HoustonChronicle.com logo HoustonChronicle.com

Section: Death Notices
Section: Obituaries & Death Notices
Section: World

Current stories in Obituaries & Death Notices:

Printer-friendly format

July 14, 2002, 10:32AM

Dominican Republic ex-leader Balaguer dies

Associated Press

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Joaquin Balaguer, who ruled the Dominican Republic for 22 years and dominated his country's politics for years after leaving office, died today. He was 95.

The former president died of heart failure about 4:30 a.m. at Santo Domingo's Abreu Clinic, where he had been hospitalized since July 4 for a bleeding ulcer.

Overnight, "the machines started to beep with complications, so the doctors tried to save him until 4:30, when he died fighting," said Rafael Bello Andino, his closest aide and vice president of Balaguer's Reformist Social Christian Party.

More than 100 supporters gathered at the funeral home where Balaguer's body was brought Sunday morning. Many were crying, and several women wailed loudly. "I hope I die as well!" shouted one man, holding up a photograph of Balaguer.

One of Latin America's last "caudillos," or strongmen, Balaguer presented more the image of kindly country doctor -- standing little more than 5 feet tall, lame and squinting from behind thick-framed glasses.

But his power was as pervasive as that of his mentor, dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled this Caribbean nation from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961.

Brought to power after a U.S. invasion put down a leftist revolt, Balaguer held the presidency from 1966-1978 and 1986-1996 -- and was accused of persecuting political opponents and election fraud.

Under Balaguer, the Dominican Republic was one of the biggest U.S. aid recipients in the Caribbean. Still, more than half of the country's 8 million people lived in poverty, and thousands fled hardship for the United States.

Even after leaving office, he remained the pole around which all Dominican politics revolved.

He helped engineer the election of his successor, Leonel Fernandez, and of current President Hipolito Mejia. In 2000, at the age of 92, he ran again for the presidency, coming in third.

He last appeared in public in July 2001. Still, from his home office and bedroom, Balaguer continued to influence the country's politics, with even opponents coming to him for advice. His party has held the presidency of the House of Representatives for the last three years and in May became the second largest party in the Senate.

"For the country, until the last moment, he was a source of political harmony and stability," Bello Andino said. "The last two presidents constantly visited him to ask him for orientation."

Few people had access to Balaguer. He never married or had children, confining his passions to politics, collies and antique cars. He was nearly blinded by glaucoma in the 1970s.

Joaquin Antonio Balaguer Ricardo was born Sept. 1, 1906, the northwestern town of Navarrete, now called Villa Bosono.

After studying law and political science at the Sorbonne in Paris, Balaguer began his long association with Trujillo by working in the then-army chief's 1930 election campaign. He was a foreign ministry official when Trujillo ordered the massacre of an estimated 18,000 Haitians along the Haitian-Dominican border in 1937.

In 1956, Trujillo named Balaguer vice president, then four years later elevated him to president.

After Trujillo's assassination, Balaguer fled to New York City. His successor, leftist Juan Bosch, worried the United States with his fiery support for land reform and nationalizing businesses, and he, too, was ousted in a military coup.

Leftists in the army revolted in 1965 and tried to restore Bosch. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent 20,000 U.S. Marines to stifle the revolt. Balaguer returned and, with U.S. backing, was elected president in 1966.

Early in his rule, hundreds of people were kidnapped or disappeared, and many critics went into exile. Later, his human rights record improved, but he kept a tight rein on government.

He was defeated in 1978, then regained the presidency in 1986 elections. After 1990 and 1994 elections marred by fraud accusations, Balaguer reluctantly allowed a new vote in 1996 in which he could not run because of new term limit laws.

During his tenure, he erected monuments, including the Christopher Columbus lighthouse, which rises 10 stories above Santo Domingo's shantytowns, its lights casting a giant cross against the night sky.

His burial was set for Wednesday in Santo Domingo's Christ the Redeemer Cemetery. He is survived by his sister.

Nazar's Jewelry
Click for details.

Re-Manufactured Steelcase Systems
Gulf Coast Windows
Click for details.