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Santo Domingo: The Politics of Terror

Intervention and Negotiation: The United States and the Dominican Revolution

by Jerome Slater, with a Foreword by Hans J. Morgenthau
Harper & Row, 254 pp., $7.95

Barrios in Arms: Revolution in Santo Domingo

by José A. Moreno
University of Pittsburgh, 226 pp., $8.95

We know that many who are now in revolt do not seek a Communist tyranny. We think it’s tragic indeed that their high motives have been misused by a small band of conspirators, who receive their directions from abroad. To those who fight only for liberty and justice and progress, I want to join in…appealing to you tonight to lay down your arms and to assure you that there is nothing to fear. The road is open to you to share in building a Dominican Democracy and we in America are ready and anxious and willing to help you.

—Lyndon B. Johnson
May 2, 1965

President Johnson’s military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 was as momentous as it was cruel and politically mistaken. We can see it, along with our enlargement of the Vietnam war in the same year, as part of a disastrous expansion of the powers of the American Presidency and of its sense of “global responsibilities.” When a force of 23,000 US troops landed in Santo Domingo in May to reverse the course of the Santo Domingo civil war they served to rescue a repressive military establishment from an apparently successful popular revolt that was trying to restore constitutional rule. We can now see that the high priority the US gave to social progress in Latin America, an idea implicit in the Alliance for Progress, has been replaced by what appears to be an expanding and recurrent pattern of control by terror.

Professor Jerome Slater’s political study of the 1965 intervention and the eighteen-month US military occupation that followed is derived from his use, on a not-for-attribution basis, of “a great number of papers, memoirs, and documents which are not now in the public domain,” as well as off-the-record interviews with US and OAS officials. However, all this new material adds little or no support to the official rationale for the intervention—that the Dominican Republic was at the brink of a possible Communist takeover. Instead it provides further evidence of double-dealing and cruelty after the US troops were sent in.

Because he relies so much on classified official documents, and because of his otherwise limited knowledge of Dominican affairs, Slater tends at times to bend over backward to give credence and legitimacy to the official US view in a number of, at best, highly doubtful instances. Nevertheless, he concludes that although “there was some risk that out of an uncontrollable revolutionary upheaval Castroite forces might emerge victorious…the risk was not yet sufficiently great to justify the predictably enormous political and moral costs that the intervention entailed.”

The effect of the intervention was to restore to power in Santo Domingo the political apparatchiks of the long and brutal dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1930-61). Of the costs Slater writes at the end of his book:

…the steadily worsening political terrorism…has recently [1970] reached crisis proportions. Scarcely a day goes by without a political murder, a “suicide” of a jailed political prisoner, the disappearance of a political activist, or, at the very least, a case of police harassment of the political opposition. Most of the victims are Communists or Castroite radicals, PRD activists [of ex-President Juan Bosch’s Partido Revolucionario Dominicano], or former constitutionalists, although recently even anti-Balaguerists on the right have been attacked.

While there has been a rise in leftist counter-terror, with machine-gunnings of isolated police and soldiers increasingly common, the main culprits appear to be unregenerates in the police and, to a lesser extent, the armed forces. It is not clear what [President Joaquin] Balaguer’s role is in this, but although he has condemned what he calls the “uncontrollable forces” behind the violence and on several occasions has shaken up the police leadership, there is a growing feeling among moderate Dominicans that he is encouraging the rightist terrorism or, at best, has been inadequate in his response to it.

In recent years there have been more political murders in the Dominican Republic than in any comparable period during Trujillo’s dictatorship, with the sole exception of the reign of terror that followed the swiftly crushed invasion from Cuba in 1959, organized by Fidel Castro.1 The Santo Domingo newspaper El Nacional last December 30 filled a page and a half of newsprint with the details of 186 political murders and thirty disappearances during 1970.2 The Dominican terror resembles the current wave of political killings in Guatemala (see my “Slaughter in Guatemala,” NYR, May 20, 1971) in that the paramilitary death squads are organized by the armed forces and police, which in both cases over the years have been given heavy US material and advisory support. The death squads themselves are partly composed of defectors from revolutionary political factions.

The political terrorism in Santo Domingo, however, seems now to be directed not so much against well-known politicians, as is the case in Guatemala. Rather it is used to control the Santo Domingo slum population, which was the main force that defeated the Dominican military in the 1965 revolution. In the proliferating ramshackle slums and squatter settlements that spread northward from the ancient churches and plazas of downtown Santo Domingo, there is continual patrolling by uniformed military and police units, as well as by plainclothes agents on motor scooters. Each barrio has been infiltrated by government intelligence organizations. (Moreover, many taxi drivers are police agents, like Haiti’s Ton-Ton Macoutes.) Since much of the killing seems to be done almost capriciously by these patrols,3 the effect of the terror has been an undeclared, all-night curfew in the slums.

On a recent visit to Santo Domingo I found that, owing to the general fear of assassination, heavily populated slum areas of the old rebel zone, whose intense street life in the past resembled New York’s Forty-second Street or Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district, were virtually deserted after 8 PM. Although these killings have aroused little in the way of active popular resistance, a twenty-four-hour general strike was called last November. The outlying barrio of Los Minas—a heavily PRD slum which was invaded by squatters after the Trujillo assassination in 1961 and which today has more than 100,000 inhabitants—was shut down after six residents of the barrio were murdered within a week. According to one feeble old man in the barrio who was questioned by a reporter at the time, “The situation had gotten so bad in Los Minas that the men felt compelled to stay at home and send the women out to find the day’s sustenance, because their lives were not worth a piece of rotten fruit.”4

The night before Los Minas was shut down, President Balaguer, a crafty and tenacious political maneuverer who was Trujillo’s last puppet president, told a press conference at the National Palace that the strike at Los Minas

…is illogical and absurd because what the citizenry should do is…associate itself with the authorities to counteract the terrorism. As I have said many times, this is a fight in which all sectors of society should participate. For if an exact version of each deed could reach me and the Government, one could establish responsibility more easily and the Government could punish these acts of terror.

I have denounced the irregularities inside the police, and I have confided to many persons the purification of the police.5 So far this has not been achieved and I completely agree with the editorial in today’s [newspaper] Listin Diario about this: the imperious need to purify the police, so that its services are efficient and to end these criminal acts that are filling the country with blood.6

Political assassinations continued steadily for four years after 1966, when, with US occupation forces still in the country, Balaguer was elected to his first four-year term. In 1970, during Balaguer’s campaign for reelection, the terror sharply increased. A great many voters abstained from this election after the Dominican constitution had been changed to allow Balaguer to run for a second consecutive term. Then, in the last six months of 1970, after Balaguer had begun his second term of office, new plans for police action were circulated among the intelligence and security agencies of the Dominican government, which are honeycombed with officers of Trujillo’s old secret police, the SIM (Servicio de Inteligencia Militar). These plans were the basis for the most sustained and enveloping system of terror since the fall of the Trujillo dictatorship.

The head of the Department of Intelligence at the National Palace is Manuel A. Perez Sosa, former chief of the SIM. On August 2, 1970, Perez Sosa received a letter of resignation from one of his subordinates, Miguel A. Perez Aybar, who explained that “I have taken this step so as not to lend myself to the events that I understand will occur and will do great injury to the Supreme Government.” On the same date Perez Aybar also wrote Balaguer that “I have decided to resign because I am your friend and because the plans of the Department of Intelligence are disastrous for your labor of Government, and I do not wish to be an accomplice to the murder of men who are going to be assassinated without any cause.”

A few months ago a new kind of terrorist organization was organized by the police. Known as La Banda, it is made up mainly of former members of the Maoist Movimiento Popular Dominicano (MPD), the most militant party of the Dominican left, which last year tried to form a United Front of all political factions—including dissidents on the extreme right—to oppose Balaguer’s re-election. The MPD is said to have carried out the kidnapping, in March, 1970, of Lt. Col. Donald J. Crowley, the US air attaché in Santo Domingo, by the “Unified Anti-reelection Command.” Crowley was exchanged within sixty hours for twenty Dominican political prisoners, the most prominent of whom was the MPD Secretary-General Maximiliano Gomez, who were flown into exile. Since then most of the principal MPD leaders have been gunned down by the police, and Gomez himself died of gas poisoning last month in Brussels under mysterious circumstances.

Meanwhile, many MPD youths have been arrested and pressured into joining the police terrorist bands. On April 20, 1971, six youths who said they were members of a terrorist organization called Joventud Democratica Reformista Anticomunista were granted political asylum in the Mexican embassy in Santo Domingo. All but one of them were age eighteen or younger. Before taking refuge in the embassy they issued a statement to the press saying that they had been recruited by the police after they were arrested and accused of “a series of deeds that we did not commit.” They identified the leader of the terrorist bands as Police Lt. Oscar Nuñez Peña, who they said was a bodyguard of Gen. Perez Y Perez, the police chief. “In this way,” the youths said, “they [the police] want to get their hooks into many revolutionary militants.” They said the police told them that “this is a declared war against the Communists. The bands will be organized in all the barrios of the capital and what has been done so far is an experiment to acclimatize public opinion.” According to their statement, the group was given three Thompson machine guns and a car to carry out its assignment in the “April Plan” which was drafted by the police.7

  1. 1

    I refer to Trujillo’s killing of his own people, and thus exclude from this comparison the 1936 slaughter of some 10,000 Haitian squatters to stop the illegal migrations from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. By far the best source on the Trujillo regime is Robert D. Crassweller’s excellent biography, Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator (Macmillan, 1966).

  2. 2

    See “Van 216 Muertos,” El Nacional, December 30, 1970. The writer of this summary told me that after the edition went to press four more political killings occurred in the final thirty-six hours of 1970, bringing the death/disappearance total to 190.

  3. 3

    For example, on May 16, a fifteen-year-old tailor’s apprentice, Belardino Beras Ortega, who had arrived from the provinces only three months before, was detained by a navy street patrol on the Duarte Bridge for not having a license plate on his bike, and was capriciously thrown over the bridge to his death by the patrol. See “Piden a Balaguer se Investigue Muerte Joven,” El Nacional, May 22, 1971.

  4. 4

    See Miguel Jose Torres, “Transcurre sin Incidentes Paro Actividades Los Minas,” El Caribe, Santo Domingo, November 20, 1970.

  5. 5

    There have been eight different national police chiefs in the first five years of Balaguer’s rule. In what was described as a major step to purge the police, Balaguer last January named his Defense Minister, Gen. Enrique Perez y Perez, as his newest police chief, but the paramilitary violence has continued.

  6. 6

    See “Admite Ineficacia,” El Caribe, November 19, 1971.

  7. 7

    See “Miembros de Banda Solicitan Asilo,” El Nacional, April 20, 1971.

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