In the Time of the Butterflies Historical and Social Context
by Julia Alvarez

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Dominican refugees are taken from a sailboat in the waters off the Florida Keys and boarded on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter before being interviewed by immigration officials. Many natives of the Dominican Republic left the island in reaction to the oppressio Published by Gale Cengage

The Trujillo Regime

The time period of the novel, 1938 to 1994, is dominated by the political regime of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1891-1961) and its aftermath. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Before 1930, he had been trained by the American military forces who had taken control of the nation in 1916 and left in 1924. In 1930, he used his position as head of the Dominican military to assume control of the country. To ensure his election as president, his men brutalized political opponents and terrorized voters. He further secured his power by creating a secret police force that violently suppressed opposition to his rule, maintaining networks of spies, and taking control of the press and national education. He took over industries in the country and accumulated an immense fortune. To further trade and strengthen his regime, he supported American business interests in the country and maintained a strong anti-Communist stance.

His reign was characterized by brutality and fear. He regularly employed torture and murder, and the Dominican population was largely terrified of his police forces. The most infamous episode of his dictatorship was the massacre of thousands of Haitian citizens in 1937. Haitian men, women, and children working as sugar-cane cutters or living in Dominican territory were murdered by Trujillo's soldiers. Estimates of the death toll range from 13,000 to 20.000 people.

Trujillo's methods also affected Dominicans' psychological and emotional lives. His presence dominated Dominican life. For instance, he changed the name of the capital city Santo Domingo to Cuidad Trujiilo (Trujiilo City) in 1936, and he put up signs that read "God and Trujiilo." In school, Dominican children were taught to revere him. People were required to hang a picture of Trujiilo in their homes. As Alvarez describes in her essay "Genetics of Justice," beneath the picture was the inscription "In this house Trujiilo is Chief." People learned to censor themselves and live in fear of reprisals. In the novel, Alvarez quotes a radio commentator who contends that in authoritarian countries, "The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us."

Political Resistance to Trujiilo

Though Trujillo's methods of control were highly effective, he could not completely stop either criticism or secret challenges to his rule. He defeated an insurrection attempt in 1949, when exiled Dominicans attempted to overthrow the government. In the 1950s, an underground movement developed. The movement was organized into small eight- to ten-member units or "cells." Many movement members had Communist leanings; others were simply dedicated to ending Trujillo's brutal reign. Exiles tried to invade the country on June 14, 1959, but they failed and were killed. These events spawned the Fourteenth of June Movement, which continued resistance efforts. Both the Mirabal sisters and Alvarez's parents were members of the movement, which planned to assassinate Trujiilo in January of 1960. Their plans were uncovered, however, and the movement members either fled or were jailed, tortured, and often killed.

Late in his rule, Trujiilo came under increasing international scrutiny. The Catholic Church began to openly criticize Trujiilo in 1960. The United States feared his brutality would spawn a revolution directed by Communist rebels or those sympathetic to Fidel Castro, who overthrew Fulgencio Batista's government in Cuba and instituted a Communist regime. The Organization of American States was outraged by Trujillo's attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt in 1960> Combined with the growing dissatisfaction of wealthier citizens in the Dominican Republic, these elements helped set the stage for Trujillo’s downfall. On May 30, 1961, his car was ambushed by some of his former supporters and he was shot to death. Alvarez reveals in “Genetics of Justice” that...

(The entire section is 2,294 words.)