Dominican Republic 1960-1966
Saving democracy from communism
by getting rid of democracy
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
On the night of 30 May 1961, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo,
mass murderer, torturer par excellence, absolute dictator, was
shot to death on a highway in the outskirts of the capital city,
The assassination set off a chain of events over the next
five years which featured sustained and remarkably gross intervention
into the internal affairs of the Dominican Republic by the United
States, the likes of which had not been seen in Latin America
since the heyday of American gunboat diplomacy.
The United States had been an accomplice in the assassination
itself of the man it had helped to climb to power and to endure
for some 30 years. It marked one of the rare occasions that the
US government acted to overthrow a right-wing despot, albeit anti-communism
was still the motivating force.
Whatever repugnance individual Washington policy makers may
have felt toward Trujillo's
incredible violations of human rights over the years, his
fervent adherence to American policies, his repression of the
left, and, as a consequence, the vigorous support he enjoyed in
Congress (where Trujillo's money was no stranger) and in other
influential American circles, were enough to keep successive United
States administrations looking the other way.
When, in January 1959, Fulgencio Batista fell before the forces
of Fidel Castro in near by Cuba, a reconsideration of this policy
was thrust upon Washington's agenda. This historic event seemed
to suggest that support of right-wing governments might no longer
be the best way of checking the rise of revolutionary movements
in Latin America, but rather might be fostering them. Indeed,
in June a force of Dominican exiles launched an invasion of their
homeland from Cuba. Although the invasion was a complete failure,
it could only serve to heighten Washington's concern about who
was swimming around In "The American Lake".
The decision to topple Trujillo was reinforced in early 1960
when the United States sought to organize hemispheric opposition
to the Castro regime. This policy ran head-on into the familiar
accusation that the United States opposed only leftist governments,
never those of the right, no matter how tyrannical. The close
association with Trujillo, widely regarded as Washington's "protg",
was proving increasingly to be an embarrassment. The circumstances
were such that President Eisenhower was led to observe that "It's
certain that American public opinion won't condemn Castro until
we have moved against Trujillo." (The president's apparent
belief in the independence of the American mind may have been
overly generous, for Washington was supporting right-wing dictatorships
In Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti and elsewhere before and after
Trujillo's assassination, yet the American public fell readily
into line in condemning Castro.)
Seemingly unaware of the currents swirling about him, Trujillo
continued to live up to his gangster reputation. In June, his
henchmen blew up a car carrying Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt,
an outspoken critic of the Dominican dictator. As a result, Washington
came under renewed pressure from several of the more democratic
Caribbean countries for action against Trujillo. Betancourt, who
had survived the blast, told US Secretary of State Christian Herter:
"If you don't eliminate him, we will invade."
The Dominicans who pulled the triggers and their fellow conspirators
were in no way revolutionaries. They came from the ranks of the
conservative, privileged sectors of Dominican society and were
bound together primarily by an intense loathing of Trujillo, a
personal vendetta-each of them, or someone close to them, had
suffered a deep humiliation at the hands of the diabolical dictator,
if not torture or murder.
Their plan as to what would follow the elimination of Trujillo
was only half-baked, and even this fell apart completely. As matters
turned out, the day after the assassination, Rafael ("Ramfis")
Trujillo, Jr. rushed home from his playboy's life in Paris to
take over the reins of government. Little had been resolved, either
in the Dominican Republic or in Washington.
Rafael Trujillo, Jr. was clearly not ideal. Besides bearing
the inescapable stigma of his name and family, he proceeded to
carry out a bloodbath of revenge over the next six months. But,
unlike his father in his last years, Ramfis could be prodded by
Washington into making a few token reforms, and both parties might
have been content to continue in this fashion indefinitely had
not many people of the Dominican Republic felt terribly cheated
by the turn of events. Their elation over the assassination had
soured in the face of business-as-usual.
Resentment spilled over into the streets. By October, the
protests were occurring daily and were being put down by tanks;
students were shot dead by government troops. The United States
began to make moves, for the situation in the streets and high
places of the government was anarchic enough, Washington feared,
to provide an opening for the proverbial (and seemingly magical)
"communist takeover", although, in fact, the left in
the Dominican Republic was manifestly insignificant from years
American diplomats met in the capital city with the Trujillo
clan and Dominican military leaders and bluntly told them that
US military power would, if necessary, be used to compel the formation
of a provisional government headed by Joachin Balaguer until elections
could be held. Balaguer had been closely tied to the Trujillo
family for decades, was serving as president under Trujillo at
the time of the assassination, and had remained in the same capacity
under Ramfis, but he was not regarded as a threat to continue
the tyranny As Kennedy put it: "Balaguer is our only tool.
The anticommunist liberals aren't strong enough. We must use our
influence to take Balaguer along the road to democracy."
To make certain that the Dominicans got the message, a US
naval task force of eight ships with 1,800 Marines aboard appeared
off the Dominican coast on 19 November, just outside the three-mile
limit but in plain sight of Ciudad Trujillo. Spanish-language
broadcasts from the offshore ships warned that the Marines were
prepared to come ashore; while overhead, American jet fighters
streaked along the coastline. Brigadier General Pedro Rodriguez
Echevarria, a key military figure, was persuaded by the United
States to put aside any plans for a coup ...
However, when Balaguer proved to be a major obstacle to beginning
the process of democratization and indicated that he did not regard
his regime as temporary, the United States added its own special
pressure to that of Balaguer's domestic opposition to force him
to resign after only two months in office. Washington then turned
around and issued another stern warning to General Rodriguez,
threatened Dominican leaders with a large loss of aid if they
supported a coup, and mounted another naval show-of-force to help
other military officers block the general's attempt to seize power.
[ ...in December 1962, elections were held ...] The winner,
and first more-or-less-democratically elected president of the
Dominican Republic since 1924, was Juan Bosch, a writer who had
spent many years in exile while Trujillo reigned. Here at last
was Kennedy's liberal anti-communist, non-military and legally
elected by a comfortable majority as well. Bosch's government
was to be the long-sought after "showcase of democracy that
would put the lie to Fidel Castro. He was given the grand treatment
in Washington shortly before he took office in February 1963.
Bosch was true to his beliefs. He called for land reform,
including transferring some private land to the public sector
as required; low-rent housing; modest nationalization of business;
an ambitious project of public works, serving mass needs more
than vested interests; a reduction in the import of luxury items;
at the same time, he favored incentives to private enterprise
and was open to foreign investment provided it was not excessively
exploitative of the country-all in all, standard elements in the
program of any liberal Third World leader serious about social
change. He was likewise serious about the thing called civil liberties:
Communists, or those labeled as such, or anyone else, were not
to be persecuted unless they actually violated the law.
A number of American officials and congressmen expressed their
discomfort with Bosch's plans, as well as his stance of independence
from the United States. Land reform and nationalization are always
touchy issues in Washington, the stuff that "creeping socialism"
is made of. In several quarters of the US press Bosch was red-baited
and compared with Castro, and the Dominican Republic with Cuba.
(Castro, for his part, branded Bosch a "Yankee puppet".)
Some of the press criticism was clearly orchestrated, in the manner
of many CIA campaigns.
In both the United States and the Dominican Republic, the
accusations most frequently cast at Bosch were the ones typically
used against Latin American leaders who do not vigorously suppress
the left (cf. Arbenz and Goulart): Bosch was allowing "communists"
to "infiltrate" into the country and into the government,
and he was not countering "communist subversion", the
latter referring to no more than instances of people standing
up for their long-denied rights. Wrote a reporter for the Miami
News: "Communist penetration of the Dominican Republic is
progressing with incredible speed and efficiency." He did
not, however, name a single communist in the Bosch government.
As it happens, the reporter, Hal Hendrix, was a valuable press
asset and a "secret operative" of the CIA in the 1960s.
The CIA made a further contribution to the anti-Bosch atmosphere.
Ambassador Martin has reported that the Agency "gave rumors
[about communists in the Dominican Republic] a credibility far
higher than I would have ... In reporting a Castro/Communist plot,
however wildly implausible, it is obviously safer to evaluate
it as 'could be true' than as nonsense."
John F. Kennedy also soured on Bosch, particularly for his
refusal to crack down on radicals. Said the president to Ambassador
Martin one day:
"I'm wondering if the day might not come when he'd [Bosch]
like to get rid of some of the left. Tell him we respect his judgment,
we're all for him, but the time may come when he'll want to deport
30 or 50 people, when it'd be better to deport them than to let
them go. I suppose he'd have to catch them in something."
When the United States failed to commit any new economic assistance
to the Dominican Republic and generally gave the indication that
Juan Bosch was a doomed venture, right-wing Dominican military
officers could only be encouraged in their craving to be rid of
the president and his policies. Sam Halper, former Caribbean Bureau
Chief of Time magazine, later reported that the military coup
ousting Bosch went into action "as soon as they got a wink
from the U.S. Pentagon".
The United States, which can discourage a military coup in
Latin America with a frown, did nothing to stand in the way of
the Dominican officers. There would be no display of American
military might this time-although Bosch asked for it-"unless
a Communist takeover were threatened," said the State Department's
"Democracy," said Newsweek magazine, "was being
saved from Communism by getting rid of democracy."
There were the customary expressions of regret in Washington
about the death of democracy, and there was the de rigueur withholding
of recognition of the new regime. But two months later, when opposition
to the yet-again repressive dictatorship began to manifest itself
noticeably, the junta yelled "communist" and was quickly
embraced by the United States with recognition and the other perquisites
which attach to being a member in good standing of the "Free
Nineteen months later, a revolution broke out in the Dominican
Republic which promised to put the exiled Bosch back in power
at the hands of a military-civilian force that would be loyal
to his program. But for the fifth time in the century, the American
Marines landed and put an abrupt end to such hopes.
A bloody civil war had broken out in the streets of Santo
Domingo. During the first few days, the momentum of battle swung
to one side, then the other. By the night of 28 April, however,
the military and police inside Santo Domingo had collapsed, and
the constitutionalists were preparing to attack the military's
last bastion, San Isidro, their main base about 10 miles away.
"The Generals at San Isidro were dejected, several were
weeping, and one was hysterically urging 'retreat'," read
the cable sent by the American ambassador, W. Tapley Bennett,
to Washington in the early evening of the 28th... Bennett added,
whether in the same cable or another one is not clear, that if
US troops did not immediately land, American lives would be lost
and "Castro-type elements" would be victorious.
Within hours, the first 500 US Marines were brought in by
helicopter from ships stationed a few miles off the coast. Two
days later, American forces ashore numbered over 4,000. At the
peak, some 23,000 troops, Marine and Army, were to take up positions
in the beleaguered country, with thousands more standing by on
a 35-ship task force offshore.
The American action was in clear violation of several international
agreements, including the Charter of the Organization of American
States (OAS) which prohibited intervention "directly or indirectly,
for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of
any other state".
The American forces came to the aid of the Dominican military
in a number of ways, supplying them with equipment, food and even
their salaries, but it was the direct military involvement that
was most telling. On one striking occasion, the sea of American
troops parted to allow the Dominican military to pass through
and brutally attack and mop up the northern section of the rebel
zone while the main rebel force in the south remained helplessly
blocked behind the American line. This "smashing victory,"
the New York Times reported, was "visibly aided by United
States troops". Other American journalists also reported
that US troops took part in the fighting, although Washington
officials angrily denied it.
A covert team of Green Berets arrived at one point to help
ensure the safety of American civilians. But when they discovered
that some of the Americans were assisting rebel forces, "their
main objective shifted from protecting their fellow countrymen
to spying on them".
The Green Berets also found the time to lay the groundwork
for the assassination of one of the leading constitutionalist
leaders, Col. Francisco Caamano. The plot was canceled at the
last moment due to the excessive risk involved.
Another group of American visitors was that of some leaders
of the National Student Association, ostensibly come to the Dominican
Republic to talk with their counterparts about educational matters,
but actually there at the behest of the CIA to gather information
on local students. This was still two years before the expose
of the long-lasting relationship between the CIA and the prominent
Throughout this period, the communication guns of the US government
were aimed at the people of the United States, the Dominican Republic
and the world to convince them that "communists" were
a dominant element amongst the constitutionalists, that they represented
a threat to take over the movement, or that they had already taken
it over, with frightening consequences for all concerned.
The embassy, and Ambassador Bennett in particular, poured
forth "a rising stream of hysterical rumors, atrocity stories,
and alarmist reports'' about the rebels, reminiscent of the Bolshevik
horror stories which had filled the pages of the American press
following the Russian Revolution: embassies being ransacked ...
"Castroite-style mass executions" ... rebels parading
in the streets with the heads of their victims on poles ...
President Johnson made reference to the "atrocities"
in public statements, but none of the stories were ever proven,
for none were true; no one ever located any of the many head less
Dominicans; and American officials, in a monument to chutzpah,
later denounced the press for reporting such unverified rumors.
Meanwhile, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the
US Information Agency were conducting their own intensive propaganda
campaign in the Dominican Republic to give credence to the American
position and discredit Dominican groups opposed to it. Experts
on psychological warfare arrived to ply their trade, radio stations
and newspapers were covertly set up, rebel radio stations jammed,
leaflets airdropped in the countryside. The USIA also secretly
subsidized the publication of pro-administration material aimed
for distribution in the United States.
The last American troops did not leave the Dominican Republic
until September 1966. The interim period witnessed a succession
of ceasefires, broken truces, and protracted negotiations under
In June 1966, elections were held in which Joaquin Balaguer
defeated Juan Bosch by a surprisingly large margin. Yet, it was
not all that surprising. For five long years the people of the
Dominican Republic had lived under a cloud of chaos and violence.
The experience had instilled in them a deep longing for a return
to "normalcy", to order, without foreign intervention,
without soldiers patrolling their streets, without curfews, tear
gas and blood shed. With the US Army still very much in evidence
and the American distaste for Bosch well known ... with the ubiquitous
American propaganda hammering home fear of The Red Menace and
associating the constitutionalists, and thus Bosch, with communism
... with the Dominican military still largely Trujillista in personnel
and ideology ... a victory for Bosch would be seen by many voters
as a danger that all the horrors would rain down upon their heads
once more. Bosch, who had returned several months prior to the
election, was himself so fearful for his personal safety that
he never left his home during the campaign.
Joachim Balaguer remained in office for the next 12 years,
ruling his people in the grand Latin American style: The rich
became richer and the poor had babies, hungry babies; democracy
remained an alien concept; the police and military regularly kidnapped,
tortured and murdered opponents of the government and terrorized
But the man was not, personally, the monster that Trujillo
was. There was relative calm and peace. No "communist threat"
hovered over the land. The pot was sweetened for foreign investors,
and American corporations moved in with big bucks. There was stability
and order. And the men who ran the United States looked and were
satisfied. Perhaps some of them had come to the realization that
the anti-communist liberal government was an impossible ideal;
for any movement seeking genuine democracy and social reform would
invariably attract individuals whom the United States would invariably
categorize as "communist"; the United States would then
feel driven to discredit, subvert and eventually over turn the
movement. A Catch 22.