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A Long Way from Michigan

Overtaken by Events: The Dominican Crisis—from the Fall of Trujillo to the Civil War

by John Bartlow Martin
Doubleday, 821 pp., $7.95

Rarely has a government functionary revealed so much about the intricacies of power, its uses and abuses, as does John Bartlow Martin in Overtaken by Events. Describing himself as a “Liberal,” a friend of Adlai Stevenson and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Martin served President Kennedy as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic until Juan Bosch was overthrown in 1963, and President Johnson as special envoy to that country during its frustrated revolution in 1965. His main purpose in describing those missions, and filling the gap between them, is to stress the good intentions of American policy in the Dominican Republic and, generally, in Latin America—and to show that its failures are mainly caused by uncontrollable events. But as an old Saturday Evening Post journalist he allows his feel for the full story to get the better of him, and as it does, the “events” keep piling up with such nagging consistency that his logic is itself overtaken.

The story is fascinating, at times shocking, often naively told. It is crammed with romantic incantations of nature and such natural behavior (amidst strikes and strifes) as bird watching. It seethes with undiplomatic tantrums and denunciations; it is wrought by guilt and colored by nationalistic admiration for New York efficiency, Washington might, and Michigan (Martin’s home state) scenery. It reads like a banal Russian novel, panoramic in scope, paternalistic in tone, in which the heroes and villains are constantly involved in plots and subplots, leading them, with both bloody absurdity and tragic necessity, to the climactic, cathartic unhappy ending—the death of Dominican pride, independence, and freedom.

Martin’s long book is marred by his lack of genuine sympathy for his characters. This is partly due to his emotional involvement; he wants to love Dominicans. But their extreme sense of honor, their disdain of certain kinds of work, their cult of machismo (a hybrid between manly bravado and male sex appeal), and their reckless disregard of human life and property frighten him off. Early during his tenure, for example, he finds himself rushing away from a group of angry, shouting, anti-Yanki peasants (who, obviously, were following the “straight Castro/Communist line” because they were “organized in advance”). As Martin and his family leave, two stones fly through his car window, hitting no one. But he reacts sharply: “One of the stones in front that had fallen at our boy’s feet turned out to be only a mango pit. But I never again, I am afraid, try as I might, felt the same about the Dominican people after they threatened our children.”

MARTIN IS HIS OWN major character, and he finds his setting more and more unbearable. Hence, he retreats into nature, where he can admire “the horsemen herding the fat cattle slowly up the hills, the windmill turning in the dying wind, white birds in great flocks winging in….” With people, he “somehow lost touch with reality. Here, on the beach, in the sea, in the swamp, in the pasture, cows and horses and white birds flying, was reality again.” And so one day, driving in the interior, he comes upon “some workmen repairing the road, and one of them threw down his shovel, flung wide his arms, and cried out to us as though in agony, ‘Dame algo,’ ‘give me something.’ But he had a job. What did he want?” Perhaps it was not his flights into nature that made him lose touch with men; perhaps any American, unaccustomed to being beaten, exploited, and hungry while working, would think that having a job and being in agony are contradictory.

Martin’s other prejudices are just as predictable. Like most US officials, for example, he assumes—indeed, must assume—that elections are a test of freedom. To Latin Americans, elections usually mean fraud, graft, and police harassment. Thus, Dominicans cannot share Martin’s enthusiasm for an upcoming election. And so he wails that they do not respect “democratic process” because they “are far less eager for freedom” than Americans are, and the reason, he says, is that Dominicans fear “responsibility and uncertainty.” Also like any US official, Martin identifies riot with demonstration—and, of course, he suspects that only “Castro/Communists” head them. He writes: “A riot was scheduled at the Embassy for 11 A.M. the day I returned from Bethesda. (The Castro/Communists usually advertised them in the press in advance.) It did not take place.”

These prejudices lead Martin—and the State Department—into viewing any foreigner who is pro-American as essentially good. As a result, one of Martin’s favorite people in the Dominican Republic is General Antonio Imbert Barrera, the short, stocky, ruthless ex-Trujillo henchman who finally became involved in a personal feud with the dictator and helped to kill him. Another good guy, whom Martin calls repeatedly “an old friend,” is Rafael Bonnelly who, from 1944 until Trujillo’s death, served him faithfully. On the other hand, Martin doesn’t care much for Trujillo’s former puppet president, Joaquin Balaguer, not because he was a Trujillista but because he did not become equally subservient to the US. Martin describes Bonnelly as “not in principle a Trujillista although admittedly he was Trujillo’s Secretary of State of Interior and Police…a decent, sensible, patriotic, upright, intelligent man” who “secretly helped establish the UCN in Santiago.” The UCN party was pro-American.

Balaguer, on the other hand, is dismissed by Martin as a “tool of Trujillo” because he wrote “hymns of praise to Trujillo.” As Juan Bosch points out in his The Unfinished Experiment, Balaguer certainly was a tool of Trujillo, but he “never served Trujillo in posts requiring him to take repressive measures. Bonnelly was for years…the instrument of Trujillo’s repressive policies.”

But Bonnelly, Martin argues, is a member of the oligarchy which is made up of “the ablest, best educated people in the Republic.” The statement apparently shocks even Martin, so he adds: “It may seem odd that a liberal Democrat like myself should come to consider the Dominican oligarchy as one of the really hopeful groups in the Republic.” Actually, it is not odd at all, for, in spite of Alliance for Progress rhetoric chastising the Latin American oligarchies for keeping the poor poor, the oligarchies hold power almost everywhere in the continent—thanks to US support. In Cuba the ruling group has been thrown out by an anti-American social revolution. In Mexico a new oligarchy, which is somewhat independent of the United States, is also the result of a social and bloody revolution. And in Chile right now, President Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democratic government is causing the traditional oligarchy moments of unease by his reformist pronouncements (although it is still too early to tell whether the talk will be translated into action). But everywhere else, the oligarchy rules, either directly or from behind the throne. This is true even in Venezuela where the reformist government had to abandon hope of redistributing income more equitably once it concluded that it could not risk US displeasure and probably intervention by nationalizing the oil companies (mostly US owned), which furnish the country 92 per cent of its foreign earnings and over 60 per cent of its budget funds. There, and in the rest of Latin America, the ruling oligarchy, having established partnership with American investing companies, is naturally anti-Communist, anti-nationalist, anti-neutralist—and pro-American.

SINCE BOSCH was not pro-American, Martin distrusts him. He considers him “emotionally unstable, given to wild emotional swings from highest elation to deepest despair.” Once, in 1962, when Bosch, a twenty-five-year exile from Trujillo’s tyranny, opposed Martin’s election plans in the Dominican Republic because the rules at the time excluded any candidate who had not been physically present in the country for the previous five years, Martin angrily reacted by saying: “We could not trust Juan Bosch. For President he would not do. It was not that he had fought us on this issue. It was, rather, that he was a reckless political plunger, willing to risk everything, including the democratic system itself, to gain a personal political objective.” Strange democratic system that would have banned the only major candidate who had not collaborated with Trujillo! But then, by ignoring Martin’s wishes he had in effect opposed US power, and so Martin finds that his “basic political tactics were never to offend any voters…and, like Lenin, always to split, never to unite…a divider, a splitter, a schemer, a destroyer. Can he build? I doubt it. Not unless he gets good advice. And he won’t take advice. He is more a De Gaulle than a Castro.”1

To Martin and the makers of Latin American policy in Washington, a neutralist, an independent patriot, a Gaullist, is in some ways harder to handle than a Castro—that is, an enemy who can be openly and publicly opposed. It does not matter how good that Gaullist is for his country, and Martin admits that “while Bosch was President, the state killed no one. While Bosch was President, almost no one was arbitrarily imprisoned” for the first time in the Dominican Republic’s history. What matters is allegiance, and General Imbert was better there. Hence, Martin describes him as “a sentimental man, emotional, even kind; fond of children, hard outside, soft inside…. He [and Amiama, another Trujillista who helped kill their old boss] were reasonable men, realistic men, not hot-headed patriots or melodramatic poseurs ready to fling themselves over the cliff. They would listen to me, at least up to a point, and they respected the power of the United States.”

It was natural, therefore, that Imbert became America’s choice for ruler in the Dominican Republic in 1965, in spite of the fact that during the missile crisis Imbert deported, as Martin admits, “not only Castro/Communists themselves but also their lawyers. Then Spaniards. Then others.” In 1965, Martin, Thomas Mann, and the US Marines put Imbert into power. Soon, blood flowed in his jails. According not only to the Washington Post (June 10 and 11) but even the investigating team of the Organization of American States, Imbert executed many of his “Castro/Communist” opponents; there is evidence that at least thirty-three were murdered between May 22 and June 5, 1965, and that thousands were arbitrarily jailed. One who was so jailed and who survived turned out to be an American businessman from Puerto Rico. Andres Gilbert Garcia was hauled off to La Victoria prison for being “a dirty Red” although he was simply visiting friends and showed his American passport. He was stripped of all valuables (which were not returned), was forced to crawl through a double line of Imbert’s soldiers, who wacked him with the butts of their rifles, then was kept in jail with 5,000 other “Castro/Communists” under “bestial” conditions for fifteen days.

NEITHER MARTIN nor the US can admit (except in slips about De Gaulle) the extent of their hostility to anti-American nationalists. Thus, they must first turn them into Castro/Communists. In doing so, they sometimes become ludicrous. For example, when Bosch was helping a group of Haitian exiles to overthrow Dictator Francois Duvalier, Martin said that the exiles, although based in New York and Florida and operating with CIA connivance, could be Communists who “would seize power in Haiti, create a socialist state, and quickly seek recognition from Russia and Cuba.” The inference, of course, was that Bosch might do all these things too. Martin shows the same tendency to convert nationalism into Communism when he discusses the 14th of June movement. This movement, a principal force behind the 1965 rebellion, was certainly anti-American, but equally certainly was not led by Communists. Martin knows that the movement’s leader, Manuel (“Manolo”) Tavarez Justo, takes orders from neither Moscow nor Peking nor Havana. He even writes that “I should have tried to reverse the policy, set before I arrived, of spurning Manolo Tavarez Justo and others of the 14th of June.” Still, Martin refers to it as a Castro/Communist party, and when their slogan turns out to be “Ni Khrushchev, ni Kennedy, ni Kastro, solo Kisqueya [the Dominican Republic],” he tries to explain it away by saying: “The Castro/Communist seems to have given up hope of disrupting things.”

  1. 1

    Not aware of Martin’s hatred for De Gaulle, Theodore Draper, in The New Leader of May 24, 1965, unwittingly fortified Martin’s analogy by saying that “Bosch was no more the ideal bureaucratic executive than is Charles de Gaulle; he was, above all, an inspirational force and a national conscience.” True, and that is precisely why the US wanted to bring Bosch down, just as it would love, if it could, without too much fuss, to bring down De Gaulle.

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