The Dawn of a New Era: Continuity and Change in the Modern Dominican Republic

Can the 2020 election mark a watershed moment in Dominican politics?

As morning broke on 16th August 2020, Luis Abinader, president-elect of the Dominican Republic, was sworn as the 54th president, ruling from the country’s capital city of Santo Domingo. A candidate who cultivated a political brand embedded in anti-corruption, his inauguration could herald tangible change, but his tenure will inevitably face comparison undemocratic leadership and corruption scandals which touched even immediate predecessor, Danilo Medina, who attempted to seek an unconstitutional third term in office prior to the elections.

The modern Dominican state and its political backdrop are shaped by Dominican history, which is interwoven with the earliest European colonial conquests of the Americas. Santo Domingo even hosts the oldest cathedral in the Americas in its Colonial Zone district. Upon the arrival of European colonisers, the island of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, witnessed the slaughter of its indigenous Taíno inhabitants with a rigour unseen in colonial ethnic cleansing elsewhere in the Americas and conquered Caribbean. Two generations of Spanish colonialism oversaw the comprehensive elimination from existence of Hispaniola’s indigenous population. Hispaniola soon became the destination site of the sixteenth-century transatlantic slave trade, with the Dominican economy morphing between dependence on gold and sugar exports in the web of colonised Caribbean islands.

Independence from Spain in 1844 spelled neither peace nor prosperity. Annexation by Haiti, sustained border incursions and the short-lived return of the Dominican Republic to Spanish rule by President Pedro Santana – decisively rejected in the Dominican Restoration War – characterised the mid-nineteenth century. General Ulises “Lilís” Heureaux, rising to power in the final decades of the century, established an iron-fisted, caudillo dictatorship until his assassination in 1899 by a group including Ramón Cáceres, who would go on to fill Lilís’s vacated presidential post and assume responsibility for the dire economic situation and foreign debt. As chaos reigned, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson authorised the military occupation of American troops in the Dominican Republic.

The U.S. Marine occupation stretched until 1924 and was a useful historical indicator of how the relationship between the nations would evolve. After the American War of Independence and Civil War, the U.S. government increasingly sought to incorporate the Dominican Republic into a subordinate satellite in the orbit of its influence. In combination with economic initiatives in Dominican export industries and political manoeuvres, the first U.S. military occupation firmly imprinted the American footprint on Dominican political and financial soil.

By the time the U.S. forces departed the Dominican Republic, the effects of their presence were to be branded on the course of the island’s history. The occupying Americans supervised the creation of the national guard, which was intended to maintain order when they pulled their troops from the Dominican Republic following the elections of 1924. The American military intervention would be a defining eight years for the twentieth-century Dominican Republic: under and after American tutorship, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina rose up through the ranks of the national guard. Collating power, influence, and an infamy for repressive brutality, Trujillo snatched the presidency of the Dominican Republic in the elections of 1930.

Trujillo, a soldier trained by the U.S. Marines, was reportedly described by Franklin D. Roosevelt as ‘a true son of a bitch, but he’s our son of bitch’. It is an illuminating soundbite. The United States came to view the Dominican dictator as a vital bulwark in their campaign of anti-communist, neo-imperialist expansion, the preservation of their way of life in their hemisphere. There is, however, the implicit suggestion that Trujillo obeyed the United States in some way: this is not precisely true. Trujillo made use of the United States’ geopolitical anxieties as a strong foundation of support, a structural beam, in the stability of a personal fiefdom based in Santo Domingo – which was tellingly renamed Ciudad Trujillo in 1936. Ingratiated into the Cold War political scenario by the early 1950s, Trujillo’s tyranny was configured into the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ pedalled by the United States in the second half of the century, in opposition to the vilified doctrines of communism exported from Russia and Mao’s China.

The domestic reality for the Dominican people was far removed from lofty epithets of liberty. His dictatorship, the trujillato, was reminiscent of that of General Ulises Heureaux decades earlier; in the words of Trujillo’s biographer, Robert Crassweller, Trujillo ‘did not wish to overthrow the system of government developed by Heureaux; he merely wanted to inherit it’.

The regime was entrenched in military control. The army reigned supreme, and the secret police – the Servicio de Inteligencia Militar, (SIM)- even more so. Crawling around the streets in their Volkswagen Beetles, feeding the cells of ‘La Cuarenta’ prison, the SIM were both feared and seemingly omnipresent. Bribery, forced disappearances, pervasive censorship and coercion were routine. Forces of conformity were not uncommon in the long authoritarian tradition of caudillo – ‘strong-man’ or ‘man-on-horseback’ – leaders, yet the scientific advances of the early twentieth century gave Trujillo the key to unlocking unyielding and absolute control.

Previous examples of Latin American dictatorships were militaristic and authoritarian, but modern technology bestowed upon the Era of Trujillo the abilities to infiltrate the minds of its populace. Surveillance and repression were extensive. The trujillato, then, for its roots in authoritarianism, morphed into something new, a contemporary totalitarianism with the torture, indoctrination and penetration into the home that comes with it. Tangled up in this totalitarian state was an economic monopoly, tightening the noose on the population. A primary Dominican export, Trujillo personally controlled over two thirds of sugar production by the 1950s, and much of the national purse was funnelled into his private pocket. The self-bestowed titles of Benefactor of the New Nation, of Restorer of Financial Independence, which surged from Trujillo’s disentanglement of the country from foreign indebtedness, propped up the sustained incursions into the social, economic and political spaces of each and every Dominican citizen. Swathed in theatricality, corruption and pageantry, the Era of Trujillo paralysed the Dominican Republic for over three decades.

By the turn of 1960, the regime was becoming an increasing embarrassment to anti-communist allies in the United States. Incidents piled up: the Parsley Massacre of 1937– in which Dominican military officials killed an estimated 15,000 Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans along the border, determined by their ability to pronounce the Spanish word ‘perejil’, meaning parsley – and the murder of the activist Mirabal sisters, came to a head with Trujillo’s attempt to assassinate Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt. Suddenly the attitudes of CIA Station Chief Henry Dearborn, that Trujillo ‘had his torture chambers, he had his political assassinations, but he kept law and order’, and could therefore be excused, become outdated. The tyrant whom Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz calls a figure ‘created and sustained by the U.S.’s political-military machine’ had begun to fall from American favour by his assassination in 1961, but nonetheless succeeded in terrorising the entire nation for over thirty corruption- and repression-filled years.

1961 marked the end of Trujillo’s life, but not his influence on Dominican politics. Ramfis Trujillo, Trujillo’s son, and Dr. Joaquín Balaguer, who acted as Trujillo’s puppet president, machinated to take make small, democratising concessions but remained high-profile. With the Trujillo family excluded from elections scheduled for 1962, it looked as if a glimmer of change had dawned on Santo Domingo. The emergent political parties campaigned for office, which was won by Juan Bosch Gaviño of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) at the end of 1962 on the platform of dramatic socioeconomic overhaul with left-leaning policies.

This was short-lived. Within less than a year, a military coup d’état forced Bosch from the presidency and into exile. The Triumvirate, as the military junta became known, reinstated many discarded authoritarian traits, including a dominant political party and a ban on communist groups. Much like the Bosch administration, however, this Triumvirate only survived a two-year stint in power before facing an uprising in support of Bosch’s reinstatement which took root in urban centres and spread around the populace. The Constitutionalists, the military officials attached to the uprising and supporting Bosch’s annulled constitution, came to do battle with the Triumvirate Loyalists as the ideologies clashed in the National Palace.

The U.S. wading into the turmoil changed the potential direction of the uprising. “Operation Powerpack”, sanctioned by Lyndon B. Johnson, saw American troops descend to restore order and, crucially to the U.S., preserve their sphere of influence and a favourable administration in the Dominican Republic. Once more, the United States had positioned themselves in opposition to democratisation in their hemisphere, at odds with their rhetoric of freedom and democracy. Then, the 1966 elections in the U.S.-occupied Dominican Republic reinstated America’s choice of acceptable leadership to the presidency: Trujillo collaborator Dr. Joaquín Balaguer. In this moment, the U.S. guaranteed authoritarian continuity for the nation, only a more veiled incarnation than that which Trujillo had offered up for their inspection.

And thus the Balaguer presidency, which began under Trujillo, continued from the mid-1960s. Balaguer is an enigmatic political character: Machiavellian maneuverer to some, evil genius to others and pensive steward of democratisation to a few. Whichever adjective is attached to Balaguer’s multiple post-Trujillo presidencies, a constant thread of repression, terror, disappearances and gaping historical holes characterise the balaguerato and its half-heartedly implemented democratisation. By the end of Balaguer’s first stint, known as the Twelve Years, Balaguer relinquished the presidency to the PRD, which had become more moderate since Bosch’s initial electoral campaign. Unfortunately, the social democratic reforms they promised failed to materialise when Antonio Guzmán and Salvador Jorge Blanco ended their presidencies with suicide and allegations of corruption. The 1980s became filled with disappointment, foreign investment, unpopular entanglements with the International Monetary Fund and protests against a declining standard of living. Balaguer stepped once again into the presidential shoes in 1986, completing various non-consecutive presidential terms which totalled twenty-six years, and making his presence felt in Dominican politics until his death in 2002.

The twenty-first century has seen an evolution in Dominican politics, but one which often comes accompanied by echoes of the past. The ruling party has alternated between the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) and the PRD, the administrations constantly facing accusations of criminal behaviour. Many analysts remain convinced of pervasive and entrenched corruption to this day, with the Danilo Medina administration embroiled in numerous scandals after being elected in 2012 and 2016. After Medina’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term prompted public outcry, all signs point to a bone-deep frustration with authoritarian tints and electoral fudging.

Can the 2020 election results, then, possibly mark a watershed moment in Dominican politics? It was hardly surprising that the state’s decision to postpone the elections, originally scheduled for 17th May, until 5th July caused panic and anxiety for voters with little guarantee of free and fair elections. These fears were not assuaged on the day of the municipal elections in February, when electronic ballot options were incorrectly displayed and prompted an immediate suspension of the elections. Protests clamouring for accountability for the electoral error and independent, transparent voting testify for the people’s exasperation with illegitimate administrations and falsified results. The democratic transitional era has seen many wobbles in electoral legitimacy, and voters were keen not to repeat instances such as those of 1978, when the army temporarily interrupted vote counting. This sentiment was what Luis Abinader tapped into to clinch his election victory: promises to tackle endemic corruption and invest in public services echo the commitments made in decades past, but frustration with at the lack of fulfilment remains – as does hope for real, substantial change.

Abinader’s new government will assume power in the coming days, committed to rooting out the corruption plaguing every administration. The controversial State Sugar Council, which was established in 1966 under Balaguer to manage the Dominican sugar industry, is set to be merged with the Directorate of National Assets in Abinader’s new government after being implicated in multiple cases of corruption. Mr. Abinader’s personal and familial interests in tourism in the Dominican Republic, his long history enmeshed in the political environment surrounded by the former president Hipólito Mejía, and the economic turmoil wrought by Covid-19 cast a shadow over the positivity felt for the anti-corruption drives in one of the Caribbean nations hit hardest by the pandemic.

The Faro a Colón, the Columbus Lighthouse, is perhaps a good place to end a discussion of the Dominican Republic. A stark reminder of the Dominican Republic’s colonial history as the original settlement of Columbus in the Americas, it was opened on the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landing in 1992 – at great expense to the public Dominican purse. It was intended to stimulate tourism – which it has largely failed to do – and the elaborate electrical lights system it sports is rarely illuminated, as it often plunges the surrounding civilian area into darkness as the electrical grid fails. It is a colonial legacy, one which does not benefit the ordinary Dominican citizen and was commissioned on Balaguer’s instructions. “Change is coming“, Abinader insisted on the campaign trail, yet as writer Junot Díaz eloquently puts it, ‘the shadow of history doesn’t go away’. It remains to be seen if Abinader can find a way to shine a light and chase away the shadows of foreign domination, authoritarianism and corruption with which the Dominican people are increasingly frustrated.

Featured Image Credit: Wikipedia

Can the 2020 election mark a watershed moment in Dominican politics?