My Father Falls Out of Grace With the Government

My Father in Nice in the 1950s

My Father in Nice in the 1950s

I was born in the Dominican Republic (D.R.) during the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, fact that would define the rest of my life. Whether directly or indirectly, my family was affected by chaos during my formative years. The political unrest created an environment full of insecurity, persecution and total instability.

My father traveled most of the time. He was the commander of a ship which sailed all over the world as an ambassador, representing the D.R. in presidential inaugurations, and other political celebrations. My father spoke three languages, was very well versed in Naval etiquette, and was a hell of a sailor so he was very useful to the Navy.

It was very common to host cocktail parties in the ship to wine and dine important dignitaries of the government they were visiting. My father represented the D.R. in the inaugurations of many dignitaries and in 1953 my father led the Dominican delegation to Queen Elizabeth’s crowning.

My parents went in five years from being society’s darlings, to being untouchables–anyone falling from grace with the dictatorship was immediately isolated because there would be repercussions for anyone aiding or siding with an enemy of the state. Even relatives had to be very careful. It was not uncommon for the government to punish whole entire families for the “indiscretion” of one of the relatives.

By the time I was 2, my father was a political prisoner, the dictator’s brother was harassing my mother, and we had to move near my grandfather’ for safety. We did not leave the house without my grandfather or his chauffeur. My father was in jail for 22 months in total, along with other high Naval officials, for refusing to carry out the orders to assassinate two naval officers who had captained a ship that was used to carry anti-Trujillo missions. Trujillo felt that the Navy could not be trusted, so he arrested the higher naval command and after an absurd display through the government-owned media and phony trials. My father was sentenced 10 years in jail. He only served 22 months, 14 of those months in solitary at La Victoria, a jail infamous for the torture and killing of hundreds, if not thousands of political prisoners. My father suffered from terrible PTSD after his time there. He told us stories of how he would have to listen as other prisoners were being tortured and killed and wondering when it would be his turn. He said he learned to distinguish the cries of the men: whether they cried from anguish, pain, torture or being killed. He almost died of a tooth infection that started affecting his brain after he was denied medical care. It was pleading from my mother, her father, and my father’s mother that finally got the permission for an in-jail visit by a dentist.

List of items my father was accused of stealing from the navy:
• 10 empty cartridges naval projectiles
• 1 box replacement naval accessories
• 5 life jackets
• 10 gallons of white paint
• 3 hoses
• two marine outboard motors
• 50 gallons gray marine paint
• a piece of mosquito screen
• three hose nozzles
• 20 feet of marine electric cable
• 60 feet used electric wire
• 9 feet high tension marine cables
• 50 feet marine rope
• 2 metal sheets
• compass
• 10 life savers
• 1 inner tube
• 1 small oil tank
• 15 skylights

For this made up list he was condemned to 10 years of hard labor. While the rest of the government kept on stealing and killing.

My Father is Released

In 1955, Félix Benítez Rexach – a civil engineer from Puerto Rico, who had many illegal business ventures with Trujillo and made millions in civil engineering contracts – needed a captain for his yacht, the Moineau, one of the largest in the world at the time. It so happened that the yacht was the same frigate that my father had commanded for many years. After my father was sent to jail, someone else ran it aground in Puerto Plata. Trujillo sold it to Don Felix who refitted it as a luxury yacht. He then asked Trujillo to let my father out to become his captain. Trujillo allowed my father to be released with the only purpose of becoming the yacht’s captain. When my father wasn’t sailing the yacht, he captained a merchant ship that ran services for Don Felix and Trujillo.

A couple of years later someone broke into our house and tried to kidnap my little brother Ivan who was only 10 months old. The police investigated for about 2 days and then they never spoke of it again. Obviously, someone high up in the government was involved. My parents have always thought that it was all about money, not politics. My grandfather had just sold his company for a very large amount of money and had the money deposited in Switzerland. He then left the island “on vacation” without any intention of returning until the dictator was ousted. Which he did. So, the thought was that someone wanted some of that money and a baby was easy bait. But they were wrong. Two days later, construction was started of an 8-foot, cinder block fence with barbed wire on the top and two huge iron gates around our property. We always had big guard dogs in the yard after that.

My father worked for “Don Félix” until April of 1960. There had been an attempted invasion to overthrow the government. Most of the people involved were caught, tortured and killed, but one of my father’s friends, Guido D’Alessandro (Yullo) who was believed to be involved, escaped. People in the government erroneously believed that my father had smuggled him out in the ship to Puerto Rico. The Italian Embassy had helped him escape in a tourist ship instead. But given my father’s past history with the dictator, the order was given to bring my father back dead or alive. My father found out and defected in Puerto Rico turning over to the US authorities the whole cargo of cement which Trujillo and Rexach were smuggling into Puerto Rico and denouncing the dictatorship. He went to the media and stated that the life of his family and relatives was in the Dictator’s hands and that, if anything happened to any of them, he held the dictator solely responsible. My father was the highest ranking Naval Officer of the Dominican armed forces to ever defect and the cargo he turned over to the authorities ended up being part of the downfall of the dictatorship. (Read more about the defection – click here) This time they had another phony trial in which he was sentenced to death.

My mother and four kids were still in the D.R. without any possibility of reuniting with my father in Puerto Rico. No one could leave the island without permission from the dictator. If you were issued a passport for a trip after being granted permission by the government, your passport was confiscated on your return to the island. No one left without the government knowing about it.

A few days later, the secret police poisoned our dogs which was a hint that we were next and that all our properties would now be confiscated by the government. We packed everything we owned in about 4 hours and hid in my uncle’s house for the next 3 months. We didn’t go to school or anywhere else. My mother got rid of her car so there weren’t any “accidents”. A few months later we moved to an apartment in the city and lived there until the death of the dictator on May of 1961. During this time, we didn’t go out much. Eventually, we went back to school because it was one block away from the apartment. These were very hard times. My mother did what she could to stay sane for us. I didn’t know this until a few years ago, but she wrote anti-Trujillo papers and Mama Lupe would leave them behind in the cabs she took home. If they had been caught they might have ended up like the Mirabal sisters.

In 1961, a few days after Trujillo’s death, delegates from the OAS (Organization of American States) contacted my mother and helped us leave the island. My father had been working underground with anti-trujillistas in Puerto Rico, New York and Venezuela to device a plan to take out Trujillo. In Venezuela, he met several times with Romulo Betancourt, who had issued a Venezuelan passport for my father.

On May 31st, 1961, another group assassinated the dictator. I remember like yesterday. You could feel it everywhere: the pressure!

After the death of the dictator, the political climate became very dangerous. Like most despots, Trujillo spoiled his children, making them unable to take over the leadership of the country and anyone else capable had been killed or was in exile. Trujillo had even killed his own brother because he posed a danger to him. So the regime started collapsing right after Trujillo’s death. We left the DR 13 days after Trujillo’s assassination, before the battle for control of the government began. We were in Puerto Rico for around 7 months before returning to the D.R. while the government continued to try to achieve a balance after 32 years of this dictatorship.

The D.R. went through several years of political unrest, civil wars, coup d’etats, and a lot of turmoil. In 1962 my father became the director of the Meteorological Service, his dream job, and was one of the founders of the Dominican Civil Defense. Of course, he made no money and did it because it was his honor, and never got recognition for anything else.

In 1963 my father was named consul general in Miami, Florida, a move that impacted my family forever. My mother pushed my father to accept understanding the impact this would have in all her children. She was right on. Thanks Mom.

And impact it did.

Everyone in my family experienced a different culture and language – Halloween, Thanksgiving, the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, Rock, The Beatles, etc. and, most important, my taste of freedom and independence. Landing at the Miami airport I realized that the stork got drunk and dropped me off in the wrong country. I was home! I still remember our arrival. What I was wearing. The smell of the air. Everything changed forever.

The Dominican Civil war broke out in 1965 when a group of “communists”  tried to take over the government. The US invaded the D.R. under the wrong impression that they were needed there, mostly, in order to secure all the natural resources of the island for the US. My father became the source for all the news organizations in Miami and stayed as consul, without pay during the war. As soon as a new temporary government was put in place by the US, my father resigned. We returned to the D.R. at the tail end of the war, six months later. We still heard machine gun fire in the distance without ever knowing what happened. Many atrocities happened in the next couple of years. The US along with the new government disposed of anyone who didn’t agree with their policies, including many reporters. Most of the D.R. resented the occupation and Yankee Go Home T-shirts became very popular.

My father tried to establish a fishery in the middle of this instability and went bankrupt. He was a scientist and got lost in the process. In the meantime, the people who worked for him stole the equipment, drank all the money and sold the fish to other fisheries even though my father was supplying them with all the equipment in the first place. Eventually, he went to work with my grandfather, a job that he hated until his death in 1979.

One of my father’s last achievements was building his own 48 foot sailboat from scratch. It took him around seven years to achieve this. When the boat was finished, hurricane David devastated the island. My father’s boat was among the many casualties and his dog was also killed in the process. That was the last straw. A few months later, my father passed away. No one is sure what killed him but we suspect it was Guillain Barre brought on by a history of disappointments, PTSD and stress. Or, Zika was already around and no one knew this. At least he got to see my daughter, Avaryl, his first grandchild, who was born three months before his death.