Life With The Generalissimo

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On such trips, as the car reached the edge of each small village, it was flagged down at a guard’s kiosk. The soldier noted down our names, village of origin, destination, and the time. Then he waved us on and immediately telephoned the next kiosk ten or fifteen miles down the road. If we did not arrive after a reasonable interval—say, twenty-five minutes—a truckload of armed soldiers would be sent to search for us. When located, we would be arrested and would have to provide a good reason for the delay. In this manner Trujillo prevented the assembly of persons from different cities who might be plotting to overthrow him.

In actuality we foreigners could get along well without ever leaving the compound. We had movies, dances, the beautiful Caribbean to swim in, and our rent-free little houses in which to entertain one another. Servants were plentiful at twenty to thirty dollars a month, though it was universally understood that they supplemented their incomes by reporting on us to the Dominican secret police. As a result, none of us ever said the name Trujillo in his own home.

Trujillo was not always lacking the grace or guile, as he demonstrated in the incident of the fifty jeeps.

“Did you see what ‘someone’ said in El Caribe yesterday?” a guest might whisper to her hostess.

Or, “I see where ‘Mr. Smith’ is vacationing in Colombia,” her husband might murmur to the host over a cigar.

El Caribe was the nation’s major newspaper. So far as I know, it was the only one, which made the printed news easy to control.

It took a while for newcomers to grasp that spies were everywhere and that one’s tongue must be constantly guarded. There were no blatant trappings of despotism like the banners and storm troopers of Nazi Germany to remind you that the country was a bloody dictatorship. Often it was a single incident that brought home the terror that underlay the pervasive order and discipline.

In my case it was a stolen bicycle. In this land of grinding poverty, a bike was a major instrument of freedom for a populace that could not afford a gallon of gasoline, let alone an entire automobile. Having a two-wheeler meant that one could travel where a job was offered or visit relatives in another village without having to walk ten, twenty, or fifty miles.

So one night my venerable Raleigh disappeared. I had paid only ten dollars for the bicycle at Harvard, where it had served several generations of students, but I greatly enjoyed pedaling it around the huge compound. Thoughtlessly I reported the theft to the local army post, which also served as the police station in La Romana, the town outside the estate. Looking over the dull-eyed soldier who crankily wrote up my report, I gave the bike up as gone forever.

About ten-thirty that evening, however, soon after my wife and I had gone to bed, I was roused by someone in front of our house calling out my name. Going out in my pajamas, I found the soldier holding my bicycle by the handlebars with his left hand while his right grasped the filthy collar of a wizened, shabby laborer.

“Is this your bicycle, Señor?” he asked. I identified it. Silently he thrust it forward, and I took it.

Then he hurled the thief to the ground and began cursing him. As the man tried to crawl away, the soldier kicked him brutally, sending him sprawling. He continued to kick the man down the road, alternating the kicks with blows from his fists.

I ran after them and called at the soldier to stop, that the old man could have the bicycle, that I wouldn’t press charges, because I’d decided I didn’t want it anymore. All to no avail. The soldier replied brusquely that this was no longer my affair and that I should get back into my house immediately. I was left in no doubt about who was in charge, even if the property he was treading on belonged to an American company.

I still wonder what happened to that thief, and I fear the worst, because Trujillo had decreed that there could be no beggars, thieves, or prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. His method of enforcement was simple. His soldiers took any citizens found engaging in forbidden activities to La Fortaleza, a waterfront prison in Ciudad Trujillo. Once they went in, they were never seen again, although shark-bitten bodies were regularly found floating near a chute that emptied into the ocean lapping at the prison’s rear wall.

Trujillo’s methods worked. Dictators’ methods usually do. He was not always lacking in grace or guile, though, as the incident of the fifty jeeps demonstrated.

Our company had purchased the vehicles in assorted bright colors—red, green, blue, yellow, and orange. In the past we had used oxen to pull the cane carts, and horses as field mounts for the supervisors. We were testing whether the jeeps would prove more economical. The spies duly reported these shiny new arrivals to Ciudad Trujillo.

A few weeks later, in a seemingly unrelated incident, an army truck pulled up one afternoon at one of the corrals where we bred and raised our horses. The sergeant in charge opened the back and led down a world-famous Thoroughbred from Trujillo’s renowned racing stable.

“El Generalisimo is pleased to accord you the use of one of his horses for stud,” the soldier said, placing the lead into the hand of our astonished foreman. He got into his truck and drove away.