John W. Graham

These are extraordinary times and they are made more surreal and lethal by the bizarre antics of the President of the United States. For older folk, like me, they make us reach back and wonder if there were other periods in our lives as dark and eerily dramatic as those we are living in. I was ten years old when World War II came to an end – not nearly old enough to sense the weight and horror of events, but old enough to have understood the drama that suffused our lives. Many more of us will recall the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 which came perilously close to devastating large parts of our planet. But it was not until long after, when the files were opened, that we understood how close we came to a nuclear Armageddon and that we were saved by the character and humanitarian impulse of both Kennedy and, surprisingly, Khrushchev.

I had a more intimate experience of a world gone mad when I was in my twenties and on my first posting in the foreign service. This was the Dominican Republic, then ruled by Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, the most ruthless, paranoid and efficient dictator in the hemisphere – and the hemisphere was awash with dictators in those days. Citizens not considered to be in loyal compliance were tortured and liquidated. Listening devices and the dreaded secret police were everywhere. The country, almost literally, trembled at the sound of his name.
Trujillo was also, like our neighbour to the South, Mr. Narcissus. In the generalissimo’s case, his gold embossed uniform blazed with decorations. The capital city, Santo Domingo, founded by Christopher Columbus’s brother was renamed Cuidad Trujillo. Well-paid hagiographers projected his heroic image to all corners of the Iberian world. He had acquired just about every fawning title that could be squeezed out of a small country. He was by law ‘Benefactor de la Nacion’, ’Padre de la Patria Nueva’. Only one national prize eluded him: ‘Benefactor de la Iglesia (church)’. The unexpected difficulties in obtaining this title made it all the more coveted and the ensuing story, spawned by unhinged vanity, is an illustration of very different, but “tough times”.

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Rafael Trujillo as seen by the Palace Photographer.

In those days the church had rules about this sort of thing. Every bishop in the country had to agree before such an honour could be conferred. Most came quickly into line, including the archbishop. But two held out: an American and a Spaniard. Both had resolved that they would not become accessories to this obscenity. Perceiving the recalcitrant prelates as a threat both to his authority and to his ego, the dictator set loose his secret police to intimidate the bishops into submission. Prostitutes were forced to dance in the Spaniard’s cathedral and the American was burned out of his residence and forced to take refuge in a convent. One Canadian priest committed a capital crime. To the horror of his parishioners, he denounced the dictator for blasphemous presumption from his pulpit. One step ahead of the secret police, he was whisked out of the country.

The campaign escalated into high farce. The national radio, controlled by the secret police, announced that prizes would be awarded for the best prose or poems in thirty-five words or less that successfully encapsulated the treacherous and immoral character of the two bishops. As an exercise of black-humoured irreverence, a friend and I composed limericks that we recited to a small and discreet group of expatriates.

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 Raphael Trujillo as seen by many of his subjects and  local diplomats.

Many members of Canadian religious orders received threats. Almost all learned of their supposed apostasy from the same secret police operated radio station that was reciting scurrilous jingles about the bishops. For example: “Father X is believed to have devoted the proceeds of the collection plate to the retail liquor trade” or more piquantly “Father Y was spotted last night sneaking out the back door of Doṅa Rosa’s brothel”. When this happened, I would take the battered Embassy Chevrolet, drive to the parish concerned, fix a small Canadian flag to a standard on the fender and motor around until I was sure that the local secret police had registered my presence. There wasn’t really anything else that I could do. And in any event, it was an agreeable duty. I met most of the Canadian priests and nuns, often rocking on their verandas sipping rum or coffee in the warm night air.

(Trujillo was assassinated thirteen days following the announcement of the competition. Not long after, the country dissolved in civil war, a conflict overwhelmed by an invasion of US Marines ordered by President Johnson. Bits of this story have been taken from John Graham’s memoir “Whose Man in Havana –Adventures from the Far Side of Diplomacy”.)

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