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  • The Dictator's Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo
  • Allen Wells
The Dictator's Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo. By Lauren Derby. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 412. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $94.95 cloth; $25.95 paper.

Until recently, novelists, not historians, have written the most insightful, not to mention riveting, portraits of dictatorship. Many of the giants of Latin American literature—Miguel Angel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Agustín Roa Bastos, just to name a few—have been seduced by the allure of the strongman. Why has it been so problematic for historians to discern what makes authoritarian regimes tick? By definition dictatorships foster closed, often asphyxiating societies; the climate of fear and surveillance obscures more than it reveals. This may help explain why when historians do write about strongmen, they are drawn to the tyranny; no doubt it is easier to count the bodies than plumb how fear and consent worked hand in glove to keep dictators in power.

That is changing. Lauren Derby has written a fascinating cultural history of the brutal, three-decade-long Trujillo regime, illustrating the complex and complicit relationship between the dictator and the Dominican pueblo. Drawing on the literature from symbolic anthropology and cultural studies, Derby transports her readers to Trujillo's theater [End Page 567] state, a "murky quotidian terrain where people lived in a space of ambivalence and complicity of passive action in the subjunctive mood" (p. ix). For the most part, the focus is on city dwellers, especially those who lived in the capital then named Ciudad Trujillo. As such, this monograph is a valuable complement to Richard Turits' excellent Foundations of Despotism (2003), which explained how the populist generalissimo forged a base of support in the countryside.

Although Derby never shies away from the regime's more sanguinary methods, the emphasis is on subtler methods employed to cultivate a culture of compliance. She is, for instance, drawn to the spiritual realm, arguing that everyday Dominicans believed that the dictator tapped occult powers that made it possible for him to defeat his rivals and to exercise seemingly omniscient control over his subjects. The dictator and his inner circle cunningly utilized secrecy, rumors, leaks, denunciations and praise-speech, and when these methods were coupled with selective, seemingly arbitrary repression, they only heightened the pervasive specter of fear.

Derby also maps how Trujillo took bread and circuses to theater of the absurd lengths, accruing symbolic capital by adding a profusion of civic holidays (over 100 new holidays were added to the already hefty dose of religious holy days), and staging extravagant, carnivalesque beauty pageants, parades and processions. The pièce de résistance was a multimillion-dollar boondoggle of a world's fair in 1955. Such an exquisitely managed house of mirrors served to burnish his populist credentials and stoke nationalism, Derby contends, while playing on the racial and class fantasies of the popular classes.

Trujillo also turned Dominicans into voyeurs by flaunting his machista conquests of young daughters and wives of the gente de primera. In this way, he bullied his way into the ranks of the upper class, all the while accumulating status and currying favor with his base. Womanizing, as Derby relates, even became a popular, if scandalous, regime export during the Trujillato, when a handpicked debonair surrogate, Porfirio Rubirosa, was a fixture in international gossip columns for bedding such Hollywood and jet set starlets as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Betty Hutton. Trujillo and Rubirosa shared plebeian, mulatto roots. They played up their tiguere, or trickster, traits to socially and politically claw their way to the top. Manliness was accentuated, Derby argues, because the dictator, lacking even the most rudimentary oratorical skills, was far from charismatic. Instead, Trujillo cultivated the image of a powerful, tireless man of action, most notably in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1932 that leveled the capital, when he cast himself as a whirling dervish who personally attended to the poor and the dispossessed in their hour of need.

As Derby brilliantly illustrates in her conclusions, the linchpin of Trujillismo...


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