When I Swam with Juan Peron at the “Hotel of the Dictators”

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La Paz Hotel, Ciudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic, ca: 1950s

The 1950s and 60s were notable for the political and military upheavals in South America. Every other week it seemed, there was another coup somewhere with dictators either assassinated or fleeing their countries. But, where, one wonders, does a disgraced dictator flee when he’s been deposed?

Oddly and improbably enough, I can answer that question.

After graduating from Whitman College in the 50s with a political science degree, I took a job on the DC staff of Washington U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson. The opportunity also allowed me to take graduate courses in history at American University. After a year, and looking looking for a new adventure we came across an enticing announcement; teaching positions were available at an English-language school in the Dominican Republic. My wife had the obvious credentials; she was a certified teacher in Maryland. I was a harder sell: I imagined my political science and history background might work as a “social studies” applicant. To our delight, we were accepted as a “teaching couple.”

We embarked on what we envisioned as a lark; an exotic adventure. It turned out to be far more.

Carol Morgan School was situated in the capital city of Ciudad Trujillo, formerly known as Santo Domingo. We were lodged in a government-owned hotel called La Paz (“The Peace”). Although considered a luxury hotel, with its restaurant, swimming pool and manicured campus, La Paz was also the home of President Rafael Trujillo’s personal “guests.”

Rafael Trujillo

Trujillo, known as “El Jefe” (The Chief), despite invoking terrorism on his own people, had engineered a peaceful co-existence with the United States. This was a significant accomplishment. The U.S. had occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916 because of an alleged debt dispute. During World War II, Trujillo strengthened his air force to help protect the Americas from European incursions, and welcomed Jewish refugees at the request of American and European Jewish groups.

On the other hand, Trujillo was responsible for the removal or death of over 60,000 Haitians he claimed had “invaded” Dominican territory. Trujillo held power from 1930, either as president or military strongman. Similar political upheavals had become a regular occurrence in the neighboring states of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.

During the late 1950s our hotel was a bustling place, with many guests arriving with entourages and often accompanied by police or armed bodyguards. It was a procession of improbable notables. We often sat in the dining room near Juan Domingo Peron, former (and future) president of Argentina; Fulgencia Batista, recently arrived from Cuba, courtesy of Fidel Castro; and Venezuela’s president Marcos Perez, fleeing a coup d’etat invoked by his armed forces.

The official portrait of President Juan Domingo Perón, wearing a presidential sash as a symbol of office. Finished in 1948, the painting presents special characteristics: It is the only case in which a president appears smiling and furthermore accompanied with the First Lady, María Eva Duarte de Perón, known popularly as “Evita”.

My interactions with Peron were more direct. Most mornings before school, I swam laps in the large hotel pool. My strokes were often matched (or observed) by early-riser Peron. He was always accompanied by the same bald unsmiling (and armed) “attendant.” On several of these occasions his third wife Isabel and her two leashed poodles watched our morning ritual. (Isabel’s predecessor, Eva Duarte, was later cast as a principal character in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical “Evita.”)

Despite my halting Spanish and Peron’s limited English, we occasionally engaged in friendly banter. Among his observations: I owned an Italian Lambretta motor scooter, which he good-naturedly demeaned, suggesting that I buy a German-made model.

It turns out our stay at the La Paz made us a target of sorts. During the 1959 Christmas break my wife and I booked a Caribbean tour via Pan American Airlines: Cuba; Puerto Rico; Haiti. On Christmas Eve we found ourselves in noisy Havana. The city was in a riot: Fidel Castro was allegedly entering the city’s outskirts, our luggage was lost, the airport was overwhelmed with tourists and Cubans trying to leave the island, and Batista had fled to the Dominican Republic and the La Paz.

Upon our return to the La Paz, my wife and I were invited by the German Consul to have lunch aboard a German ship docked nearby. After a delicious meal and small talk, the ship’s captain looked me in the eyes and made an offer. He knew that Batista was living in our hotel. He’d been promised $1 million dollars by the Castro regime if he brought Batista to Cuba. If I brought Batista to his ship, he said, he would split the reward with me 50-50. He was serious.

I was abashed. The idea of somehow kidnapping and transporting the former Cuban president to a waiting sugar freighter was beyond my 20-year-old comprehension – although my brain ran through several dramatic scenarios to see if I understood the captain’s offer. I declined.

Of course, time passed and everyone moved on. My wife and I returned to the States after a year of teaching and exploring the beauty, architecture and historical monuments of Hispaniola. The pace of coups and overthrows in Central and South America eventually died down (with a sudden upsurge in the past few weeks with the assassination of Haiti’s leader, the death of Raoul Castro and the protests that have followed) but I still recall our little refuge for dictators in the ironically-named “Peace” Hotel.

As for our famous fellow guests at the La Paz:

  • Trujillo, dictator-president of the Dominican Republic, was assassinated in his country in 1961 – just two years after my wife and I returned to the States; Peron fled to Spain, then returned as interim president of Argentina (followed in the presidency by his wife Isabel, my swimming poolmate);
  • Batista, who had presided over Cuba during its Ernest Hemingway days and as one of the world’s famous gambling centers, also found Spain a comfortable space, dying in the beautiful town of Malaga in 1973;
  • Jimenez ended his exile in the Dominican Republic, lived in the United States until he was extradited to Venezuela on charges of embezzling $200 million during his presidency;
  • Fidel Castro’s years in Cuba offered a host of excitement throughout the Western Hemisphere, more or less ending with the recent resignation and subsequent death of his successor and brother as president
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Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.

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