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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.”

Once Bosch took power in 1963, Martin did try to work with him—by influencing him. Letting the CIA and the Pentagon maintain contact with the Trujillista military plotters, he diligently pressed Bosch to take a more militantly anti-Communist line. He argued this policy would produce a situation more conducive to investments and investors, as if a leader’s anti-Communism could be decisively proven by establishing connections with vested interests. “Our task, I thought, was to split the businessmen from the rightist politicians and tie Bosch to the businessmen.” And Martin never let up. Even when Bosch was threatened by a rightist military coup seven months after his inauguration, Martin worried about Castro/Communists, although he knew that they were not a threat (contrary to articles then appearing in the US press, especially those written by Hal Hendrix of the Miami News and Jules Dubois in the Chicago Tribune). Martin quotes the following exchange:

Bosch to Martin: “Will you advise me if you think it is a danger?” Martin: “Communism?”

Bosch: “Yes.”

Martin: “Yes, I will. It is not now. We are sure. Our intelligence services say so. We watch the Communists very carefully….”

Martin (next day, when the coup has begun): “I don’t think the military really want to do this. They’ve been pushed into it by the cívicos (UCN businessmen). The cívicos have convinced them you’re handing the country over to the Communists. I know it isn’t true, but you’ve got to prove it isn’t true. You can do it now, this afternoon and stop the whole thing. Call a special session of Congress. Tell them, first, to enact something like our Smith Act. Second, tell Congress to stop travel to Cuba—pass a law making it a crime to violate passport’ restrictions. Third, tell them to enact a law permitting deportations….”

Bosch: “But all the laws you suggest are unconstitutional.”

Martin: “The hell with that. Tell Congress to pass them anyway, then act under them. Let the courts decide next winter.”

Such is the advice of a Liberal Democrat who wants to bring the “democratic system” to the Dominican Republic.

Bosch did not pass the laws. A few days before, representatives of the golpista military came to see Martin’s principal military attaché. They said to him: “If you tell us to go, we’ll go.” There was no misunderstanding. Martin himself admits that what they meant was that “they’d overthrow Bosch.” They did.

DURING THE 1962 interim Consejo government before Bosch’s election, “the other Consejeros seemed to feel I was one of them.” After Bosch’s inauguration, Martin pressures him to appoint the right kind of cabinet, to treat the military according to US views, to launch the projects that he approves. Martin even whispers words to Bosch when he’s making a speech. But he thinks it’s all perfectly normal: “I do not mean to suggest, here or else-where, that I was putting words in the President’s mouth or in any sense ‘controlling’ him. I was simply doing what an aide does for a President or a presidential candidate, a Senator or Governor—what I had done for President Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson many times while they were campaigning.” That he was not an aide to the Dominican president but representing American interests, and that Dominican and American interests are not necessarily the same, does not seem to occur to Martin. Indeed, why should it, since both he and Washington think that they are the same?

In retrospect, the American record is dismal indeed. Following Trujillo’s death, the US State Department backed the oligarchy that succeeded him, then helped bring about a “demonstration election,” one that would show the Dominican Republic to be a properly democratic country. As Martin makes clear, the State Department assumed at first that the oligarchy would win and Bosch would lose. When Bosch was unexpectedly elected, the US military attachés and the CIA had a hand in bringing about his overthrow by General Imbert. No doubt Martin himself did not conspire with Imbert, but his impatience with Bosch contributed to the fall of the government. Both the State Department and the Pentagon later supported the repressive regime of Donald Reid Cabral (another oligarch and “friend” of Martin’s), which Imbert put into office; and when the Dominicans rebelled against Reid, the State Department finally sent US troops to fight the rebels, whose only stated purpose was to bring Bosch back. The US did so, Tad Szulc reports in his Dominican Diary, because it was convinced “of two things. One was that a return of Dr. Bosch would mean ‘Communism in the Dominican Republic in six months.’ The second was that US forces would have to be used in support of General Wessin’s forces [the Trujillista military] if the pro-Bosch rebellion was to be defeated.”

Some advocates of Realpolitik, liberals among them, have argued that this policy of intervention might have been justified if it made the country a better place to live in—for the Dominican people. It is an argument that seems to me wrong in principle, but what did we in fact accomplish? A project to bring water, with the help of the Peace Corps, to the Southwest did not materialize. Explains Martin: “The people would not work without pay.” Another, to develop the Rio Yaque del Norte valley, didn’t even get off the ground. “I tried, time and again, during that year, but accomplished virtually nothing—just more papers, studies, surveys, and reports, enough to choke the Yaque,” says Martin. Still another was to launch an agrarian reform on old Trujillo land, on which squatters now lived. But Martin insists that “before you could divide the land for agrarian reform, you had to find out who owned it; before you could cultivate it properly, you had to drive the squatters off; when you drive the squatters away, the police get involved, and if they couldn’t handle it, the troops; if you were not careful, you would have the Agricultural Bank, the Agrarian Institute, and the US AID program using the Dominican military to drive starving Dominicans off the land.” It was better to do nothing.

EVEN SIMPLE THINGS seem impossible. For example, Martin “tried in vain to persuade the [State] Department to send several Jeep-style ambulances instead of this one twenty-thousand-dollar ambulance.” And then there’s always the question of policy, since the Alliance for Progress, Martin points out, must “reassert the US presence.” His boss, Ed Martin (no relation), was even more explicit:

If Bosch wanted financial help he’d have to come up with sensible projects. Bosch’s idea of expropriating land without compensation would al-almost surely by calamitous, [Ed] Martin thought—the US Press, already deeply suspicious, would scream that it was Cuba all over again. Furthermore, how could Bosch dare expropriate only Dominican-owned land, not US—the Dominican political reaction would be terrible. And if he expropriated US land, he would run into the Hickenlooper amendment, be denied all U.S. aid

The only alternative, says Bartlow Martin, is more private investment. But even that seems impossible. “We talked a lot about private foreign investment, but little would come in while Dominicans sent their profits abroad. First the political situation must stabilize. But the political situation would not stabilize until people found jobs. And so on—the hopeless circle seemed unbreakable.”

It is breakable, but only by force; for US policies have made any alternative unworkable. So the Dominican people did rebel. But they were not very radical. Had they been, they would have sought to eliminate the power of the oligarchy. They would have shot or held those military chiefs they caught in the early days of the rebellion. And they would have assaulted the military stronghold, at the airport, where not only the anti-rebels but also most of the old Trujillista generals were gathered. Had they truly been revolutionary, the rebels would have tried to destroy the regular army; they would have reasoned, as have all Latin American revolutionaries before them, that genuine reforms and a restructuring of society has come about in the continent only as a result of open revolution, in which the regular army was defeated on the battle field. This was the case in Cuba and in Mexico, as well as in Costa Rica in 1948 and Bolivia in 1952. But no, the rebels were moderate men, who called themselves “constitutionalists”; they wanted back the moderate, democratic reformist government they had elected three years before.

Had they won, they would indeed have brought Bosch back. What would have happened? We can do no more than speculate about this. Still we may expect that the rebel leaders would have stayed in power with Bosch, making sure that the reforms they sought were enacted. The new “constitutionalist” rebel regime, with Bosch perhaps no more than a figurehead, might then have been brought down by an internal military coup; or perhaps it might have defeated and finally disarmed the Trujillista brass. Being nationalist, it might have taken strong measures against foreign exploitation of the country’s natural resources, moving against United Fruit and Alcoa companies. If the United States had at this point adopted a tolerant policy, along the lines of Roosevelt’s response to the Mexican nationalization of oil in the Thirties, it is conceivable the reformist regime might have succeeded in stabilizing itself. On the other hand, if the US reacted sharply to social and economic reforms, perhaps imposing an economic boycott, then—and only then—might the Dominican Republic have “gone” Communist.

BUT THE US claims that the rebellion was led by Castro/Communists from the start. Martin himself thinks that the Reds took it over very quickly. Both cite two “proofs.” One that (at most) seventy-eight known Communists were in top rebel positions; the other that law and order had broken down, that there were indiscriminate shootings. The first is doubtful, to say the least. Reviewing most of the eyewitness reports in the May 24, 1965 issue of The New Leader, Theodore Draper argued that the reports of Communist participation in the rebel leadership were mainly false or unsubstantiated. Martin’s impressionistic remarks on the known Communists he claims to have seen among the rebels do not shake Draper’s conclusion. But even if Martin’s figures are correct, his method of political analysis by head-counting seems hopelessly superficial. In Indonesia, more than 50,000 Communists (perhaps even one million), many of them in official (not rebel but governmental) positions, could not take over the country. To the second argument, the testimony of many careful, non-official observers is in direct contradition; these include Tad Szulic of The New York Times and Dan Kurzman of the Washington Post. Bernard Collier of the New York Herald Tribune stated flatly that “reporters have no confirmation of indiscriminate killings, at least on the part of the rebels.” Furthermore, some of these reporters were on the scene. days before Martin arrived. As James Nelson Goodsell, the Latin American Affairs editor of the Christian Science Monitor, recently remarked, Martin’s rather melodramatic comments on the turmoil in Santo Domingo are “hardly the sort of explicit and relevant proof that will satisfy the independent observer.”

Martin is himself uncomfortable with these arguments.2 At the end of his book he says that “this rebellion went very deep. It went to the roots of discontent that first Trujillo, then the OAS and we, held in check.” He thus seems to admit that the rebellion was a popular uprising, which would discredit the theory that it was a Communist plot. Martin then produces a quite different argument. He blames Ambassador Tapley Bennett for having refused to help negotiate a ceasefire when he thought that the rebels were beaten precisely because he wanted the rebels beaten. “The only door open to them [the non-Communist rebels] was the Communist door; Bennett had shut our door. Had he not, everything else might have turned out differently:” But this interpretation conflicts with the official view and would imply that the rebels became Communists as a result of US actions. The contradictions in Martin’s arguments are so glaring that his book has a rather desperate quality as it attempts to justify American policy.

IN ANY CASE, it’s all over for a while. The rebels are crushed. The Dominicans, having elected Bosch once and seen him deposed with American connivance, and then having watched the US defeat the rebellion led in his name, were reluctant to support Bosch once again. Balaguer’s election was dominated by popular desire to get rid of US marines, something that was most unlikely if Bosch had won. But now, under Balaguer, many of the Trujillista gangsters are back in the Republic. Even officials of Trujillo’s dreaded secret service, the SIM, are wandering the streets, free from prosecution for their numerous and gruesome tortures. Trujillista businessmen are operating again. The restoration seems well on the way to being complete—until a new rebellion explodes again.

Meanwhile, what of the Republic itself? It is, as The New York Times pointed out in 1966, full of angry, hungry people, 30 per cent unemployed, 70 per cent leading a “largely wretched rural existence, for the most part outside the money economy.” And Martin? Back in his beloved Michigan he keeps insisting that American policy was simply overtaken by events. He does bemoan the fact that “we spent about $150 million in the Dominican Republic in 1965 (for our military action), a tragic irony if one recalls the difficulty both Ambassador Bennett and I had in getting far less money for peaceful works.” He also criticizes some of Washington’s assumptions, namely that “we believe that economic development under AID will automatically create a middle class, and that this middle class will automatically advance political freedom and progressive ideas. This is just not so. The rising middle class is far more likely to oppose reforms than promote them.” And Martin tells us to make a greater effort to understand the revolutionary fervor of the underdeveloped world. The poor are sick and tired of being poor, Martin says; they want the good life that we have in America. And we should help them get it.

Martin did not. As his story vividly illustrates, he couldn’t even if he had wanted to, because his government’s policy in Latin America is to help only those who at least pretend to be subservient to the United States, and who are already powerful. Nor will it change in the foreseeable future. President Johnson has made that clear. As he told American GIS at Camp Stanley, Korea, during his recent Asiatic trip: “Don’t forget, there are only 200 million of us in the world of three billion. They want what we’ve got and we’re not going to give it to them.”

  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.

  2. 2

    A completely unself-conscious and unabashedly distorted attempt to characterize the Dominican revolution as a Castro/Communist plot can be found in the pamphlet Dominican Action—1965 published by Georgetown’s Center for Strategic Studies. This pamphlet praises Reid as a reformer and condemns Bosch as an “ineffectual administrator” who allowed “the Communists to operate in the Dominican Republic,” something even Martin did not say clearly, as the above discussion between him and Bosch indicates.

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