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Much of the action of In the Time of the Butterflies occurs during Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The novel portrays many instances of how the authoritarian state permeates life for the Mirabel sisters and the other characters. For instance, they must watch what they say since there are spies hiding outside their house. Even those citizens who are not suspected rebels are afraid to speak openly, since they cannot trust their own neighbors. In the first chapter, before the Mirabel family comes under any suspicion, their relaxing evening outdoors is ruined when Papa accidentally says Trujillo’s name in a less than flattering way. All of a sudden, “the dark fills with spies who are paid to hear things and report them down at Security.”
The authoritarian regime of Trujillo is linked to other dictatorships by Maria Teresa in Chapter 7, when she describes the march that she and the other women must participate in before the start of classes: “It looked like the newsreels of Hitler and the Italian one with the name that sounds like fettuccine,” namely, Mussolini. In Chapter 12, the theme of authoritarianism is clear when Minerva and Dede are brought into the police station in Monte Cristi. Minerva mentions that Captain Pena has given them permission to travel there, but a veiled threat is perceived in the officer who is questioning them: “The paroxysm of blinking made me pity the poor man. His own terror was a window that opened onto the rotten weakness at the heart of Trujillo’s system.” Though Minerva recognizes that the fear instilled in all the officers of the authoritarian regime is ultimately a “weakness,” for now it is what holds the regime in power.