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  • Under the Influence:The Spanish-American War, Drugs, and Prohibition Politics in Tirano Banderas
  • Tina Melstrom

The Spanish-American War of 1898 stripped Spain of its remaining colonies and, for many residing on the peninsula, dismantled a mythically reinforced façade of empire that reached its peak in the 1800s. As Henry Kamen notes, by the time of the so-called disaster of '98, "What had survived for four centuries was little more than an illusion of empire; the real empire had vanished long before" (122). Despite the contradictions held by the myth of imperial power, Spain's defeat in 1898 became an integral component of the notion of international and domestic disaster prevalent amongst peninsular intellectual and literary circles. Whether approaching the events of 1898 with a "morbid intensity" (Kamen 185) or, as Javier Krauel claims, as an emotionally-charged historical reference point (Imperial Emotions 9), the unfolding of a new global order accompanied by shifting imperial spheres of influence held importance for the authors of the Generation of 1898.1

Within this context of disaster and imperial transfer, I analyze the political criticism made by Ramón del Valle-Inclán in Tirano Banderas. A transatlantic precursor to the Latin American dictator novel of the twentieth century, the novel is often referred to as Valle-Inclán's "masterpiece" and its esperpento style has garnered much critical attention.2 Beyond its grotesque aesthetic, the novel has also been examined as a criticism of empire, including the burgeoning economic interests of the United States and the social unrest provoked by Spanish imperial practices. However, to the detriment of our understanding of the role of empire in the novel, critics have not explored its link to the U.S.'s anti-drug and alcohol rhetoric following the imperial transfer of 1898.3

I argue that the Spanish-American War is pervasive in Tirano Banderas and that the novel's preoccupation with the changing global order is evidenced by a seemingly [End Page 59] contradictory presentation of U.S. anti-drug and prohibitionist discourse. Just like fin-de-siecle intellectuals approached imperial power with an ambivalence that alternated between the "opposing affects of love and hate" (Krauel, "Ángel" 182), Valle-Inclán's presentation of this discourse alternates between criticism and praise of alcohol and drug consumption. This ambivalence, however, is unified by the novel's ultimate aim: the criticism of power. Whether it is aimed at the vestiges of Spanish colonialism or the rising interventionism of the United States, alcohol and drug discourse in Tirano Banderas problematizes and deprecates the past, present, and (potential) future of imperial aspirations in Latin America. In this way, the expression "under the influence" holds two irrevocably intertwined meanings in the novel – one related to alcohol and drugs and another to empire.

Despite the tendency to date the U.S.'s anti-drug rhetoric to the war on drugs launched under the Nixon and Reagan administrations of the 1970s and 80s,4 the U.S. began its international campaign against drugs (and later, alcohol) as a direct response to its triumph in 1898. Wayne Morgan highlights the context in which the U.S. government began to address drug consumption, stating that:

Public health officers and military spokesmen reported that some soldiers experimented with cocaine and other drugs as they waited in the Gulf ports to be shipped to Cuba. In the Philippine campaign many soldiers and sailors regularly took "C and O," camphor and opium, to combat dysentery […] As the United States became a world power, contact with foreigners, especially the "backward" peoples already associated with decadence and drug use, seemed to threaten the highly visible group called servicemen.


Besides demonstrating an impetus for anti-drug and prohibitionist policies, the notion that drug use and decadence were somehow connected is an important consideration since, as Kirkpatrick points out, Spanish literary criticism devoted to the first half of the twentieth century has noted a preponderant concern for dismantling decadence and forging national regeneration, particularly in the wake of the empire's defeat in 1898 (18).

Ultimately, however, the "threat" posed to U.S. servicemen was not the catalyst behind the United States' adoption of...


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pp. 59-75
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