September 12, 2011
A Museum of Repression Aims to Shock the Conscience
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Melba Navarro froze at the image of the man with bulging eyes, his mouth flung open in terror. Or was it pain? He was strapped into an electric chair.
“How horrible was the suffering,” she said, a replica of the chair — a simple wooden seat with straps, a little light bulb on the armrest, a wire snaking from the handle to the socket — behind her. It sits under a single light bulb in a bare, chilly subterranean room meant to evoke the feeling of a torture chamber.
A shock to the conscience is the goal of the new Memorial Museum of Dominican Resistance, which brings into stark relief the years of repressive rule in this country, principally the 30 years of dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961, considered among the bloodiest in Latin America.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Díaz explored the Trujillo era and the tendency for Dominicans, indeed cultures the world over, to bury bloody chapters rather than “take the full measure of that traumatic legacy.”
“We patrol our silences with greater energy than we patrol anything,” Mr. Díaz, who was not involved in building the museum, said in an e-mail.
But whether a sign of democratic progress or the sheer trauma of the period — or both — this museum all but shouts for the era’s pain to be heard.
An animated hologram brings back to life the three Mirabal sisters, dissidents whose 1960 murder by Trujillo’s forces galvanized international opposition to him and years later were the subject of the best-selling novel by Julia Alvarez, “In the Time of the Butterflies.” A bloodied shirt from one of the assassins who killed Trujillo in 1961 hangs in a glass case. The museum’s creators are planning to add audio recordings of torture sessions from that era, known here as the Trujillato.
By the museum’s count, more than 50,000 died in a stretch of oppression and political upheaval from 1916 to 1978, including at least 17,000 Haitians in a racially tinged massacre by Dominican forces under Trujillo’s orders at the border in 1937.
In the view of the creators of the museum, several of them relatives of those killed or tortured, it shines a light on a history increasingly lost on younger generations.
“We are rescuing the memory,” said Luisa de Peña Díaz, the director of the museum and one of its founders, whose father was killed in 1967 as he plotted an insurrection against the president at the time, Joaquín Balaguer.
The current government supported the museum, contributing $2 million, much of the cost to build it. It sits in a renovated house in this city’s historic center — coincidentally across from a school named Gandhi — and also counts on backing by private donors.
The museum has received thousands of visitors since its opening on May 31, but someday may face competition. While historians agree Trujillo earned a place in the tyranny hall of fame, his family members have set up a Web site, Museo Generalisimo Trujillo, announcing plans for a museum to honor him and challenge parts of the historical record they dispute.
The counter-museum is the brainchild of L. Ramfis Domínguez-Trujillo, grandson of the dictator, who acknowledges his forebear was a “military dictator who did not tolerate freedom of speech” but believes that the death toll ascribed to him is inflated and includes killings by collaborators he was unaware of.
Mr. Domínguez-Trujillo, 41, said he would tap a quiet undercurrent of nostalgia for Trujillo and highlight his grandfather’s efforts to modernize the Dominican Republic, building roads, schools and electrical distribution, for example, that are overlooked in favor of his “excesses.”
“Did he commit a number of excesses? Absolutely. He was human. Was he a monster? Absolutely not,” Mr. Domínguez-Trujillo said in a telephone interview from Miami, where he lives. He made a point of adding that he works as a real estate developer and never lived off any of the millions Trujillo reportedly looted from the treasury.
Ms. de Peña said a panel of historians, using the national archives, recently opened police files and other sources, carefully researched everything claimed in the museum she directs.
It challenges right from the start any positive achievements; the entire first section of the museum is devoted to what it calls the myths of Trujillo, countering the notion of economic stability, for instance, by pointing out fraud in his government and his majority financial stake in national industries.
Monuments in his likeness sprang up all over the country during his rule. A web of spies kept tabs on and dispensed with dissidents. Young women he fancied surrendered to his advances or risked death. He had the capital renamed Ciudad Trujillo.
With help from the Central Intelligence Agency, according to a United States Senate report in 1975, he was assassinated in 1961 by members of the army and civilians, but turbulent years followed until 1978, when the government issued a decree freeing political prisoners.
The museum researchers are compiling a list of the victims to display, covering acts of political oppression and resistance between 1916 and 1978.
Ms. de Peña, who was pushed to develop the museum by concerns of her grandmother and mother that resistance fighters were being forgotten, drew inspiration from a visit to the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem.
The idea of “never forget” burned in her mind.
“Our values were being turned aside after the generation that grew up in the dictatorships,” said Ms. de Peña, 44. “It was like a ‘generation lite’ after that. That generation lite gave birth to an even worse generation lite.”
Some of the more enthusiastic visitors have been the young, who find the not-so-long-ago events shocking. Many said they had learned only a little in school or through oblique references to the country’s troubled past at the family dinner table.
“Our generation doesn’t know what happened,” said Mabel Rodríguez, 17, as she visited one day. “Although it is sad and depressing how they tortured everybody, it is part of our history. Those people who were tortured were protecting our country.”