Life With The Generalissimo

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We Americans don’t understand very well what it is to live under a dictatorship, so we tend not to become too disturbed when our government helps some general stay in power. A few million dollars to prop up his failing economy, some tanks and planes to promote his domestic tranquillity—we rationalize measures like these because the dictator is friendly to the United States. Usually that means that American business investments appear more secure under the present, known regime than under the unknowable conditions that would result from the dictator’s fall from power.

I am a native-born American who spent his childhood (1928-39) in the Dominican Republic. I grew up thinking that conditions there under Trujillo were the way things were everywhere. I left for school, college, and military service in the United States and went back to the Dominican Republic two decades later. As an American I was insulated from most of the direct effects of Trujillo’s rule, but even so, I felt his presence everywhere. Let me describe a bit of my daily life there.

First, all dictators require a title. Hitler’s was Führer. Mussolini’s was Il Duce. Trujillo’s was ten times as grandiloquent. In every newspaper article, radio announcement, and speech, he was referred to in the initial mention with a string of Spanish words that translate to: the clearly perceived as Generalissimo Dr. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, Benefactor of the Fatherland and Father of the New Fatherland. His reign lasted more than a quarter-century, ending only with his assassination in 1961.

The Dominican Republic is a country of seven million people that shares with Haiti the island of Hispaniola, between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Like the other two islands, it is mountainous, hot, humid, and poor, producing tropical crops such as coffee, bananas, and—the basis for American economic interest—sugar in great quantity at low cost.

I lived there until I was almost eleven. My father managed the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) in San Pedro de Macorís until he was transferred in 1939.1 went back in 1957, at the age of twenty-nine, to work for an American firm, the South Porto Rico Sugar Company, which operated what was at the time one of the largest single sugar mills in the world. Newly married, I was eager to make good, yet I lasted less than a year, which I attribute to my change in viewpoint from childhood to maturity.

On my first day at work, in the high-ceilinged office with slowly turning fans, Mr. Furet, the office manager, clued me in on office customs and hierarchy. “See him?” He pointed with his chin to a seedy-looking elderly man who wandered aimlessly around the offices without anyone paying him any attention. “He’s the government spy. Too stupid to earn a living any other way. We laugh at him.”

I noticed, though, that my coworker whispered and didn’t look directly at the wretched-looking agent. Later I learned that this was only the “obvious” spy, there to distract attention from the real spies, whom we never identified.

Those other spies did exist, though, because nothing took place in our company without the government in Ciudad Trujillo (the generalissimo’s new name for the 450-year-old city Santo Domingo) knowing about it instantly. This was true even though my employer was a gigantic, powerful, and secretive American firm that cultivated more than 120,000 acres.

Trujillo demonstrated both his power and the extent of his intelligence operation the week after I arrived. He arbitrarily raised the minimum wage from $ .75 per day to $1.50. That’s per day , not per hour. This caused howls of agony from our financial managers both locally and in New York. Nevertheless, the Dominican government, with its intimate inside knowledge, knew to the penny what the company could afford. After a few internal adjustments and, no doubt, a slight reduction to the next dividend, the company went on as before.

To the Dominican and Haitian field laborers, however, the increase in daily pay meant the difference between bare subsistence and being able to buy a new pair of shoes once a year. I used to see these laborers lining up daily at the company store with empty Pepsi bottles to buy cooking oil for their next meal, which they would prepare in the fields. For a nickel they received one inch of oil. They couldn’t afford more at one time. You can see how with the stroke of a pen Trujillo bolstered his extraordinary popularity with the poor, who alone had the numbers to topple him.

Other laws were equally arbitrary. Though technically we foreigners in our cloistered company houses were immune from interference by the government, in practice we weren’t. An example was the statute regarding automobile accidents. Police arriving at the scene of a collision were required to arrest everyone in both cars. The idea was that someone in the group had to be the person responsible. Since blameless parties were assumed to be able to prove their innocence, whoever was left in jail must therefore be culpable.

The result was that no foreign employee was allowed to operate a car. Instead the company maintained a motor pool and a cadre of presumably expendable Dominican drivers for the convenience of those of us who had business away from the compound or who wanted to travel the sixty miles to Ciudad Trujillo to shop.