© 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.