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Dominican Republic

© 2002 Donald J. Mabry

The Dominican Republic had a long history of political turbulence, vicious dictators, and irresponsible behavior in the 19th century. It had been a conquered province of Haiti between independence in 1822 until 1844. Then it became a Spanish colony again between 1861 and 1865. Then the United States considered annexing the little country in 1867 but the treaty failed in the Senate. United States citizens did organize the San Domingo Improvement Company. The Company bought some of the nation's European debt in exchange for control of its customhouses, a compromise of the nation's sovereignty. But Ulises Heureaux, dictator from 1882-99, needed the money. He even tried to sell Samaná Bay, a prime refueling place, to the United States. He was assassinated in 1899, a worse fate than that of the other 19th century dictators, General Pedro Santana and Buenaventura Báez, but, then, he probably deserved such a demise given what he had done to so many others. A struggle for power followed and the next few years were confusing. None of this was ideological, which would have made it easier to track the factions; it was simply a matter who could seize the government and get the goodies. Ramón Cáceres took control from December, 1905 until he was assassinated in November, 1911.
The United States became concerned about these doings, because Samaná Bay was an important harbor; US money lenders, particularly San Domingo Improvement Company, were among those who had money in the Dominican Republic; and the island of Hispaniola, on which the nation sat, was astride the approach to the Panama Canal the US was completing. It is difficult to determine the relative weights of these causes except that the determination to control access to the Canal was the overriding principle of US policy in the Circum-Caribbean region. It was money, however, that first brought the nation's trouble to the attention of the US.
The US became determined that only it would collect the $32 million that the Dominicans owed to the citizens France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, and the United States for it did not want foreign warships prowling the Caribbean. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt took over an important customshouse in support of the outrageous claims of the San Domingo Improvement Company. He also issued the "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that chronic wrongdoing by these countries (i.e., failure to make debt payments or acting as the US did not want them to act) would cause the US to act as a policeman. The next year, the US took over the customhouses ( a violation of the country's sovereignty and contrary to the spirit, at least, of the Monroe Doctrine) and began dispersing the funds to the creditors and the Dominican government. The two nations formalized this arrangement with a treaty. President Cáceres benefitted because his government had money to spend but then he was assassinated in 1911. Colonel Alfredo Victoria, the new president, tried to increase the public debt against US (and treaty) wishes; he was pressured not to do so by the US withholding revenue. Without money, his government fell in 1912. That year, Secretary of State Philander C. Knox sent 750 marines to control the situation. The point was that the Dominican Republic was in turmoil and the US was having trouble getting Dominicans to do its bidding. Knox arranged a $11 million loan to tide government over. This was done through New York banks and disbursements were to be controlled by a North American official. Accomplished in 1913. In the US, however, there was controversy over which banks got the loan.
The US continued to intervene. In 1914, it supervised Dominican elections. In 1915, the US wanted to appoint a US financial comptroller with authority over budget and government expenditure. The Dominican government balked, for this clearly would make the Dominican republic a puppet state. The US then demanded that a constabulary be created. The idea, widespread in US government circles, was that militarism would be abolished if the military were abolished and a national police force, a constabulary, were substituted in its place. Of course, clever men throughout the Circum-Caribbean region understood that having the monopoly on public security forces gave power regardless of what one called that force. This was certainly true of the Dominican Republic. We are getting ahead of ourselves, however.
The US finally tired of the shenanigans of Dominican politicians and established its own military dictatorship in the country, a military dictatorship from 1916 to 1924. Few important Dominicans would collaborate with the foreign invader so US military officers had to run the country. They were more honest and efficient than the Dominicans. They built roads and other physical structures and they improved such things as sanitation. They abolished the various armies that powerful men employed and created a national constabulary in its place. They did not understand Dominican society and, therefor, how to get at the country's root problems. After World War I, the US wanted to pull back within itself, which included bringing its military home. In 1922, it relinquished control of all but the customs houses. In 1924, the troops left.
The Trujillo Era
Revolt broke out again in 1930 and the commander of the army (the former constabulary), Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, seized power. Shortly thereafter, a terrible hurricane struck and killed two thousand. Trujillo organized the relief work effectively and began the rebuilding process, making him a national hero. When he took office, the country was bankrupt; the foreign debt was more than $20 million and total national income about $7 million. By 1957, foreign and domestic debts had been liquidated. In 1960 national income was about $529 million. Sugar exports (51% of all exports) led Dominican prosperity. Trujillo had been smart enough to spend money on visible objects such as roads, bridges, schools, public works, power plants, and other improvements. Under his rule, the nation prospered. Not only did he get rich but many others also prospered. He enjoyed good relations with the US, getting lots of money for his country in return. In some ways, his rule from 1930 to 1961 were the best years the country had ever had.
That is, if you ignored his brutality, his murders, and his megalomania. When Haitians kept crossing into the Dominican Republic looking for work, he sent the army to push them back and massacre thousands of them. He would brook no opposition and would murder his enemies not only in the country but elsewhere for he would send assassins to hunt them down. That seemed to be the case with the March 12, 1956 disappearance of Jesús de Galindez in New York. Galindez had been an outspoken critic. The Partido Dominicano was the only political party. He censored of texts so they always said his "party line." "Díos y Trujillo" (God and Trujillo) was a apt slogan. As US conservatives said, he's a son of a bitch but at least he's our son of a bitch.
He grew somewhat paranoid as he grew older and thought various foreign countries were trying to do him in. Some were. After all, he funded interventions in his neighbors' affairs. In June, 1959, an exile force of Dominicans, aided by Cubans, landed on the Dominican coast in an effort to begin a rebellion; most were killed. Trujillo appealed to Organization of American States saying that Cuba and Venezuela were lending aid. Boosted Dominican armed forces at a cost of $50 million. In January, 1960, his secret police unearthed a plot which involved many prominent professional men. That led to mass arrests and subsequent charges of torture. Catholic bishops intervened, issuing a pastoral letter at the end of the month. Furious, Trujillo allowed Jehovah's Witnesses to operate without restraint. Venezuela asked the Organization of American States to investigate "the denial of human rights." The OAS Peace Commission of US, El Salvador, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela issued a June, 1960-report in which it charged the Dominican government with "flagrant and widespread violation of human rights" which had aggravated tensions in Caribbean. Shortly afterwards, Trujillo sent a hit team to attempt to assassinate President Betancourt of Venezuela.
Pressure on the dictator escalated from outside sources; the dictatorship could still kill its domestic opponents. In August, 1960, the OAS met at San Jose, Costa Rica where the US advocated a plan by which the would supervise an election and furnish a caretaker force during Dominican reconstruction. Fearing that this would justify future interventions in their own internal affairs, the Latin American nations rejected it. They did pass a resolution condemning Trujillo regime for acts of aggression and intervention against Venezuela and urging all members to break diplomatic relations and recommending limited economic sanctions. By November, 1960, almost all OAS nations had severed diplomatic relations. In January, 1961, the OAS passed a resolution calling for limited economic sanctions. President Dwight Eisenhower insisted that the US cut off the Dominican share of the US sugar allotment. Trujillo, a darling of US conservatives, had his friends, such as Senator Allen Ellender, block Eisenhower's move and instead increase the Dominican allotment by 332,000 tons.
Trujillo was in trouble. He had costly recurrent quarrels with Haiti, his neighbor. He beefed up military spending. Foreign exchange reserves dropped from $48 million at the end of 1957 to $8 million in March,1961. He expelled fifty priests for criticizing him.. He was running scared. And well he should have been. On May 30, 1961, the sixty-nine year old Trujillo was assassinated while out for a drive.
Since Trujillo
President Joaquin Balaguer assumed control and Trujillo's son, Rafael, Jr. (Ramfis) came home from Paris and became chief of armed services. A manhunt was started for the assassins. Balaguer decreed nine days of mourning. In October, however, Balaguer confessed to the United Nations General Assembly that Trujillo' s regime had engaged in decades of terror. He pled for the lifting of the sanctions by the OAS. Ramfis was furious.
In November, 1961, it looked like a coup against Balaguer would occur. Ramfis and two brothers of the dictator started plotting. The US despatched 12 warships to stand off Santo Domingo with some 1,200 marines ready to land if a coup were tried. Ramfis and his uncles got the message and left
Balaguer was barely holding ion to power. Since he had been an associate of Trujillo, people were apt to condemn him so he had to disown the dictator but not in a way which would anger the Trujillo old guard. So in December, 1961, Balaguer announced plans for a provisional Council of State, promising to resign as its president when the OAS lifted sanctions. The Council was sworn in on January 1, 1962. It included two of Trujillo's assassins, one of whom was Antonio Imbert Barreras. The OAS soon voted to end sanctions but there was mid-January, anti-Balaguer rioting. General Echevarría staged a coup and almost won. but a counter-coup replaced him with Dr. Rafael Bonnelly. Balaguer and Echeverria into exile in Puerto Rico in March. Bonnelly and Council of State lasted a year, propped up by US money but the emerging power was police chief Antonio Imbert Council of State.
The country went into a democratic mode with the December, 1962 elections, but not for long. Juan Bosch, a liberal, got some 60% of vote was inaugurated in February, 1963. The US ardently supported him, hoping that the nation was finally on the road to democracy and the respect for human rights. Bosch redistributed several million acres of land taken over from Trujillo. Bosch planned to put 70,000 families on them. This and other measures infuriated the conservatives, who had backed Trujillo. The bureaucracy and the armed forces didn't like Bosch. Colonel Elías Wessin y Wessin of the Air Force and Antonio Imbert charged that Bosch was soft on Communism, a charge that would gain them sympathy in the United States. In September, 1963, Bosch tried to remove Wessin y Wessin but military arrested Bosch, dissolved Congress, outlawed Communists and alleged Communists, and closed the schools. Bosch went into exile. Imbert arrested "subversives," a catch-all term for opponents. The US suspended diplomatic recognition and cut off aid but did not intervene militarily.
The three man junta was soon replaced in December, 1963 by the rule of Donald Reid Cabral , who received US recognition and $100 million (more than to Bosch). Cabral held on for sixteen months.
April, 1965 Revolt
It began April 24, 1963, when a group who wanted to put Bosch back in power seized two army posts and the chief radio station in Santo Domingo. The regular army, the "Loyalists" rallied behind the government but Reid Cabral resigned within 24 hours. The US embassy was unprepared, for the US Ambassador was in Georgia and 11 of the13 military attaches were in Panama. On April 25, the rebels were distributing arms to citizens including heavy guns and gasoline. The Loyalists were appealing to the US embassy for US troop intervention, arguing that they could not protect the lives of the 2,300 Americans in Santo Domingo. General Wessin y Wessin sending out planes to bomb the city, especially the National Palace
The US government loudly proclaimed neutrality while trying to figure out what was happening but the US embassy officials and military attachés almost immediately identified themselves with the "loyalist" faction. The popular democratic revolution was scarcely 24 hours old when messages to Washington warned that a Bosch return would mean eventual Communist takeover. The US Embassy sent telegrams warning of a Communist takeover, which was not true but a good tactic for the Loyalists and their friends. The US was fighting a war against Communists in Vietnam and President Lyndon Baines Johnson feared US conservatives and did not want to risk the Loyalists being right. So he acted. On Monday, April 26th, when the embassy suggested that the US give at least logistical support to loyalists, including walkie-talkies, he sent them. They were airlifted in and given to Wessin y Wessin. The next day, the 82nd Airborne Division was briefed for a parachute assault on the Dominican Republic. It appeared that the US was going to do more than send supplies.
The US came down on the side of the Loyalists. Ambassador Bennett met with Lt. Col. Francisco Caamano Deño, commander of the rebel forces, who asked the Ambassador to negotiate a settlement. The ambassador refused. On Wednesday, the 28th, the Loyalists, with the aid of US embassy, quickly assembled a junta, choosing as Colonel Pedro Bartolomé Benoit (who was a front man for Wessin y Wessin) as head. Ambassador Bennett cabled Washington the revolt was a Castro-type revolution and asked for the US Marines to be sent. Washington said it was reluctant to intervene unless outcome in doubt. After all, in 1933, the US had pledged not to intervene again in Latin American countries. Bennett, the US man on the ground, persisted and sent another cable saying it was a possible Cuba. That night, LBJ went on the air to announce the landing of Marines (which continued until there were 22,000). Johnson said he did it to protect American lives and said OAS had been advised. The US, he said, was not taking sides.
But it did take sides. On Thursday, April 29th, Bennett told reporters that the rebels had committed many atrocities, which was a lie. He handed reporters a list of 53 Communists allegedly identified in the rebel ranks, another lie. Then, on Friday, April 30th, the Marines and the US paratroopers engaged in military actions which could only be interpreted as aid to the loyalists.
LBJ was beginning to realize that his ambassador, Bennett, was leading him into a quagmire. John Barlow Martin, US Ambassador during the Bosch government, came as special emissary from LBJ to consult with Bennett. The Papal Nuncio worked for a cease-fire. José A. Mora, the Secretary General of the OAS came to try to mediate. Bennett and Martin began to talk with Imbert, looking to replace Wessin y Wessin, who was too closely tied to Trujillo. They were looking for a new junta. As late as May 1st, the US was still saying it was neutral; the rebels said that the US favored the junta and that the Loyalists and the US were leading the Dominican Republic back to military dictatorship.
The next day the US took the bait about Communists that the Loyalists had been dangling and Martin told newsmen that the rebels were now completely dominated by Communists. That night LBJ went on TV to say that American nations will not tolerate another Communist government in the Western Hemisphere. Again, he said that the US didn't support anybody but, on May 5th, the State Department released a list of 54 known Communists and Castroites actively engaged in the rebel movement inside the country. The only trouble was that newsmen found that some were dead, some in prison, and some were out of the country! LBJ's diplomats had made a fool of him and the US.
LBJ tried to find a way to make it appear that this had not been an irrational, unilateral action by the US. The OAS, under US pressure, created an Inter-American Peace Force by a vote of 14 to 5. Significantly, however, Venezuela abstained and Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru voted no. On May 7th, Washington proposed that a commission of three well-known Latin democrats—Rómulo Betancourt (Venezuela), José Figueres(Costa Rica), and Muñoz Marin (Puerto Rico)—be sent to study the situation. The proposal was shelved because some, particularly the right-wing Brazilian military dictatorship, thought them too liberal. So Martin and Bennett finished negotiations with Imbert for junta of civilians. Bosch declared that the US was now openly committed to the destruction of rebel movement. Then the US Agency for International Development gave Imbert $750,000 to pay government salaries.
Three weeks into the revolt, US policy began to change. It could no longer ignore the fact that many of the Loyalist leaders were cronies of Trujillo and that the US had to oust them if it was to maintain credibility. Eight officers were expelled and pressure was exerted to get Wessin y Wessin out. When Imbert announced plans to wipe out rebels, the US finally realized that the Loyalists should not receive support. The US consulted as it tried to find a figure acceptable as the provisional president.
The problem was to find someone acceptable to lead the country. On May 16th, McGeorge Bundy, Thomas C. Mann, Jack Hood Vaughn, and Cyrus R. Vance, a very high-powered team, arrived in the Dominican Republic. Bundy had conferred with Bosch. The team decided to use Bosch's agriculture minister, Silvestre Antonio Guzmán. This ideas was pushed for ten days by Bundy. Mann and Vaughn return to Washington. LBJ was not ready to shift., however. The Washington Daily News printed a false allegation that Guzmán was guilty of manipulating funds of the Dominican Agriculture Bank, and it torpedoed Guzmán. On May 26th, Bundy returns to Washington admitting Guzmán plan gone.
The US sent a multi-national army to take charge. The uneasy truce but violence continued. The Inter-American Peace Force, led by Brazil's General Hugo Panasso Alvim, included 450 Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Costa Ricans and 200 Brazilians. Brazilian troops would eventually number 1,250. With the Peace force in place, the US Marines began to leave. Washington continued to make the decisions, however, for the multi-national force was a way to make t seem that the US had not blundered into a stupid action. Ellsworth Bunker, the US Ambassador to the OAS, was sent to the Dominican Republic as the head of new OAS committee. Washington still didn't know what it wanted to do. Bunker got Hector García-Godoy, Bosch's foreign minister, to be provisional president. Imbert and friends rejected him but Washington refused to give them any more money. So the Imbert junta resigned on August 30th. On September 3rd, García-Godoy was inaugurated; a few days later General Wessin y Wessin was sent to Miami as the Dominican consul, thus getting him out of the way.
The violence continued. On December 19th, rebel leaders were attacked and some wantonly murdered in Santiago de los Caballeros. The rebels demanded that the government act, but Garcia-Godoy said no. He and Bunker planned to send abroad as diplomats the chief figures of the rebels and the loyalists. They started leaving in January, 1966. . In late January and early February, more violence took place. There were student demonstrations, police shootings, and a call for a general strike.
The Presidential election in June 1966 was chiefly between Juan Bosch and Joaquín Balaguer. On June 1, 1966, Balaguer got 56.3% of votes cast, winning heavily in the countryside. He assumed the presidency on July 1st. By September, 1966, the last of the foreign troops were gone. In his first years in office, he instituted agrarian reforms, rescued the sugar economy, and imposed austerity, but he had trouble from the left and the right.
The Era of Trujillo was finally replaced by the Era of Balaguer. He was president from 1966 to 1978, and then from 1986 to 1990, then briefly in 1994 to 1996. Antonio Guzmán became president for the 1978-82 term, the first peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to another. Balaguer was a strong ruler but never the dictator that Trujillo had been. Nor as vicious.