April 1965 and the Unfinished Dominican Revolution

Apr 17, 2006

On April 28, 1965, 42,000 U.S. troops poured into the Dominican Republic to put down the beginnings of a democratic revolution in the Caribbean country. That invasion and the repression that followed continue to shape the Dominican people’s struggle for true sovereignty.

In 1965, the people of the Dominican Republic found themselves at the center of a number of important world developments. Across Latin America, millions of working people were inspired by the Cuban revolution to look for a way out from over a century of U.S. domination. The Vietnamese national liberation struggle was at the forefront of a worldwide anti-colonial trend that was sweeping Asia and Africa. U.S. imperialism was locked in a struggle against the Soviet Union and China, whose socialist revolutions gave proof to the world that it was possible to organize society without bosses, bankers and landlords.

As part of its Monroe Doctrine, U.S. imperialism regarded all of Latin America as its “backyard.” In 1905, the U.S. government sent customs agents to the Dominican Republic to make sure it paid its debts. In 1916, U.S. marines invaded the island again, occupying the country until 1924. During that occupation, the U.S. trained and organized a brutal national guard to enforce U.S. interests.

The Trujillo dictatorship

In 1930, Rafael Trujillo—a general in the U.S.-trained National Guard—came to power in rigged presidential elections. For the next 31 years, Trujillo distinguished himself as a particularly brutal and corrupt dictator. The Trujillo regime, like the regimes of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, provided stability for the pro-imperialist sections of the Dominican ruling class at the expense of mass repression of the country’s working classes.

Washington’s attitude toward the Trujillo dictatorship was best summarized by a quote often attributed to U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt or his secretary of state Cordell Hull: “Trujillo is an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”

But the political landscape changed in 1959 with the victory of Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement against the Batista dictatorship. Fear swept through U.S. ruling circles that the traditional Latin American dictatorships were not sufficient to contain mass opposition and revolution.

At the same time, sectors of the Dominican ruling class were growing restless with Trujillo’s corruption. The wealth that Trujillo, his family and his cronies had accumulated came not just from the exploitation of the Dominican Republic’s workers and peasants but also at the expense of any native capitalists not linked to the Trujillo regime.

In May 1961, Trujillo was assassinated—likely with the knowledge if not support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. When Trujillo’s family tried to hold on to power, the U.S. deployed 1,800 marines off the coast until the family went into exile.

U.S. ‘democratic’ intervention

Washington was hoping to prop up the repressive structures of the Trujillo dictatorship without the corruption. Its prime hope was a member of the Trujillo entourage, Joaquín Balaguer. In his book “Killing Hope,” leftist historian William Blum quotes then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy as saying, “Balaguer is our only tool. The anti-communist liberals are not strong enough. We must use our influence to take Balaguer along the road of democracy.”

Elections were held in December 1962. The clear winner was Juan Bosch from the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Bosch, a writer who had spent years in exile in Cuba, was a bourgeois democrat and was not oriented toward a socialist revolution. But immediately following his election, he announced a program of public works, land reform and rent subsidies. He also lifted legal restrictions against communists and socialists that had been in place throughout the Trujillo dictatorship.

U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, fearful of a new Cuban-style revolution, viewed Bosch’s policies as pro-communist. The CIA began working with conservative military officers and the national police to oppose Bosch’s new government. Seven months later, right-wing officers led a coup that removed Bosch from office. The pro-U.S. military forces installed a triumvirate, a three-person ruling group that handed the presidency to Donald Reid Cabral, a U.S.-educated car dealer.

The Dominican population was outraged by the level of disregard and disrespect of their vote less than a year earlier. This was a people who had just emerged from over 30 years of a tyrannical dictatorship. They had taken all of their frustrations and hopes to the ballot, overwhelmingly electing Juan Bosch as their president.

The country was in turmoil, with growing public demonstrations and frequent street battles against a puppet government that was perceived to pay more attention to United States leaders than to their own people.

Revolution and intervention

By 1965, a number of forces were organizing for the return of Bosch, who was in exile in Puerto Rico. Within the military, Constitutionalists—those loyal to Bosch’s 1963 constitution—were led by Col. Francisco Caamaño Deño and Lt. Col. Rafael Fernández Domínguez. Communists like the Dominican People’s Movement (MPD), led by Maximo Lopez Molina, and the June 14 Movement, also played important roles in organizing within the working-class neighborhoods.

On April 24, 1965, Constitutionalist forces, led by Fernández and Caamaño, broke ranks with the Reid Cabral puppet government. They handed out guns to supporters in the capital, Santo Domingo. Within the first hours, they freed all political prisoners, called for the repatriation of the Dominicans who had fled or had been exiled, and began purging the military and the Supreme Court of its conservative members.

Just when order seemed to have returned, civil war broke out the following day as conservative top military leaders, calling themselves “Loyalists,” launched a counterrevolutionary attack.

When Reid Cabral quit on April 25, U.S. forces were already preparing to intervene under the guise of protecting and evacuating U.S. personnel. A participant in the U.S. intervention, Brig. Gen. Edwin Simmons, described the scene on the ground:

“Evacuation began at 1 pm on 27 April. Persons wishing to be evacuated had gathered at the Hotel Ambassador and were to be moved by truck and bus to Haina. While they were waiting a band of hooligans [sic] briefly terrorized them by firing weapons over their heads.

“That same day, when efforts to negotiate a ceasefire failed, Wessin y Wessin [in command of the Loyalist armed forces] sent his troops into the city behind a rocket and strafing attack by the Dominican Air Force. A confused battle raged in the streets. Hundreds were reported killed and wounded. It was widely believed that Bosch’s PRD had lost control of the street gangs to the Castro-oriented MPD. Ambassador Bennett asked for a show of force.” What Simmons was describing, of course, when he referred in his elitist way to “hooligans” and “street gangs,” was the growing radicalization of the Dominican masses. (“A Marine’s View of the Dominican Intervention,” Naval Historical Center, Feb. 24, 2003)

On April 28, the full U.S. invasion force of 42,000 arrived in Santo Domingo. Battles between U.S. troops and their Loyalist backers on the one side and Constitutionalists and their civilian supporters lasted over the course of six months. Thousands of Dominicans were killed in combat with the U.S. occupation troops.

The invasion provoked a wave of protest across Latin America. Massive demonstrations took place in cities across the continent.

On Aug. 31, 1965, the civil war formally ended when Constitutionalist and Loyalist forces signed an agreement forming a provisional government with elections to be held in 1966. But by that time, the progressive social democratic and communist forces had suffered serious blows.

Caamaño was forced into exile in January 1966 after a series of attempts on his life. Juan Bosch returned from exile to participate in the elections, but was confined to his home by police threats and was unable to mount a real campaign.

Elections were held again in the Dominican Republic on July 1, 1966, imposing U.S.-backed Joaquín Antonio Balaguer as president. Balaguer went on to serve an additional 22 years in office with full support of the United States’ government. His repressive, U.S.-backed government could only have been “democratic” by hypocritical U.S. standards.

Continued dependence

To this day, the Dominican Republic has been kept in a dependent relationship to U.S. imperialism. Consecutive governments have imposed economic austerity programs and cutbacks, forcing millions to emigrate to the United States in search of decent jobs. Its economy is dominated by “free trade” agreements like the Central American-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade Agreement. Its police are trained by U.S. military and police units.

In September 1965, President Caamaño spoke before the Dominican National Congress on behalf of the Constitutionalists.

“We pledge to fight for the withdrawal of foreign troops on the territory of our country. We pledge to fight for the observance of democratic freedoms and human rights, and not to permit any attempt to reestablish dictatorship. We pledge to fight for the unity of all patriotic sectors to make our nation truly free, truly sovereign, truly democratic.”

Those tasks remain to be accomplished. The difference between today and 1965 is that only the Dominican working class is capable of fulfilling them in exactly the direction that the U.S. administration in 1965 feared most: socialist revolution.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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