Dominican Republic 1960-1966

Saving democracy from communism
by getting rid of democracy

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

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, Ciudad Trujillo.

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 "protégé", 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 of repression.

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.


[ 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 World".

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 student organization.

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 provisional governments.

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 union organizers.

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.

Killing Hope