectionist force had received substantial support from the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. The previous spring the dictator had survived an assassination attempt and the Guardia Nacional – the Nicaraguan security forces loyal to Somoza – had defeated a small insurrection of Nicaraguan exiles that originated in Costa Rica. Somoza had also just aided in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz, so seeking revenge and emboldened by his recent success in Guatemala the Nicaraguan dictator sought to remove another of his regional rivals, Figueres. Not only did Somoza supply the Costa Rican insurgents, he also provided use of his air force, which strafed and bombed targets in northern Costa Rica. Knowing that Somoza was the principal benefactor of the attacking forces, Figueres lambasted the Nicaraguan dictator in the press calling his relatives a “family of gangsters.” Somoza, who spoke fluent English and was known for his love of English curse words, responded by calling Figueres a “damn liar”and challenged Figueres to a duel at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border.

Figueres declined the invitation to duel, stating that Somoza was “crazier than a goat in the midsummer sun.”

Ultimately the crisis was defused by the intervention of the United States. Hoping to improve its image after the Guatemalan coup, the United States quickly stepped in and negotiated an end to the crisis, however tensions between the two countries remained high even after the assassination of Somoza the next year.

Although Somoza was the main aggressor against Costa Rica and Figueres, he was aided by the other dictatorial regimes of the Caribbean. Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican, Castillo Armas of Guatemala, and Marcos Perez Jiménez of Venezuela also provided resources or support to the 1955 insurgency. Along with Somoza, they represented a regional alliance bent on securing their own regimes and sniffing out any form of opposition be it democratic or communist. In 1957 Trujillo hatched a plot to assassinate Figueres and bring down one of the regions strongest voices for democracy. The plot failed but extraterritorial violence of the Caribbean dictators continued for decades to come.


Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile: The Antidictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945-1959 (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1974).

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