Finding Refuge in the Hotel Coppelia

Para la versión en español, clickea aquí

This week I will be focusing on the Dominican Republic with my theme being the country’s relation to the American Dream. This country serves as a very interesting foil to last week’s country, Cuba. They have a similarly rich culture but the DR was unfortunately taken over by the US.

Synopsis

Hotel Coppelia (2021) takes place in 1965, on the eve of a US invasion. Prostitutes watch as rebels descend on their city to fight the corrupt government until the US army invades their brothel. They play by the army’s rules, but after violent outbursts from army personnel, they decide to rebel and maintain their dignity in this small victory.

Rafael Trujillo & The Long Road to Democracy

Rafael Trujillo

To understand the events of 1965, it is imperative to understand the man who died four years before: General Rafael Trujillo. By some, he is described as a charismatic leader, but to others, he is a dangerous megalomaniac. He was a cattle rustler and overseer of underpaid and abused Haitian workers. Later, he went to the Haina Military Academy where he was credibly accused of raping a teenage girl but was acquitted by a tribunal of US marines. By 1930, he had ousted Horacio Vasquez, the first president of the Dominican Republic since the US military occupation from 1916-1924. His reign was marked by authoritarianism and violence. In October 1937, Trujillo’s army committed the Haitian Massacre, killing 15,000 ethnic Haitians. In line with his racist ideals, Trujillo also adopted a maternalism which encouraged Dominican women to have many children and penalized those that were suspected of infanticide or prostitution in order to drown out the Haitian population. 

The Mirabal Sisters

During this time, Trujillo strengthened his relationship with the US by siding with the allies in World War II and providing a constant stream of sugar. By the 1950s, a few coups had been attempted against him but the most notable was by the Mirabal Sisters. The Mirabal Sisters were from an educated, elite family and with their husbands, they devised a coup attempt. Unfortunately, they were caught, raped, and executed. More than any other event under Trujillo, it sparked international outrage and led to his assassination in 1961. Following his death, his former supporter, Joaquin Balaguer won the presidency only to be ousted in 1962 because of his refusal to create reforms. That same year, Juan Bosch became president. Bosch was a dissident writer that had only come back to the country after Trujillo’s death and right away he created a new constitution that gave Dominicans more rights. 

Unfortunately, he did not rail against communism as much as his military would have liked so he was taken out by Colonel Elias Wessin y Wessin. Without the entire army’s agreement on this coup, a faction of army rebels took to the streets to demand Bosch’s return. Out of fear of destabilizing sugar prices, the US endorsed Operation Power Pack. Santo Domingo’s streets were left destroyed from the military attack and a phase of psychological warfare was reached. However, even in this time, women smuggled weapons through checkpoints since they avoided pat-downs and continued resisting American control.

The 1965 US Invasion

The US Army vs the Dominican Rebels

Hotel Coppelia

Before the women of the film are confronted with the US army, they begrudgingly house the Dominican rebels. However, it’s safe to say that the rebels don’t occupy the women like the Americans. They treat these women with respect particularly in their views on sexuality. One of the female Dominican rebels, Tina Bazooka, enters into a relationship with one of the prostitutes and it is truly a symbiotic relationship. They talk about what book she is reading and ways the country can change. Another soldier has a sexual encounter with a trans prostitute there and remarks how much he likes her as she is. Though these scenes take place in a dingy brothel, they are oddly wholesome, compared to the Americans. The Americans are cartoonishly awful and hysterical about communism. Their interactions with these women are cold at best and sexual encounters are often not paid for. Seems strange for the capitalist crusaders. The American general talks about how the US government is only there to bring freedom but their actions show how subservient they see these women. Their mission to spread freedom is masked by their psychotic need to control.

The Brothel’s Place in Time

Hotel Coppelia

During the first half of the film, there is constant movement and protests outside, but the brothel appears to be unchanged. It feels like a relic of the Trujillo era. Inside, traditional merengue music is always playing. At that time, that music was strongly associated with Trujillo as all the young dissidents listened to rock ‘n’ roll. The madam of the brothel is a stern captain who loves her stern, deceased father and at one point is compared to Trujillo by one of her workers. The fact that they are occupied by the US army leaves us doubly surprised. This madam is not one to be swept up in left-wing guerilla fighting and yet she is not allowed to live alone in her own hotel. This extreme scenario is what allows her to reexamine her own past. The first sign of this seismic change is when the army installs itself in her hotel and takes down the portrait of her father in order to replace it with one of LBJ. She had refused to see how abusive her father really was and juxtapositions with the overreaching LBJ allowed her to see that. Her final realization comes when the general occupying her hotel sexually assaults her and she remembers how her father did that as well. In that moment, she understands the crimes of the Trujillo era and this new American era. She subsequently blows up the hotel as a recognition of the flaws of these two time periods. Though the Dominicans failed to win, many were awakened to what had been lost and what could be gained.

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