Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dominicans & Trujillo

Another week another title, once again on the old goat Generalissimo Trujillo. I was completely sucked in by Trujillo: Causas De Una TiranĂ­a Sin Ejemplo (Trujillo: Causes of a Tyranny without Equal) by Juan Bosch. Juan Bosch was one of Dominican Republic's most prolific intellectuals, a former President, and a monumental figure in the politics of DR. He wrote this in exile in 1961, before coming to power, and in fact before the ultimate downfall of Trujillo. The book is a must read for those of us American Dominicans who grew up stateside and don't have the best narrative sense of Dominican history. Although the subject of this title is Trujillo, Prof. Bosch in the process outlines in fast moving, incisive chapters the historical eras of the island from the times of Columbus, through Spanish and Haitian rule and into the first of two 20th C. US invasions. I've known for a long time the pieces that come along to us from parents on national holidays, like the upcoming DR Independence Day however this was precisely what I lacked for my assorted jumble of DR historical facts: a set of discrete periods of DR and some corresponding themes, the canvases on which the historical facts become a story. Unfortunately in this particular case it is told with a tragic bent as a decoding of the causes of the rise of dictatorship. As Bosch guides us through these eras he touches on the cultural and social legacies they left, and constructs a genealogy of the causes of both Trujillo the unique man/monster and also his unmatched tyrannical regime. Bosch convincingly argues that Trujillo was the consummation and culmination of the full array of historical forces at work in the colonization of the Caribbean and of DR in particular.

Dr. Bosch's analyses and his prognosis is frighteningly accurate. Ironically the book itself also serves as an example of the prime character flaw Dr. Bosch diagnosed in Dominicans of 1960s (and today?): destructive gossip, el bochinche maligno. Dr. Bosch stresses repeatedly the role of classism and social position in DR. He points to Trujillo's insecurities around his lower class heritage, and to instances of explicit rejection by the Dominican social elites of the highest ranks, as the roots of Trujillo's unquenchable ambition for wealth and power. As I mentioned the book was written just months before the assassination of Trujillo, and the subsequent short Presidency of the author Dr. Bosch himself, aborted by a military coup and an invading US Army. Despite all this ensuing historical drama, in a post-scriptum written in 1991 the only further insights Bosch saw fit to add to the text were more gossip to confirm Trujillo's low class origins.

Unlike the last book this one grabs you and reads quickly and to the point. Unfortunately it is in Spanish and I'm not sure there are translations available. If you are trying to learn Spanish this may not be a bad one to tackle. You will get some useful cultural history of Dominicans and a glimpse into a dark and bizarre dictatorship that nonetheless directly shaped the people who today largely populate Washington Heights & Inwood. Locals can pick it up @ Calliope bookstore on Dyckman Avenue.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

the comeback trail: Cotto & Pavlik

One of the strange aspects of boxing is that fighters often work their way to a title belt without having tasted defeat. Sometimes undefeated fighters go beyond just winning a title and are declared champions of their division by the people and even the pundits. Whether the undefeated status is the result of genuine brilliance or of a careful and calculated climb up the ranks an undefeated champion is must pass a final test. The legacy star fighters leave behind to the fans often depends on how they react after their first genuine destruction. Despite having already faced giants and claimed championships, in a sense tonight is the beginning of the real test for two fighters; Miguel Cotto and Kelly Pavlik. Beyond their own legacies the attention to the sport of many boxing fans is on the line. I'm referring of course to those fuzzy pseudo-ethnic undertones that pervade boxing. Both of these young lions have the hopes of their tribe and city riding on another successful run inside the ring. Can their warrior's spirit rebound from annihilation and keep the torch of boxing fandom alive in their communities?

Puerto Rico's Miguel Cotto (32(26)-1) is the current darling of Boricua boxing fans. Predictably amongst the Dominican crowd there are as many haters as fans. I'm a fan. Last time out Cotto received a savage beating. After that we all had our doubts. Cotto is unquestionably a world class fighter, but does he have what it will take to become an undisputed champ? Well time reveals the truth and we learned what actually happened that night against Mexio's Antonio 'padded gloves' Margarito. Now Cotto must restart the campaign up the ladder to get a crack at the champion, Shane Mosley; a man he has already defeated right here in NYC. Tonight Cotto is back at the Garden against a ranked contender, Michael Jennings (34(16)-1) of the UK. The opponent may not be a top 10 name but to Cotto's credit in his last fifteen fights only one opponent was arguably not top ten when they fought! He has earned a showcase fight.

The show also features the comeback fight of popular middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik (34(30)-1). Pavlik is from working class Youngstown, OH and his skills and humble demeanor are earning him a following out in the heartland. He also was demolished recently when he moved up a weight class, however there is no shame in losing to one of our generation's P4P greats Bernard Hopkins. Tonight he is in against a tough customer, Mexican Marco Antonio Rubio (43(37)-4). Hopefully this guy is not another cheat like Margarito. Finally the card will also feature NYC-based Irish fighter John Duddy. I don't rate Duddy too highly, but I do approve of building up local stars slowly and steadily. He remains undefeated and with proper management, training, and experience he may prove me wrong and make it to the elite echelons.

Unfortunately I couldn't splurge on tickets for this one but I'll likely order it on PPV. And if MMA is your game SpikeTV is broadcasting the UFC event from London,UK. I love these doubleheader weekends!

Monday, February 16, 2009

el Jefe

It always happens with my job that the coldest week of the year coincides with the busiest time. The last fifteen days I spent tied to my desk, right through my nights and weekends. Dark, cold, lonely days writing TPS reports and cranking up the old RiskMaster3000. Despite all this I did manage, with some starts and stops, to plow through a title. Deprive me of sunlight, exercise, healthy meals and companionship, but don't keep me from my books! What kind of uncivilized brute would I be without them?

Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History by Richard Lee Turits

This book was an eye-opening history of the foundation of Generalissimo Trujillo's long-lasting power. For those unfamiliar it is hard to top Junot Diaz's description of Trujillo as an 'infamous fuckface ... one of the dictatingest dictators that ever dictated'. He was absolute master of the Dominican Republic between 1930-1961. There are some really wild stories out there about the excesses and atrocities carried out under his watch. Those lurid tales weren't what interested me though. I sought to know HOW and WHY Dominicans put up with the guy for thirty years. As with Fidel Castro that long a reign takes much more than troops and torture to maintain. Turits' book offered many lessons on statecraft, nation-building and Trujillo's role in their development in DR. The largest lesson from this book was that despite the cruel and twisted aspects of his story Trujillo was actually a highly effective head of state whose early policies did great good to the infant nation. His regime sped up and solidified economic processes that unshackled DR from being a marginal backwater. Principally this meant 'domesticating' our grandparents who were for the most part stubbornly nomadic ranchers and/or subsistence farmers gatherers. No leader of any stripe had succeeded in encouraging this sedentarization for centuries, despite many attempts. Trujillo also drew and enforced the Dominican national boundaries, both territorially and tragically in the sense of identity. He almost literally created the state apparatus of DR. Most shockingly to me he successfully redistributed land to the common man the way so many Lat-Am movements promised and failed to deliver. This last point is the one around which Foundations is centered. Clearly Trujillo acted out of greed and self-interest, but his cunning was in seeing where his interests aligned with those of our then often impoverished, landless grandparents.

Foundations is written in an academic, densely foot-noted style and doesn't have a thrilling narrative. Unless you bring your own curiosity as I did you won't find it as gripping as titles on Trujillo's dark side. Still all histories ultimately begin with the material and economic facts, the broad determinants as illustrated by documented particulars. Read this book to begin to understand the structural reasons why DR generated, accepted and even needed a Generalissimo Trujillo. Dominicanos you will be surprised to find that contrary to stereotypes around our history the Trujillo regime was not just a puppet government installed over a hapless banana republic by the US State Department. Alongside El Jefe, in this piece of history the unlikely co-protagonist was the Dominican campesino and not the big bad empire.