El Señor Presidente (Mister President) is a landmark text in Latin American literature authored by Guatemalan diplomat and writer Miguel Angel Asturias (1899 – 1974) as it details the nature of political dictatorship and its impacts on the society. The award winning work, originally written in Spanish, tells the story of a pitiless autocrat and his plots to dispose of a political enemy. Even though Asturias fails to mention the setting of the story, it is usually identified as the early 20th century Guatemala.
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It is widely believed that the book’s title character was instigated by the authoritarian rule of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898 – 1920). Asturias started working on the book in the early 1920s while he was a law student and completed it after over a decade in 1933.
However, the publication of the book was delayed for another 13 years because of stringent suppression policies that was practiced by the Guatemalan authoritarian regime. Later in 1964, El Señor Presidente, was translated to English as The President. The novel has been praised for showing the illicit practices of a dictatorial regime and its devastating psychological impacts.
Dictatorial rule in the President
Events in the novel reflect the impact of authoritarian rule on the everyday lives of those forced to live under such system. Asturias’s fictional dictatorship details the manner in which wickedness spreads downward from an influential political ruler into the streets and quarters of the residents of the country. Several themes, for example, integrity and love, are satirized in the book, and breaking away from the leader’s authoritarian rule seems to be a task that is not possible.
Every character depicted in the story is seriously influenced by the totalitarianism and is forced to make great effort to survive in the horrifying reality. Thus, the conditions of the totalitarianism make the characters to lose gradually their human identities, for example, the Zany, after murdering a colonel and escaping from the city, is described as running “aimlessly, with his mouth opened and his tongue hanging out, slobbering and panting”(Asturias, 16).
Further, the Zany is a tool that enables the readers to understand the psychological impacts of living under an authoritarian rule as his murderous act triggers the novel’s action and influences all other characters.
In the book, Asturias describes several elements of dictatorial rule. Some of these are the President held total, unlimited power over the citizens of the country and he believed his word to be the law that no one could question, the government did not recognize the individual rights of its people, the President spent close to twenty-two years in power, and the government used tricks to dispose of political adversaries.
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According to Jorge Barrueto, there have been so many dictatorships in Latin America since the end of Spanish colonial rule because the region as whole is seen as the “Other” (341). In the book, El Señor Presidente, all the characters, from the President to the Zany, depict this “otherness” attribute because it is impossible to make them civilized. Authoritarianism leads to Otherness through dehumanizing its subjects.
More so, it also distinguishes itself as being primitive or unsophisticated, ridiculous, and no more than a simulation of the European ways (Barrueto, 342). As such, the phenomenon of autocracy has made Latin America to be seen as a place where “otherness” thrives best.
Thus, it is impossible for the region to “transform” or attain the same standards as those of European levels of civilization. According to Barrueto, dictators have ruled Latin America for so long because its people have not been able to act accordingly by embracing the positives of civilization.
The fictional dictator portrayed in the novel wields a lot of power. As indicated earlier, the unnamed President of the Republic was authoritarian and he exercised full control of the country. For example, “Whether you’re guilty or innocent is irrelevant, General; what matters is whether you’re in favour or not with the President…”(Asturias, 63), indicates that the President was the only one who could determine whether one is guilty or innocent. The dictator also gives orders for his political adversaries to be murdered.
In the novel, dictatorship has astounding effects on the lives of the main characters, as all the characters are deeply influenced by it. After the accidental death of the high government official, the President uses the “opportunity” to get rid of two men whom he frames for the killing. Thereafter, the story then moves with numerous characters, some close to the unnamed ruler and some wanting to flee from his rule. Worth mentioning, the hope of the characters of living good lives is suppressed by the President’s tyrannical rule.
Various aspects of dictatorship depicted in the novel
Since 1825, Latin America has been a home of dictatorial rule. The history of the region reveals that it has had charismatic men who grabbed power and held it in an iron grip for years, even decades (Neissa, 233). Some of the tyrants have been compassionate, some pitiless and sadistic and others merely weird.
Some of these more notable men include Don Porfirio, who held ultimate power in Mexico from 1876 to 1911, Anastasio Somoza García, who governed Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979, treating it like his own family business, Alberto Fujimori, President of Peru from 1990-2000, had corrupt numerous corrupt dealings, and Cuban Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who ruled from 1959 to 2008.
In the story, the character of “Angel Face,” as the novel’s complex protagonist, is that of a villain. Readers are introduced to him as the President’s confidential advisor who assists him in enforcing his dictatorial rule. Several references are made about him as the dictator’s favorite who clings with him in his evil purposes and he is frequently portrayed “as beautiful an as wicked as Satan” (Asturias, 37).
As the story continues, Angel Face is faced with a challenge of maintaining his loyalty to the President in the face of the administration’s increasingly horrendous actions. Readers see his struggle of trying to remain true to his duty to the President with his aspiration to accomplish a higher moral purpose. Nonetheless, generally, he is the novel’s villain who takes part in terrorizing the people.
Asturias personal background relates very well to the subject matter in the novel. Even though he was born and brought up in Guatemala, he lived a significant part of his life in exile because he was one of the prominent people who opposed dictatorial rule in his home country. The publication of El Señor Presidente was delayed for thirteen years after it was written because the Guatemalan government thought that the book posed a threat to its dictatorial rule.
This relates to the subject matter in the novel as it prevented Asturias from exercising his individual rights. And, In 1954, because of his political views that were against the government of the day, he was expelled from the country and subsequently stripped of his Guatemalan citizenship. Thereafter, he spent a significant part of his living in South America and Europe. Thus, the decades of exile and marginalization he lived abroad were instigated by the dictatorial regimes of his home country.
A Latin American dictator who employed similar methods of authoritarianism as in the novel is evidently Manuel Estrada Cabrera who ruled Guatemala from 8 February 1898 to 15 April 1920. During his presidency, he usually used brutal ways to enforce his authority over the citizens (Jensen, 100). One American high-ranking government official went back to the U.S. after he discovered that Cabrera had ordered his poisoning to death, and the former President, Manuel Barillas, was assassinated in cold blood on his orders.
In addition, the dictator reacted aggressively to employees’ strikes. In one instance, he ordered the killing of an unspecified number of workers whose grievances had not been addressed by his administration. Thus, because of these actions and many others, he is immortalized by the events in the novel.
In conclusion, Asturias’s fictional dictatorship reflects the illicit practices of authoritarianism and the upsetting psychological effects of the arbitrary and ruthless exercise of power. The author managed to use the dread that the ordinary citizens have towards a dictator and employed it to generate the captivating dream sequences whilst expressing the veracity and nobility of human practices.
In the whole story, the readers are able to perceive the various ways that the regime is dishonest, from the dictator, government officials, and down to the ordinary citizens.
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Asturias, Miguel A. The President. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1997. Print.
Barrueto, Jorge J. “A Latin American Indian Re-Reads the Canon: Postcolonial Mimicry in “El Señor Presidente.” Hispanic Review 72:3 (2004): 339-356. Print.
Jensen, Elizabeth. Guatemala, a historical survey. New York, Exposition Press, 1955. Print.
Neissa, Peter A. Dictatorship : the imposition of U.S. culture on Latin America through translation. Mountain View, Calif. : Floricanto Press, 2008. Print.