On our recent visit to the Dominican Republic, we passed through San Cristobal, a quiet city of a little over two-hundred thousand souls, in the shadow of its nation's bustling capital, Santo Domingo, which lies an hour-and-a-half to the east. Its one claim to fame is as the birthplace of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a brutal strong-man dictator, considered one of the worst in Latin American history, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. During his decades–long tenure, ordinary Dominicans were spied upon; tens of thousands of were abducted and tortured or "disappeared." Centers for torture were established and run by Trujillo's secret intelligence organization. And tens of thousands of Haitian laborers and those suspected of being Haitian laborers were brazenly massacred. Meanwhile, Trujillo was also building roads and schools for the middle classes, as well as transferring ownership of all the major sugar, lumber, and other agricultural industries to himself, his family members, or his supporters. Trujillo's family and supporters enjoyed outlandish wealth, while the campesinos and the laborers in the bateys remained in abject poverty with little hope of a better life.
Trujillo built two mansions in his hometown of San Cristobal, at enormous cost. His favorite, Mahogany House, was looted and vandalized after his assassination and now sits as an empty shell. The other, Castillo del Cerro, or "the castle on the hill," he rejected the first day he saw it and never spent a single night within. It has been converted to a police training academy, which seems fitting, since it looks like a prison from the outside. We stopped by there for a brief tour. From the ornate ceilings, after the fashion of European castles, to the gleaming marble floors, to the wedding-cake ballroom, to the imported, handcrafted tiles, it's clear the sort of opulence Trujillo enjoyed in his lifetime. Also on display is a replica of the electric chair that was regularly used to torture and kill his citizens. A large, evocative mural of a country dance is said to have angered Trujillo, because the party-goers look sad. We're told the artist was only painting what he thought was real, and that he fled the country in fear for his life. In another room, the molding lining the ceiling depicts tiny figures of people in the electric chair. Trujillo apparently hated that touch of inspiration, as well. I had to wonder whether the details that enraged Trujillo were intended to please him, or if they were a kind of silent protest.
Much of Dominican literature seems devoted to exploring this period of their history. For an oustanding example of Dominican literature in English, find In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel by Julia Alvarez recounting the story of the three Mirabal Sisters, dissidents whom Trujillo had murdered and whose deaths would galvanize his opposition. A Dominican film from 2010, Tropico de sangre (Rains of Injustice), covers similar territory from a different point of view. In 2000, Peruvian Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, also wrote La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), about Trujillo's regime, his assassination, and its political aftermath.