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Revealing Items

Part One:
A Dance around the Caribbean
Part Two:
It's Black and White
Part Three:
Defensive Dancing
Part Four:
Rafael Trujillo
Part Five:
Coming of Age
Part Six:
Merengue Moves Abroad
Part Seven:
Merengue in the U.K.

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A History of Merengue
Part 4: Rafael Trujillo

The man who would become one of Latin America's toughest dictators, Rafael Trujillo, joined the military during the U.S. occupation. Collaborators like him were few, so there were many opportunities for advancement. Trujillo rose rapidly through the ranks, and by the time the occupation ended, the armed forces were very much his personal tool. The eventual American withdrawal created a power vacuum, and presented him with an opportunity that he was in a position to exploit.

Road to power
Dominican politics, which had previously been very regional, was much less so once sovereignty was re-established. This was due in part to the improved communications network and centralised administration that the Marines set up during their stay. (Better communications also had the interesting effect of homogenising the merengue, popularising the cibaeño variant at the expense of other regional merengues)

When Trujillo bid for the presidency in 1930, he campaigned on a national platform not a regional one, and began a process of eliminating regional leaders, and of intimidation and ballot rigging. But his masterstroke was in understanding the power of rural aesthetic forms as symbols of national identity. He based his campaign around the merengue, recognising that the majority of voters were rural and would react favourably to it. Merengue's improvisational properties (similar to soneo in salsa) held the key to politics as a powerful form of social commentary. Trujillo toured the regions with top merengueros who at once praised his virtues and derided his opponents.

Propaganda merengue
Once in power, Trujillo continued to clothe himself in the merengue, promoting it as a national (read political) symbol. Top merengue bands were renamed after him, propaganda songs were written and performed, and his brother Petán was allowed to run a major radio station that broadcast live merengue music. La Voz Dominicana as it was called, played a great role in consolidating national acceptance of merengue cibaeño. Petán's penchant for live music meant that merengue bands seldom recorded, and even then only with his permission. Starved of recording opportunities and dissatisfied with the level of state control, many artists left for Puerto Rico and New York, spreading the merengue and beginning the Dominican diaspora.

Even the upper classes were not immune because they were compelled to play merengue cibaeño at all formal social occasions. Perhaps President Trujillo delighted in this: he was an avid merengue dancer although he was not originally of the Cibao region, and his early attempts to fraternise with the elite while he was of junior rank had been spurned.

Rafael Trujillo kept his grip on power for more than thirty years through his absolute control of the military, and by maintaining popular approval of rural Dominicans through the use of merengue. It did not prevent him from being assassinated as he made his way to his estate in 1961.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society