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.

1 comment:

EL DSG said...

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