From 1930 to 1961, Rafael Trujillo presided over one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. Countless books and articles have dissected the political nature of his regime, but none has fully examined the way Trujillo managed to control Dominicans’ everyday lives. Lauren Derby’s book, The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo, is a long-awaited attempt to fill that gap.
Derby, associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, offers an innovative portrayal of the culture, in many ways created by Trujillo himself, that allowed him to consolidate such absolute power in the Dominican Republic. She does this by distancing herself from attempts that focus on biographical singularities to analyze Latin American dictatorships. Instead, Derby explains Trujillo’s absolute control by looking at cultural instruments, such as music, art, religion, and poetry, that he used to create political consensus and build symbolic legitimacy. She employs a post-modern perspective that attempts to go beyond traditional historians’ interpretations of the Trujillo regime as one based solely on brute military force.
The approach works well and provides new insights. She begins by examining the liberal politics that dominated late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Dominican society. In a first chapter, Derby identifies the conditions that led to Trujillo’s 31-year reign, namely a literate, predominantly white, urban elite that unsuccessfully tried to impose a European pseudo-aristocratic worldview on the rural masses. But the profound racist undertones of this social model drew sharp criticism from the 80 percent of Dominicans belonging to the Creole, mulatto peasantry.
The pessimistic, anti-populist ideology of Dominican liberals eventually alienated an emerging and frustrated middle class. They saw Trujillo as a leader who could channel their social and economic aspirations. Originally from the lower-middle class, he had climbed the country’s social ladder, advancing through the ranks of the national constabulary. By the late 1920s, as army chief, he had become a key political figure.
The liberal elite despised Trujillo. After becoming president, he moved quickly to destroy the political power of his adversaries. He reached out to the rural masses and the urban poor using all available means—most notably by expanding the army with new recruits from the lower ranks of society and by broadly distributing land, seed and cattle.
The ability of Trujillo and his collaborators to obtain absolute control is what made his regime different from other dictatorships. Economic domination was a key objective. Trujillo created a predatory regime that developed a system of monopolies and allowed his family to eventually control more than 60 percent of the Dominican economy.
But that was not enough. According to Derby, Trujillo understood that the masses were longing for a savior, a messianic father figure who could take them out of poverty or at least end their traditional exploitation by the country’s landowners, ranchers, planters, and merchants. The poor were looking to cast away the label of gente de segunda (second-class people), and Trujillo presented himself as the answer to their wishes.
Trujillo developed an aura of mystique around himself. He appeared in flashy clothes and cars and developed a system of gifts and exchanges of services. He also baptized thousands of children to build family loyalties and strengthen compadrazgo (ritual-based coparenthood) ties—relationships that had important political consequences in this period.
Derby argues that Trujillo also took advantage of a symbolic crisis of masculinity among Dominicans. Ownership of a revolver had traditionally been an honor that came along with a young man’s coming of age, but the U.S. military disarmed the civilian population during its occupation from 1916 to 1924. Trujillo capitalized on this national sense of emasculation to portray himself as a supermale. The book provides extensive insight into how he continually used a masculine discourse employing not only words, but dress codes, parades, political rallies, popular dances, merengue lyrics, gossip, and rumor. He even paraded his mistresses in public view.
Three weeks after his inauguration, a powerful hurricane destroyed Santo Domingo, providing an opportunity for Trujillo to play up an image of masculine capacity and unwavering leadership. Derby dedicates a chapter to the reconstruction of the capital city. She shows how the disaster allowed Trujillo to consolidate his authority and to portray himself as the builder of a new nation of which he was the only benefactor. Soon afterwards, he demanded to be formally addressed as “Generalissimo Doctor Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, Benefactor of the Motherland, and Father of the New Motherland.”
With this new image, Derby shows that Trujillo used an array of means to instill fear among Dominicans. He projected a supernatural capacity to inflict harm on his enemies—not only physical, but also, through his association with witchcraft and the Catholic Church, spiritual and psychological. Rumors spoke of Trujillo’s association with demonic powers, and while unsubstantiated, he would go to the wildest of extremes. In 1937, for example, Trujillo ordered the massacre of several thousand Haitians who lived illegally in the Dominican Republic.
According to Derby, Trujillo combined and projected many images. He was both a magnificent and generous father who organized the motherland and developed the wealth of the country, and a tiguere, or thug, capable of committing any atrocity to keep absolute control. Trujillo treated the country as his personal feudal domain in which every citizen was a servant. Yet he and his collaborators devised many ways to instill in the masses a sense of common accomplishment as co-participants, with him, in the construction of a new country.
By building on Derby’s dissertation work and her primary research, the book offers this type of rich analysis. And despite its choppiness, The Dictator’s Seduction is an outstanding and original book that is surprising in its originality and depth and displays a clear command of this period in Dominican history. Experts and beginning students of Dominican affairs will find this book a worthy read.