On April 24, 1965, Dominicans poured into the streets of Santo Domingo to overthrow the military triumvirate that had ousted the democratic administration of Juan Bosch 19 months before. Fighting ensued that brought to light schisms among the country’s institutions and armed forces. Generals still loyal to the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship of 1930-61 fought the popular Constitutionalist rebellion, led by Bosch’s Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD), the Maoist Movimiento Popular Dominicano (MPD), the urban poor and the lower ranks of the military, led by colonel-turned-revolutionary Francisco Caamaño.
The Constitutionalists, so named because of their aim to reinstate Bosch and the populist 1963 constitution, took over the National Palace and Armory and dug in against the tank and aerial barrage of the conservative wing of the Dominican Armed Forces.
After four days, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson chose to intervene. On April 28, the first of 42,000 U.S. soldiers came ashore in the Dominican Republic under the pretext of saving lives and protecting U.S. interests, but with a covert motive of “preventing the emergence of a second Cuba in Latin America.” Though hardly unprecedented in U.S. foreign policy, this massive military presence on the agrarian Caribbean island dwarfed the U.S. force in Vietnam at the time.
U.S. Marines joined the Trujilloist forces, slowing Constitutionalist momentum and forcing negotiations that would lead to the bloodstained election of Joaquin Balaguer in June 1966. In the first half of that year, Balaguer’s Partido Reformista and Trujilloist army officers had led a terror campaign that assassinated over 350 leaders from the PRD, MPD and other left parties in order to secure victory. Bosch himself could not even leave his house to campaign, for fear of being killed by a military patrol.
One response: CUSLAR founded in Ithaca, New York
In 1965, one response to the stifled revolution in the Dominican Republic was that Cornell University students, with university chaplain Bill Rogers, founded the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) in Ithaca, New York. Many of them had been to Brazil in 1964 and witnessed the aftermath of the CIA-backed coup d’état against the democratic government of João Goulart. Cornellians were equally incensed at their government the next spring for again supporting the dismantling of a democratic process and supporting a dictatorship for the benefit of economic elites.
CUSLAR quickly took leadership in educating the campus and broader U.S. public about its government’s foreign policy and the connections between government and big business. Learning about U.S. tax dollars supporting repression of democracy and political assassinations led many on a path to radical critique and organizing. By 1968, Rogers and others had made a shift from being self-described “Kennedy liberals” to calling for “a new internationalism, trusting that we may find other hands that will work with us in the struggle for justice in the hemisphere.”
Rogers wrote powerfully on the need for people in the United States to work for justice in the hemisphere: “The use of American power in Latin America is, for North Americans, a domestic issue. When American students show concern for development problems in Latin America and for the way in which the United States Government, U.S. corporations, foundations, universities and churches are relating to these problems they are not necessarily turning their backs on problems at home and meddling in the affairs of others. They are, or at least may be, acting as responsible citizens of a world power. They did not make the United States a world power, but they must face the fact that it is one.”
The spectre of U.S. intervention haunts the island
The 1965 military intervention by that world power has cast a long shadow over the last half century in the Dominican Republic. In this sense, not only is the past not dead, it’s not even past, to borrow a line from William Faulkner. The country is still deeply scarred by the intervention that made possible the subsequent Balaguer regime.
With tacit support of the Johnson administration, Balaguer presided over another traumatic period in the country’s history known as los doce años. These 12 years of a new de facto dictatorship systematically decimated resistance movements. Balaguer went to great lengths to wipe out all voices challenging his regime, eliminating more than 3,000 opposition leaders in his first four years in office. He sent agents as far as Brussels to assassinate the MPD’s Maximiliano Gómez in exile in 1971.
A new generation of resistance
Today, though most texts on Latin American social movements hardly mention the Dominican Republic, the flame of resistance against injustice burns bright there. Leaders who came of age during the revolution, in the struggles against Balaguer’s terror of the 1970s or in the fight against structural adjustment in the 1980s are encouraging a new generation of young people to speak out against violations of human rights, political cronyism and corruption.
In recent weeks, mass protests and strikes throughout the country have denounced the Supreme Court’s decision not to investigate the approximately US$900 million recently found in the possession of Dominican senator Félix Bautista. Bautista has been a close adviser to presidents and has held public posts for the last two decades, and was accused by the Attorney General’s office of illicit accumulation of wealth, fraud and money laundering.
In addition, Dominican popular movements have successfully halted potential mining operations in Los Haitises National Park and most recently at Loma Miranda, a peak in the central mountains.
A strong voice for justice for Dominicans of Haitian ancestry stripped of citizenship rights has emerged from many sectors, including the Jesuit community, the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo and the disenfranchised youth themselves.
As part of our 50th anniversary year, CUSLAR members continue to educate ourselves and others about structural inequality and the political repression that can result from trying to maintain unlivable situations. Since the 2008 global economic crisis, it has become more clear that inequality is not only a North-South problem, but also an issue of an extreme concentration of wealth and expanding poverty in the Global North.
Past and present struggles in the Dominican Republic, just as the demands of teachers, immigrants or fast-food workers in the United States, point to the necessity to “globalize the struggle, globalize hope,” as Brazil’s Movimento Sem Terra says. May we lay to rest a past of inequality and violence and together build a movement based on the right of all people to life with dignity.
Tim Shenk is the Coordinator of the Ithaca, New York-based Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR). CUSLAR is a Cornell University-based organization, founded in 1965, which seeks to promote justice and mutual understanding among the people of the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean. CUSLAR is part of the New Poor People's Campaign.