- Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History
Most university press books have fancy dust jackets sprinkled with rave comments by recognized scholars in the field. This one, by Richard Lee Turits and published by Stanford University Press, is no exception. In this case, however, almost all of what appears on the back cover happens to be accurate. In short, this is an important book for Dominican historiography and has relevant implications for the study of dictatorship anywhere. Turits has crafted a solid examination of the peasantry during the long reign of general Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina (1930-61). Historical chapters trace the emergence of the peasant class during the colonial period and nineteenth century, along with the development of land tenure patterns. Even after the growth of the sugar complexfrom the 1880 s and U.S. occupation from 1916 to 1924 , Dominican rural dwellers managed to maintain a considerable independence based on the availability of land and a weak state, which left them alone for the most part.
Trujillo and his circle tried to change this pattern after coming to power in 1930, as a part of a larger plan to modernize and "Dominicanize" the country, which included a model of a hard-working, productive peasantry. The Generalissimo extended the reach of government into rural areas, attempted (with only some success) to normalize land tenures, redistributed land, and in general tried to make the peasantry both a dependent and productive force (here too with generally mixed results). Part of the Dominicanization plan included settling Dominican peasants along border areas and driving Haitian peasants out. [End Page 543]
This policy also lay behind the frightful 1937 massacres of Haitians in rural areas. One of the book's strongest features is its use of interview material from rural dwellers who witnessed the period. Throughout, Turits is appropriately cautious, suggesting rather than drawing definitive conclusions based on a scattering of personal testimony taken long after the actual events. The text is copiously documented, well written, and relies heavily on primary sources.
Several themes emerge from the material. To a surprising degree, the peasantry saw Trujillo in a favorable light, even while recognizing the downside of rigid dictatorship. The benefits flowing from state-providedland, tools, roads, irrigation canals, and even pacification gained Trujillo grudging respect, admiration, andsupport. One is reminded of offspring responding to a "tough love" approach. The message is clear: even the most ruthless and arbitrary of dictators needs support from sectors of the population, and to gain that, they must produce positive rewards. Carrots work where sticks alone often do not. The extent of Trujillo's nationalism (at times with marked anti-American overtones), especially in the early years, stands clear throughout. Further, Trujillo's reign must be divided into the period up to the 1950 s and the years after that, when he embarked upon an ill-fated venture in sugar that eventuallyruined the economy and turned significant sectors against him. The state's (i.e., Trujillo's) expanding landholdings cost himsupport among the peasantry.
This is perhaps the weakest section of the book. We are never quite sure what happened to change things so drastically, and Turits never adequately spells out the exact nature of the opposition. It is surprising, for example, to read about the postwar period and find no mention of the often antagonistic relations between Trujillo and the important Santiago protobourgeoisie.
This lengthy monograph is not a history of the Trujillo years, nor does it pretend to be. Rather, it is a study of the interactions between the peasantry and the dictator. But it also sheds light on Trujillo, showing clearly that his years in office were more complicated than is often assumed. To get lost, as some writers about this period have done, in anecdotal atrocity stories or colorful strongman tales, does not do justice to the topic. Turits has made this clear and successfully avoids those pitfalls. He even tacitlysuggests that...