The BACKWATER WAR that could shake the world
Was it hysteria or power politics that sent 30,000 U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic? A Maclean’s editor, recently returned from the fighting, sizes up Washington's dalliance with tyranny and the worldwide pattern of chaos it could sel
THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC is a sick, hungry country with half of one percent of Canada’s area, a sixth of Canada’s population, an appallingly high rate of illiteracy, and a per capita income of one hundred dollars a year, most of which is grabbed by the rich. Canada’s per capita income exceeds eighteen hundred dollars.
Ordinarily, Dominica is unimportant, except for the fact that it shares with Haiti the historic island of Hispaniola, discovered by Columbus in 1492, and is a classic example of corruption, tyranny, and the frustrations of ignorant oppressed people groping for decent government. But, lately, this downtrodden spot has been the setting for events of hemispheric and global significance, not because it has had another revolution, but because it has been invaded by the United States in violation of the charter of the Organization of American States, hy which every member nation promises not to interfere in the internal affairs of any other member nation.
Washington’s intervention with thirty thousand armed men may ultimately shatter the OAS, damage the UN, encourage wars in the Middle East and Africa, and destroy any slight chance of a Vietnamese settlement, by strengthening Soviet and Chinese views on “Yankee imperialism.”
For our hemisphere, it has raised the question whether the U. S., with its almost psychotic fear that Castroism will spread and a determination to preserve its own neocolonial commercial empire, has reverted to oldfashioned gunboat diplomacy and decided to “freeze” the status quo where it can in Latin America, even though it means sacrificing idealism, propping up military mobsters, and ignoring the mounting pressure for better LatinAmcrican living conditions. Barry Goldwater says that this is so: “No matter how you slice it, this is gunboat diplomacy, and I say hurray.” It may not be that clear-cut but President Johnson’s response to the Dominican crisis has shaken liberals throughout Latin America.
Washington’s attempts to look respectable and divert attention from its treaty breach have flopped. It did browbeat the OAS into belatedly approving what it had done, but when it pressed for an inter-American force to restore order in Dominica the countries that contributed troops were Brazil, Honduras and Nicaragua. This added to the distrust of norteamericanos, for as all latinos know, military
gangsters in Honduras and Brazil chucked out their legally elected presidents, Honduras in the fall of 1963 and Brazil in the spring of 1964, and seized power themselves. As for Nicaragua, for more than three decades it has been under the heel of the U. S.trained Somoza dynasty, with its contempt for human rights and such unbridled greed that at least one third of Niacaragua’s assets are in Somoza pockets, while Nicaraguans literally starve. In Managua, Nicaragua’s sleazy capital, I’ve stepped over women and children sleeping on the sidewalks at night, and in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, I saw a ragged man drop to the pavement in a faint. “Just hungry,” a Honduran friend told me. The street was crowded with Honduran soldiers with U. S. uniforms and rifles.
In Rio de Janeiro, a flossy Jet Set city by Copacabana Beach. I’ve wandered through favelas, the awful shacktowns that spill filthily down the hills. And, before President Joao Goulart was deposed, when there was still hope of land redistribution, I talked with earnest U. S. Alliance For Progress officials who had gathered statistics in northeastern Brazil, where half the babies die in their first year, where the life expectancy of those who survive is thirty-two, and where wages approximate one dollar a week.
These republics are strange companions for the U. S., which has claimed that its Alliance For Progress, plus such essential reforms as free elections, land redistribution and efficient taxation, will develop underdeveloped Latin America. Indeed, it
was because he wanted to introduce these reforms that Goulart was toppled by his army, which was prodded by the landowners and industrialists. President Ramon Villeda Morales of Honduras fell for the same reason.
Nicaragua’s strong man Somoza was shot, but son carries on dictatorship.
That was eight days after a coup d’état had exiled from the Dominican Republic the first constitutionally elected president in almost forty years, Juan Bosch, the grey - haired author and teacher. He had gained seventy percent of the popular vote but that wasn’t enough to stop Brigadier-General Elias Wessin y Wessin from chasing him out seven months after he was inaugurated, when it became evident that he really planned reforms.
Latinos have forgotten none of this, nor have they forgotten the speedy U. S. recognition of the usurpers in Brazil, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, and Lyndon Johnson’s “warmest good wishes” to Paschoal Ranieri Mazzilli, who became provisional president and, under army orders, pseudo-dictator, but was soon supplanted by a tougher dictator, General Humberto Alecar Castelo Branco, who deprived Brazil’s liberal leaders of all political rights. Among these were Goulart and a second ex-president, Juscelino Kubitschek.
In each case the excuse of the military was that they were extinguishing a Communist threat. But the number of Communists in gigantic Brazil was microscopic, in Honduras you could have counted them on your fingers, and in the Dominican Republic Bosch’s adversaries admitted that he was not a Communist. The worst they could say was that he was “soft on Communism.” Apparently
the word “Communist,” in whatever context, justified the military racketeers in Washington eyes.
As a reporter who has covered much of Latin America, I’m sure most Latin Americans feel that U. S. intelligence, if not deliberately deceitful, is incomprehensibly stupid, and that the White House receives a stream of misinformation from incompetent ambassadors and the Central Intelligence Agency, that enormous spy network so largely responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. CIA men, so transparently cloak-and-dagger types they're a joke, seem to be attached to every U. S. embassy south of the Rio Grande.
If latinos are angered by false reports to Washington, they are angered still more these days by the agony the U. S. has bequeathed most Caribbean countries it has occupied, and the Dominican invasion rekindled the old memories. In his autobiography, General Smedley Butler of the U. S. Marine Corps wrote: “I helped make Mexico . . . safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 19091912; I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ‘right’ for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I feel I might have given AÍ Capone a few hints.”
Of the republics Butler speaks of, Mexico alone is free from dictatorship. In Haiti, Francois Duvalier and his cagoulards, or “hooded ones,” reign by terror, but have received U. S. economic aid and borrowed marines to train their army. In Cuba,
Brutal Dominican boss Trujillo died at the hands of his "court jester,” Imbert.
the marines and U. S. diplomat Sumner Welles were the sponsors of Fulgencio Batista, a sergeant who led a revolt of noncommissioned officers, promoted himself to colonel, then general, then president, murdered
Elected Dominican president, Juan Bosch, planned reforms; alarmed, junta ousted him after seven months.
thousands, and piled up a fortune of three hundred million dollars before he was toppled by Fidel Castro in 1959. In Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza, a shopkeeper, joined the guardia, or police, under tutelage of the marines. When the marines left, he promoted himself to general, turned the police into an army, took over the country and launched his career of plundering, which continued until a poet shot him. His sons, one a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, picked up where he left off.
In Honduras, the marines plowed the ground for a succession of dictators, punctuated by an occasional constitutional president like Villeda Morales. Neighboring Guatemala likewise had a series of dictators and when a democratic leader like Jacobo Arbenz emerged, and sought to redistribute the unused banana land of the fruit companies, the military, with an assist from the U. S., would shout “Communist,” and heave him out. The shout of “Communist” reached the ultimate idiocy when it was used by the military junta that removed General Miguel Ydigoras, the Guatemalan dictator who was so fanatically anticommunist that there were those who thought he was mentally unbalanced.
Ydigoras screeched, of course, that the junta members were the Communists.
In the Dominican Republic, as elsewhere, U. S. occupation and the marines produced a brutal dictator,
Rafael Trujillo. When the marines landed in 1916, he was a village telegraph operator. He joined the guardia
under marine direction, and rose to the top. The marines withdrew in 1924, the police became the army, and by 1930 Trujillo was dictator — a job he held by torture and murder until he was murdered himself. His self-assumed title was “Benefactor of the Fatherland.” and his boast was that he had saved his country from Communism. But he bled Dominica dry, amassing a fortune of eight hundred million dollars. Toward the end of his reign he hired assassins to kill an old enemy, President Romula Betancourt of Venezuela. Their bomb failed to erase Betancourt but el benefactor was blacklisted by the OAS for the plot.
When he was shot, a military junta headed off a civil uprising, but to do so had to agree to free elections late in 1962. Bosch won by a landslide, but the army rid itself of him in seven months — when it was plain he was sincere about reforms.
This last April, when the blood started flowing, there was a provisional president, Donald Reid, son of a Scot who was a Royal Bank of Canada manager in Santo Domingo, and a Dominican mother. Reid, an auto dealer, had had a row with Colonel Francisco Caamano Deno. Caamano, still in his thirties, looks like a Mafia hood. He has a former Nazi SS trooper as a bodyguard and a glib former playboy, Hector Aristry, as political adviser. When Bosch was banished in 1963, Caamano didn’t object. There are Dominicans who say that when he popped up as Bosch’s champion, this spring, he was motivated less by patriotism than by opportunism and a desire for revenge on Reid and some senior officers he hated and accused of grafting.
1 was in Santo Domingo for sixteen days in May, but there was so much confusion that the facts were impossible to check accurately. The first shots, apparently, rang out at a baseball game, or near it, on Saturday, April 24, and on Sunday the broadcasting system went silent and wild rumors circulated. Reid took refuge in a foreign embassy, where he would have immunity, while civilians assembled in crowds and demanded the return of Bosch. They chanted. “Bo-Bo-Bo-Bo-Bosch,” and expected Caamano to pull him out of a hat, like a magician’s rabbit. But Bosch was in Puerto Rico / continued on page 44
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and U. S. authorities, who dislike him, refused his plea for transportation to Santo Domingo.
Meanwhile, the rebels dug themselves into strategic positions, and on Monday Wessin, commander of the Dominican air force, strafed them with planes and missiles from the U. S. Simple Dominicans, awaiting Bosch in a fiesta mood, dressed in their best clothes and hurried to see the show and strayed into the line of fire, and from one thousand to fifteen hundred wound up as corpses. As the bodies rotted in the hot sun, about half were claimed by relatives and trundled off to a pauper’s field where most Santo Domingans are buried. The other bodies were collected in garbage trucks and dumped in a mass grave and covered by a bulldozer, or doused with gasoline and burned where they lay. The slaughter finished Wessin as a leader of the military junta and another unsavory individual, Brigadier General Antonio Imbert Barreras, bobbed to the top. He had for years been a Trujillo friend. The sadistic Trujillo treated him as a court jester and enjoyed insulting him at public functions and watching him smirk painfully. Imbert finally retaliated by being one of his master’s assassins. Indeed, he brags that he administered the coup de grace, putting the fatal bullet through Trujillo’s brain. This is his solitary claim to greatness and he has reputedly hired a U. S. press agent to publicize his deed.
Imbert, naturally, says the rebels are Communists and, for a while, had the U. S. convinced. The U. S. marines, paratroopers and sailors I met, when 1 asked what they were doing in Santo Domingo, all replied, “Fighting Commies.” And President Johnson, who first said he had dispatched a force to protect U. S. citizens and property, said the next day, “We don’t propose to sit here in our rocking chair and let the Communists set up any government in the Western Hemisphere.” Johnson was embarrassed when Imbert couldn’t provide proof of a big Communist infiltration into the Caamano rebels. And the best the U. S. State Department could do, with the assistance of Imbert and the CIA, was compile a list of fifty-three alleged Communists and Communist sympathizers — hardly enough for a take-over. Johnson even had the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which can find Communists almost anywhere, hunt them in Dominica.
From United States diplomats, at press briefings in Santo Domingo, we got gratuitous advice about not playing the “numbers game” and reminders that when Castro landed in Cuba he had a mere dozen followers. We got dark hints that the actual number of Communists couldn't be revealed without jeopardizing sources of information. And we got unabashed, unvarnished lies: we were told Imbert’s troops were not being allowed through the U. S. check points, although we had watched them being let through, and we were told U. S.
troops did not fire unless they were fired at first, although we had watched them fire first, and two U. S. soldiers riddled a station wagon with their machine gun and critically wounded two U. S. newspaper reporters, who were both unarmed, as was their Dominican driver.
When the vast horde of Communists Imbert had conjured up to alarm the U. S. and dupe Johnson dwindled to a handful, and he could provide no solid evidence that they ever existed, his veracity and prestige fell under a cloud. U. S. sentiments changed. The invaders didn’t seem to know, now, which side to favor, and swung from helping the junta to defending the rebels. Then they swung again to the junta, to return soon to the rebels. It was a curious muddle, with U. S. spokesmen contending at all times that they were neutral, that their one desire was to restore order and save lives, while a lot of their troops were fighting for Imbert or Caamano or both. The papal nuncio (or ambassador) to the Dominican Republic, with his flag flying on his car, crossed and recrossed both junta and rebel lines, negotiating a cease-fire while the corpses were gathered up, and an OAS team of negotiators arrived, and a UN team of negotiators, and a team of U. S. State Department braintrusters.
One cease-fire deal followed another but somebody — there are those who say Caamano and those who say
Wessin y Wessin — had emptied the Dominican army’s arsenals and doled out thousands of rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition to civilians. These civilians sniped away through all the cease-fires and could not be controlled. They even sniped in the international corridor cordoned off by U. S. forces, so that taxi drivers charged “danger pay.” The least a short taxi ride cost me was five dollars.
All the while — I wonder whether there was ever such a wacky civil war — foreign reporters like myself could freely enter both junta and rebel zones, and listen to propaganda from Caamano in the morning and Imbert in the afternoon, for each have a craving for publicity. They deserve publicity, but not the kind they crave, for they are merciless gangsters. They proved this when they announced that the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to civil war and executed their prisoners in cold blood. In one method of execution, prisoners unaware of what was in store for them would be compelled to sprawl face down on the street, then were shot in the head. There were those who, when they realized they were to be killed, would leap up and run like mad, and the executioners chuckled as they bagged them in flight. The other method of execution was the traditional LatinAmerican one — the doomed lined against a stone wall and crumbled by a firing squad.
The sound of rifle fire was muffled by the roar of planes and the chopping of helicopters that circled constantly overhead, and from my window in the Ambajador Hotel I could count eight U. S. warships anchored offshore like dormant sharks, and the atmosphere was heavy with menace. The smell of death hung around, the dazzlingly brilliant bursts of bloom on the tropical bushes seemed like flowers at a funeral, and each day, for a while, it rained. Yet life went on amidst death: native women, baskets of fruit and laundry on their heads, walked with stately grace, disregarding bullets; small boys, with an equal disregard for danger, sold Cokes to tank crews; roadside peddlers were peddling cigarets, melons, rum, pilfered military rations, their sisters. Tiny market places were open, with their bars, vegetable stalls, noisy hucksters, haggling shoppers, and starving naked children scrabbling among the litter for bits of food.
Why did the U. S. go in?
I found myself asking, over and over, why the United States did what it did. It was unquestionably justified in landing enough marines to protect U. S. lives and perhaps property, and to evacuate its own nationals. In Puerto Rico on the way to the Dominican Republic I had met Canadians, among them wives of diplomats, who said if it had not been for the marines and the U. S. navy, which transported them to safety, they would have been butchered. But why did the U. S. send thirty thousand men? Was misinformation from the bumbling CIA to blame? Was the U. S. ambassador to Santo Domingo, Tapley Bennett, who certainly made a poor impression on reporters from his own and other countries, a stupid man who panicked and lost his sense of proportion? Has the brass in the State Department and the Pentagon, plagued by Vietnam and Cuba, become hysterical? Does LBJ, with his overwhelming ambition to be a great president, picture himself as another Teddy Roosevelt galloping up the hill at St. Juan? You can go on asking such questions endlessly, but there just doesn’t seem to be any logical explanation for what happened.
Without doubt, the small initial landings by the marines, to defend U. S. nationals and other non-Dominicans, saved lives. But did the fullscale invasion stop a blood bath? Here again there is no answer. Caamano, who had the upper hand when U. S. troops swarmed ashore, would have beaten the junta completely within a few days and was sworn to bring Juan Bosch, a decent and moderate constitutional president, back to the Dominican Republic to complete his term. Bosch, I think, would have been back by June in the National Palace, directing a constitutional government and instituting a program of gradual reforms. And Latin-American revolutions, as a rule, involve a minimum amount of bloodshed, although U. S. military aid is making them far more bloody than they used to be. Would Communists have taken over? In my opinion, no. In all Latin-American republics, there are a few Communists, and when there is a liberal leader,
they do their best to climb on his bandwagon. But Bosch would have controlled them.
So what happens now? All I can see ahead for the Dominican Republic is trouble and unrest. If the U. S. freezes the status quo there, leaving a handful of oligarchic parasites to bleed the republic, it will just be postponing a far greater explosion in the near future, and closing its eyes to the bitter truth that most of Latin America has a fuse of discontent burning
quickly toward the devastating dynamite of class revolution. Today's generation of latinos is neither submissive nor passive; most of those who belong to it despised the United States before the Santo Domingo invasion and despise it still more now, and the hatred that has been engendered by this foolish adventure will take years to overcome, if it is ever overcome. If. on top of that, the OAS crumbles because the U. S. broke its charter, and the UN is undermined, and the stance
of the Soviets and Chinese against the U. S. has been stiffened, and the African republics, the Israelis and the Arabs have been given a precedent to justify invading one another’s territory on the pretext of extinguishing a Communist threat, the events in the Dominican Republic could exact a terrible price. That's why these events, in this utterly unimportant, povertystricken. flea-bitten country, are of such importance to our hemisphere and the world. ★