The Fall of a Regime

The twentieth century has been a turbulent period. Major wars, such as the First and Second World Wars, left scars across the world. The Spanish Flu pandemic has claimed the lives of 50 million individuals across the world. The Great Depression saw the collapse of the global economy. Meanwhile, in Latin America, dictators are having a heyday. Across the continent, would-be dictators overthrew current administrations to install themselves as absolute leaders. While dictators were already present in the continent as early as the nineteenth century, it was in the twentieth century, especially in the second half, that their presence have become more prominent. Nearly each Latin American nation experienced the atrocities of these dictators. Among them are Argentina’s Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1981), Bolivia’s Hugo Banzer (1971-1978 as a dictator, and 1997-2001 as a democratically elected president), Chile’s Augusto Pinochet (1974-1990), and Ecuador’s Guillermo Rodríguez Lara (1972-1976).

Over in the Caribbean, one of the most renowned dictators of his time was wreaking havoc. For over three decades, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina held the title of Dominican Republic’s Generalissimo. His rise to the ranks started in 1925 when then-President Horacio Vasquez assigned the US Marines-trained Trujillo as the commander of the Dominican National Police. He assumed absolute power in 1930 when a coup d’état led by Rafael Estrella Urena overthrew Vasquez after he illegally extended his presidential term. Prior to the revolt, Urena and General Trujillo struck a deal. Trujillo, citing neutrality, held his troops back, against Vasquez’s wishes. With Vasquez in exile in Puerto Rico, opportunities have opened for Trujillo to run as the country’s new president. Through intimidation, he eliminated his political rivals, hence, his unopposed victory in the 1930 presidential election. It was a prelude to the nation’s fate in the coming three decades.

The twilight moments of Trujillo’s reign as Dominican Republic’s absolute ruler were captured by 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, The Feast of the Goat. The Feast of the Goat was originally published in Spanish in 2000 as La Fiesta del Chivo and was only the second of Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre to be set outside of his native Peru; the other one being The War of the End of the World, which was set in Brazil. The Feast of the Goat was divided into three distinct strands and interweaves fictional and historical elements. The novel’s first strand is set in the contemporary and charted the story of a fictional character, Urania Cabral. It was with her story that the novel commenced.

“What about order? Stability? Security? I’ve tried to keep you away from unpleasant things. But don’t tell me you don’t know how peace is achieved. With how much sacrifice and how much blood. Be grateful that I’ve allowed you to see the other side and devote yourself to the good, while I, Abbes, Lieutenant Peña Rivera, and others kept the country in order so you could write your poems and your speeches. I’m sure that with your acute intelligence, you understand me perfectly.”

~ Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat

Nearly four decades have passed since Urania was able to escape the Trujillo regime. In haste, she left the Dominican Republic and, subsequently, her father Agustin Cabral, with whom she has severed all kinds of communications. She was just 14 years old. Since then, she has established a reputation as a lawyer in New York. She finally returned home to Santo Domingo, then called Ciudad Trujillo when she left. At first, it wasn’t clear what brought her hurtling back to the home of her childhood. One thing, however, was inevitable: confronting her father whose health was steeply declining. Agustin once held a high position in Trujillo’s government. Through flashbacks, Vargas Llosa wove Urania’s story, with emphasis on her teenage years during Trujillo’s tumultuous regime.

Set in 1961 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the second and third storylines captured the weeks preceding the assassination of Trujillo on May 30. The assassination plot was the heart of the novel, with the novel’s second storyline detailing its execution through the four main conspirators who directly participated and carried out the assassination of Trujillo: Antonio Imbert Barrera, Antonio de la Maza, Salvador Estrella Sadhalá (“Turk”), and Amado García Guerrero (“Amadito”). There were other men involved in the plotting of the assassination but Vargas Llosa focused on these four characters, detailing their motivations for their participation. Like the story of Urania, the story of the four main conspirators provided the readers with the details of Trujillo’s cruelty; the four main conspirators have, at least once, been the subject of his atrocities.

Amadito, for instance, was a Lieutenant in the army and, in order to prove his loyalty to Trujillo, was forced into giving up his beloved and coerced into killing her brother. Imbert, on the other hand, was the governor of the province of Puerto Plata prior to being dismissed by Trujillo. This was a reality check for Imbert who, like several senior government officials, was disillusioned by Trujillo’s regime for several years. He previously planned to assassinate Trujillo but it was thwarted. On May 30, 1961, the four conspirators ambushed Trujillo’s car outside of Ciudad Trujillo. Accenting the story of the conspirators is the presence and the actions of prominent Trujillo loyalists (Trujillistas), such as Joaquín Balaguer, the puppet president, and Johnny Abbes García, the head of the Military Intelligence Service (SIM).

Rafael Trujillo, who was also referred to as The Benefactor (El Benefactor), The Chief (El Jefe), and The Goat (El Chivo), was the prominent voice in the third storyline. Whilst some were speculative, Vargas Llosa managed to provide a sketch of Trujillo’s motives, actions, and thought processes. Trujillo’s reign ushered in economic stability that was not previously witnessed in the country. He played a seminal role in the modernization of the country’s infrastructure, which saw a vast improvement in public infrastructure, including improved sanitation, and new roads, schools, and hospitals. By winning over the military during his time as the national police’s head, Trujillo ensured his stranglehold of the country’s top post. The improvement of the country’s military was also on his agenda. Despite these palpable gains, Trujillo’s reign has become known as one of the most infamous and most violent regimes the world has ever seen. Like in most autocracies, the press was censored by Trujillo’s network of spies.

“Anxiously he inspected the sheets: the ugly grayish stain befouled the whiteness of the linen. It had leaked out, again. Indignation erased the unpleasant memory of Mahogany House. Damn it! Damn it! This wasn’t an enemy he could defeat like the hundreds, the thousands he had confronted and conquered over the years, buying them, intimidating them, killing them. This lived inside him, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. It was destroying him at precisely the time he needed to be stronger and healthier than ever.”

~ Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat

The third storyline was also an excellent character study. Vargas Llosa constructed Trujillo’s psychological profile by providing details of historical events that defined his regime; the book was rich in historical incidents. One such historical event was the infamous parsley massacre (Massacre du Persil). From October 2 to 8, 1937, the Dominican Army, under Trujillo’s orders, indiscriminately killed Haitians residing in the country’s northwestern frontier. It was estimated that around 20,000 Haitians were slaughtered. Trujillo encouraged his anti-Haitian sentiments among the citizenry: “The Chief cut the Gordian knot: “Enough!” Great ills demand great remedies! He not only justified the massacre of Haitians in 1937; he considered it a great accomplishment of the regime. Didn’t he save the Republic from being prostituted a second time by that marauding neighbor? What do five, ten, twenty thousand Haitians matter when it’s a question of saving an entire people?” Other manifestations of Trujillo’s brutality captured in the novel include the alleged kidnapping and murder of Jesús (de) Galíndez Suárez in 1956 and the murder of the Mirabal sisters ( Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa) in 1960.

Trujillo’s regime was also marked by the tenuous relationship that the Dominican Republic has with its neighboring nations, particularly with Cuba and the United States. A year before his own assassination, Trujilo masterminded the foiled assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt. This led to the Organization of American States (OAS) severing its ties with Trujillo. Corruption also persisted in Trujillo’s administration. He had no qualms about receiving kickbacks from infrastructure projects. There was also no parity in the distribution of the economic benefits from these projects; they were advantageous only to Trujillo, his family, and his loyal supporters. His atrocious acts and corruption far outweighed the benefits derived from these infrastructure projects.

Through The Feast of the Goat, the readers were provided with intimate details of Rafael Trujillo, who was the quintessence of an autocrat. His machismo was a prevalent part of his nature. We see a man who basked in and relished power. The novel underlined the relationship between sex and power. Disguised as a loyalty test, Trujillo required his ministers’ to have their wives, and even their daughters, to have sex with him. It was a means of keeping his ministers in tight rein while in the ministers’ perspective, it was a means of gaining favors from Trujillo. With loyalty crucial to him, Trujillo also used other tests of loyalty, such as the one he forced Amadito to be part of. Political manipulation and blackmail were important parts of Trujillo’s playbook. Trujillo has the cunning of a chess grandmaster. But even the grandmaster’s judgment can fail him at times.

The novel provided how Trujillo’s assassination shaped the nation. Confusion initially ensued as Balaguer tried to keep things under control. The conspirators, except for two, were arrested and executed in the aftermath of the assassination. Imbert survived and would even rise to the country’s presidency in 1965. But the memory of Trujillistas seems to be muddled by what they have perceived as greatness. After all, Trujillo also ushered in peace and stability that was not previously witnessed by the nation. As one character ruminated: “Perhaps it was true that because of the disastrous governments that came afterward, many Dominicans missed Trujillo now. They had forgotten the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear; horror had become a myth. “Everybody had jobs and there wasn’t much crime.””

“Whenever one gets close and looks at me as a woman, I feel sick. Horrified. I want him to die, I want to kill him. It’s hard to explain. I’ve studied, I work, I earn a good living. But I’m empty and still full of fear. Like those old people in New York who spend the whole day in the park, staring at nothing. It’s work, work, work until I’m exhausted. You have no reason to envy me, I assure you. I envy all of you. Yes, yes, I know, you have problems, hard times, disappointments. But you also have families, husbands, children, relatives, a country. Those things fill your life.”

~ Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat

The three storylines eventually converged as the story came to a conclusion. The characters’ destinies were woven together with Trujillo and the Dominican Republic. They all came alive through Vargas Llosa’s powerful and evocative writing, masterfully translated by Edith Grossman. His writing and storytelling kept the novel’s elements together. Each character, their interiors included, was carefully drawn by Vargas Llosa. Trujillo loomed large in the novel but the other characters were also vividly captured by Vargas Llosa’s writing. While the conspirators’ and Trujillo’s storylines were rich in incidents and were more vivid, Urania’s storyline and voice were less dynamic. This could be attributed to the fact that Urania was the first female protagonist in Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre. Her storyline was also more fiction than fact and was a vessel that connected the present with the past.

Autocratic governments have wreaked havoc across the world. Their prominence in history and, hence, in literature, cannot be downplayed. After all, it is in history that we learn. In Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, the readers were provided a deep and extensive character study of one of the most infamous autocrats in the ambit of world history. While the novel captured the last moments of Trujillo’s tumultuous reign, the novel was also, in a way, a dictator’s playbook. We read of the portrait of a dictator but we also read the portrait of a nation that was still reeling from the atrocities of Trujillo’s regime; his personality cult continues to resonate in the contemporary. Parts-historical fiction, parts-character study, The Feast of the Goat underlined Vargas Llosa’s status as a prime storyteller and chronicler of history.

Ratings

82%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

It was through Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that I first read about Rafael Trujillo. The atrocities he had perpetrated over three decades filled me with horror and, at the same time, reminded me of the Philippines’ own dark phase during Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. I didn’t realize that I would once again encounter Trujillo when I obtained a copy of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, which I obtained mainly because of its inclusion in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. After gathering dust in my bookshelf for nearly half a decade, I finally got to the book, my second novel from the Nobel Laureate in Literature. Again, horror was my first reaction but I commend Vargas Llosa for the book’s historical context. With elan, he built the profile of both an autocrat and a nation that was reeling from the horrors of his regime. It was also through this novel that I gained a better understanding of contemporary Latin American literature. It is in works like The Feast of the Goat that we learn about history’s dark moments and how these dark moments should not be allowed to be replicated in the present.

On a side note, I was actually confused why Vargas Llosa was writing about events outside of his homeland. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the two books by Vargas Llosa I read were his only works set outside of Peru! Nonetheless, I have obtained copies of his other works and I can’t wait to delve into them.

Book Specs

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Translator (from Spanish): Edith Grossman 
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2001
Number of Pages: 406
Genre: Historical Fiction, Dictator Novel

Synopsis

Haunted all her life by feelings of terror and emptiness, forty-nine-year-old Urania Cabral returns to her native Dominican Republic – and finds herself reliving the events of 1961, when the capital was still called Trujillo City and one old man terrorized a nation of three million. Rafael Trujillo, the depraved ailing dictator whom Dominicans call the Goat, controls his inner circle with a combination of violence and blackmail. In Trujillo’s gaudy palace, treachery and cowardice have become a way of life. But Trujillo’s grasp is slipping. There is a conspiracy against him, and a Machiavellian revolution already underway that will have bloody consequences of its own. In this “masterpiece of Latin American and world literature, and one of the finest political novels ever written” (Bookworm), Mario Vargas Llosa recounts the end of a regime and the birth of a terrible democracy, giving voice to the historical Trujillo and the victims, both innocent and complicit, drawn into his deadly orbit.

About the Author

To learn more about the Nobel Prize in Literature-winning writer, click here.