The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts

Fred Halliday
23 April 2009

Hispaniola may have the distinction of being the only island in the world shared between two entire states (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), even if their intimacy belies very different trajectories. But the spacious city of Santo Domingo on the island's southern coast appears to transcend narrowing distinctions and embrace the whole history of the Caribbean - five centuries of invasions, colonial (French, Spanish, British) and neo-colonial (American), and recurrent but intermittent nationalist and socialist revolts. Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005)

Fred Halliday is co-authoring a book with Hamlet Hermann (the biographer of Francisco Caamaño Deñó), entitled Caamaño in London; it will be published in Spanish and English in 2010

Among Fred Halliday's many columns in openDemocracy:

"Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

"America and Arabia after Saddam" (12 May 2004)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the American empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (16 December 2008)

"Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

This indeed was the first city established by the Spanish in their conquest of the Americas, and traces of the 1490s are still visible in the elegant villas and churches of today's Zona Colonial. Many later predators came this way: among them Sir Francis Drake, the English marauder who in 1586 burnt much of the city and turned the cathedral (like the city's university the oldest in the Americas) into a stable. Rafael Trujillo, installed by the United States in 1930; ruled as absolute dictator until his assassination in May 1961; a son of this land, he was also a grotesque epigone of the worst in European tyrants (though few went as far as Trujillo in naming a city after himself). The melancholy list must include Lyndon B Johnson, the US president who in 1965 ordered the US marines to occupy the country. 

A time of turmoil

It was Trujillo's death in 1961 - reimagined in a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa adapted for a film, La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat) - that sparked the most dramatic, and internationally resonant, phase in modern Dominican history. The elections in 1962 brought the moderate leftwing leader Juan Bosch to power; the results of these were overturned by a coup in September 1963, but in April 1965 an unprecedented alliance (with radical and popular parties and movements joined by nationalist army officers) took power, proclaiming a return to "constitutional" government. It was only days later that LBJ - reflecting Washington's fear of another revolutionary upheaval in the Caribbean so soon after Cuba, and anticipating the invasion of Vietnam that followed weeks later - sent over 40,000 troops in what was to be the largest ever US invasion in its "backyard".   

The "constitutionalists" were led by their new president, Colonel Francisco Caamaño Deñó; he and his supporters held out until January 1966 before accepting a form of reconciliation agreement with the new order under which Caamaño and his fellow officers went into exile. From there they worked in vain to rally the Dominican opposition to their cause. No other help was forthcoming: Cuba was unable to do anything directly (though it did help Caamaño later, in 1973, in ways it could not then reveal); the strong protest of Charles de Gaulle's France at the invasion remained verbal only; while the Soviet Union implicitly accepted the US action and found in it a convenient analogous justification for its own "backyard" interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979).

The US occupation was completed with the installation in rigged elections of the neo-Trujilloist leader Joaquín Balaguer for his second period as president in June 1966, a position he was to hold for twenty-two of the next thirty years. The nationalist and socialist forces were gradually worn down: in the years that followed hundreds of opposition members were killed in the poorer districts of Santo Domingo. 

In the early part of this period Caamaño served in London as an increasingly frustrated military attaché, at odds with Bosch and with the fractious Dominican revolutionary left; he turned gradually towards an alliance with Cuba. After twenty months in Britain - including a memorable speaking engagement on 4 March 1966 at the Oxford University Labour Club (at the invitation of its president, namely myself) - Caamaño disappeared, in disguise, via Holland to Prague and then by plane to Cuba.  

The "constitutionalist president" arrived in Havana in November 1967: six years later, in February 1973, and despite the best efforts of the Cuban leaders to persuade him it was not opportune to return, he led a small group of revolutionary guerrillas back to his country. Within two weeks he was captured, and shot. The talk he had given to our student grouping in Oxford was to be the last time he ever appeared in public.  

A man apart

Since then, history has seemed to bypass the Dominican Republic. The massive protests throughout Latin America in the months following the 1965 invasion were soon eclipsed by the international attention devoted to the escalating war in Vietnam - in which another US marine landing, that at Danang in June 1965, was a symbolic landmark. The "Johnson doctrine", of massive US military intervention in "third-world" crises, seemed for a time to be working. But in April 1975 - exactly a decade after the US troops landed at Santo Domingo - Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces and local insurgents.

In the Dominican Republic, a gradual transition to democratic politics began in the late 1970s. Juan Bosch himself again became president; the return to office is a recurring pattern of Santo Domingo history (Buenaventura Báez had five spells as president between 1849 and 1878). In 1996, Leonel Fernández - a lawyer raised in New York - won the election; his party, the "Dominican Liberation Party" (PLD), presents itself as the centre-left inheritor of the "constitutionalist" movement of 1965.  

Today, Francisco Caamaño Deñó has received official recognition in his own country. He is designated a "national hero" and lionised in statues, his life and struggles are memorialised, he has foundations and an avenue named after him. His widow, Maria Paula Acevedo, and cousin, Rafaela Caamaño, shared the London exile; they recall visits to Portobello Road, Hyde Park (where Caamaño liked to fly model airplanes) and the maze at Hampton Court. Their welcome in Santo Domingo across decades of political and personal history is enthusiastic and warm.

A political question

It has been a long national journey too: the Dominican Republic is now far from the country of the revolutionary 1960s. "Dr Leonel" had to surrender power in 2000 on account of term-limit restrictions, but the lifting of these in 2002 allowed him to run again and win election in 2004 and re-election in 2008.

This thoughtful and engaging 55-year-old politician has more in common with the cautious Spanish-Brazilian-Chilean left model than with the bolder one of Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales. Yet many of those who have served in his three administrations are former members of the radical movement of the 1960s. A prominent minister in the first Fernández administration was one of only two people to survive the 1973 guerrilla expedition; another, now a television host and chair of a historical foundation - who interviewed me about Caamaño for an hour on his TV programme - graduated in 1967 from a Chinese guerrilla training-school. A number of other recent ministers were educated in the universities of the Soviet Union.  

A trademark theme of the president is to stress what the 9 million people of the Dominican Republic are capable of. The last two decades have seen substantial progress in two areas: tourism and export-oriented industry - together they play a vital role in offseting the annual $5.8 billion trade deficit. The economy was in the pre-recession years growing at an average annual rate of 7%. The large Dominican diaspora - most in the US and some in Spain - sends considerable sums in remittances (see Ernesto Sagás & Sintia E Molina, eds., Dominican Migration: Transnational Perspectives [University Press of Florida, 2004]).

There is great cultural pride in the award of the Pulitzer prize for literature to the Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz (for his Joycean novel relocated to the Caribbean, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) - a refreshing variant for a country whose international reputation had hitherto rested on the prowess of baseball players. 

But the strains of the world economic crisis are becoming evident alongside such indices of progress, with exports down and remittances less certain. Moreover, the prospect of a normalisation between Cuba and the US poses a major threat to the Dominican tourist industry. At the same time, the Fernández leadership, now in its third presidency, has run into trouble. The president is criticised for appointing too many ministers, and advisers with unspecified responsibilities. More questions are being asked about the deals the president has made with businessmen in order to secure his re-election, questions he has been obliged to answer via unscheduled appearances on television.

The main preoccupation of those participating in a national conference in January 2009 - the "Summit for National Unity in the Face of the World Crisis" - was the level of corruption in the country. The next items were the high levels of public expenditure (up nearly 20% in 2008), the global economic crisis, levels of crime and violence, and the lack of competitiveness of Dominican exports. Some of those who admired and supported the president in his first and second periods in office are now markedly less enthusiastic (see "Two cheers for Fernández", Economist, 8 May 2008).  

A return to the world

These uncertainties are reflected in a continuing debate about the Dominican Republic's place in the world. The president has repeatedly stressed that the DR is in - that word again - the "backyard" of the US and needs to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the powerful enemy to the north. This caution is perhaps reinforced by something many people in Santo Domingo allude to: the sense of their country's geographic isolation.

Haiti is a neighbour - its capital Port-au-Prince seven hours overland from Santo Domingo - but relations between the two states, and peoples, are strained. Cuba is geographically nearby to the west - Guantánamo is an hour's flying time, nearer Santo Domingo than to Havana - but, for political reasons, remote. Almost equally so is the US-controlled island of Puerto Rico to the east.

Dominicans often express the feeling that, just as their country was forgotten by the world after the attention of the Rafael Trujillo years and the 1965 events, so it is treated as outside the regional political and economic systems today - accepted as neither part of Latin America, nor of central America, nor in many respects even of the Caribbean. It is a paradox, indeed, that this country, the centrepiece of the original Spanish colonisation of the Americas, and scene of one of the most tumultuous confrontations of the cold war, should have slipped so easily from international attention. Perhaps it is time for the Dominican Republic to write another page.    


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