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the high priority the US gave to social progress in Latin America, an idea implicit in the Alliance for Progress, has been replaced by what appears to be an expanding and recurrent pattern of control by terror.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

On June 7, another member of La Banda, Fernando Aquino Mateo, also known as Sierra y Sierra, obtained asylum in the Mexican embassy. Before he entered the embassy Sierra y Sierra said in an interview that he had been jailed several times after fighting on the constitutionalist side in the 1965 revolution, and had been beaten up in jail so many times that he finally agreed to become a trustee at La Victoria prison, where, he said, he beat and tortured other inmates. He also said he witnessed the death by beating of Oliver Daniel Mendez Guzman, twenty, whom Police Chief Perez y Perez said had escaped from jail on May 5. The dead youth was taken from jail in a sack by a police colonel, Sierra y Sierra recalled, “I imagine that they threw him into the sea, because I have not read in the press that his body appeared anywhere.”

He explained that he had joined La Banda after his release from jail, May 19, and had sought diplomatic asylum because he had been ordered by Police Lt. Nuñez Peña to kill Felix Alburquerque, the PRD Secretary-General of the taxi drivers’ union UNACHOSIN, and Radhames Gomez, the managing editor of El Nacional. Before obtaining asylum Sierra y Sierra had lived in a squatter settlement called Katanga, next to Los Minas. One of his last acts as a member of La Banda, he said, was to arrest Juan Almonte, the PRD leader of Los Minas, under orders of a police sergeant who said that “if nobody sees us take him prisoner, we should kill him.”8

Almonte had recently made a series of accusations of corruption in the operations of the national lottery, and had won an election held by the union of lottery ticket sellers—certified by the Labor Ministry. He had, however, been stopped at gunpoint by the old union leadership from taking over the union headquarters. In an interview shortly before his arrest, Almonte told me: “The violence in these barrios is such that even police sergeants and corporals have been killed for having become too close to the PRD. We will have a revolution soon more violent than before. Last time [in 1965] we routed the army in twenty-four hours, and when it happens again it will take less time.”

According to the testimony of the youths who obtained asylum in the Mexican embassy, the police agents who organized La Banda were also involved in one of the most sordid political crimes in recent Dominican history, the kidnap-murder of Santiago Manuel Hernandez, nineteen, a former MPD member also known as Mangá who had been sought by the police for several weeks. Young Hernandez was shot and critically wounded inside his father’s slum shack by two police undercover agents on March 26. Two weeks later, on Easter Sunday, the day before he was to undergo surgery, he was kidnapped from his hospital bed by police agents and was found dead the next morning in a roadside cane-field near the town of San Pedro de Macoris, some forty miles away.

As described to me in interviews by his mother and his parish priest, a Cuban Jesuit named Tomás Marrero, the convalescence of Mangá was a lurid nightmare that moved inexorably toward death. His mother, Sra. Mercedes Hernandez de Frías, told me that when her critically wounded son was brought to the Hospital Padre Bellini in downtown Santo Domingo no blood could be found for a transfusion, since the local blood banks said they had no blood for a wounded man until they got a police order to supply it. The emergency operation to prolong the life of Mangá was performed—with police in the operating room—by recycling the blood hemorrhaging from the patient’s body into a bottle and injecting it back into him. After his recovery, police guards were stationed with machine guns inside the ward, and forbade the boy to speak with anyone.

According to his mother, Hernandez was visited every day by two police plainclothesmen who stood at the foot of the hospital bed and asked how he was getting on; she said her son whispered to her after one of these visits that they were the two men who shot him on March 26. Late each night the police would turn on all the lights in the ward and search the boy’s bed, on one occasion disconnecting the rubber tube through which noxious fluids were being drained from his body. When Father Marrero, who was taking turns with members of the family in all-night bedside vigils, protested to the policemen, the priest was barred from the hospital from then on. A few days later the boy’s mother overheard the police guards say, “We’re going to lynch this dog.”

At 7 PM, on April 11, four men entered the hospital ward with stockings over their heads and handkerchiefs covering their faces. They announced that “we are from the party and we have come to liberate you,” but the boy said, “I have no party,” and pleaded with his mother not to let him go. As the men were leaving the ward with her son, the mother saw that beneath their hospital smocks they wore gray police trousers and black police boots. A few days after the boy’s body was found, President Balaguer attributed the murder to “a struggle between two organizations of the extreme Left.”9

The story of Mangá’s death was first told to me by Father Marrero, whom I have known since the 1965 revolution, having slept in his church in the rebel zone while interviewing some of the people who fought on the constitutionalist side. He was one of some twenty Cuban and Spanish Jesuits who came to the Dominican Republic from Cuba in 1961—after nationalization that year of the Jesuit Colegio Belén in Havana, where Fidel Castro studied as a boy. These priests have performed remarkable work in leading the aggiornamento of the Dominican church, drafting the principal church documents, organizing cooperatives, literacy campaigns, peasant leagues, and the new Catholic University Mater et Magistra in Santiago, and earning the enmity of right-wing elements of Dominican society.

During the revolution I met another Cuban Jesuit, José Moreno, author of Barrios in Arms: Revolution in Santo Domingo, who was working with Father Marrero at the San Miguel Church, running an improvised medical clinic and distributing surplus food. The food was sent by the Americans across the cease-fire lines, while negotiations were dragging on, but in barely sufficient quantities to avoid panic and starvation among what became essentially a captive population.

José Moreno has since left the priesthood and is now teaching sociology at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies. His account of life inside the rebel zone during the 1965 civil war—he was doing field research for his doctorate in sociology at Cornell when the revolution broke out—is written with more intimate knowledge and greater precision than any other study of the insurrection I have seen. Moreno’s is the first objective, detailed, and plausible analysis available anywhere of the real Castroite-Communist strength in the constitutionalist camp. He shows that their forces were limited to a few well-armed and well-disciplined comandos of resistance fighters controlled by the Communist Party and the Castroite June 14th Movement. But these were only a few groups among a great many others. As Moreno describes the process:

A training school was set up in which navy frogmen trained the civilians in urban guerrilla tactics. To maintain the morale of the rebel organization, [Col. Ramón] Montes. Arache [the frogmen’s commander and the rebel defense minister] and other officers agreed to let the civilians organize themselves into commando [neighborhood militia] units. Montes Arache realized that his job was to coordinate these units scattered all over the city and to give them leadership together with logistic and strategic support. Thus, the commandos, which had originally started as a means of self-protection and an expression of solidarity among members of informal groups, became the most powerful instrument in the hands of the rebels. By the end of May there were in the city 117 commando posts in which 5,000 men lived, ate and slept together….

On one hand, informal groups of people from the barrio, groups of friends and relatives from the community, or gangs of “tigers” [teen-age street gangs] evolved into commandos such as San Miguel, Pedro Mena, Pichirilo, and Barahona. On the other hand some formal organizations [political parties and labor unions] already operating in public life whose leaders decided to combine their memberships with other individuals formed such commandos as San Lázaro, Poasi, and Argentina. Both kinds of groups were numerous, and both were relevant to the revolution. The first kind relied heavily on the organizational abilities of the leader, particularly on his charisma and machismo [manliness and bravery]. The second kind relied heavily on the organizational structure of the parent organization.

This description, I think, should help to place the Santo Domingo revolt of 1965 alongside the Paris Commune of 1871 in the world’s revolutionary traditions. Both were urban, popular uprisings that were sustained by civilian militia until they were crushed by foreign troops. Both were involved in the turbulent process of peasant migration to the cities that made Paris in the nineteenth century and Santo Domingo since Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 into centers of social revolution. Moreno writes very well of the quarrels, the hunger, the demoralization as the months of negotiation dragged on under the US military occupation. But his book tends to lapse into sociological jargon toward the end, and it is regrettable that he did not instead simply let the Dominicans speak for themselves. I can testify that many of them not only can tell what the revolution was about with eloquence and clarity, but can also do justice to the incandescent inner life of the Santo Domingo slums.

Professor Slater writes that “the real explanation” for the US intervention “was the [US] embassy’s playing on the Communist theme, compounded by the almost universal disdain and distrust for Bosch throughout the US Government.” I think this is true but there are deeper explanations that are relevant both to the continuing political terror in Santo Domingo and to social conditions throughout Latin Amerïca.

Santo Domingo is one of the extreme examples of the creation of a huge sub-proletariat overnight. Its population (now 800,000) has more than doubled in the decade since Trujillo’s death. It is a particularly grave case of the influx to the cities in contemporary Latin America. And it differs from European peasant migrations in the era of the Paris Commune in two important ways. First, the European urbanization process proceeded at a somewhat slower pace than in Latin America today and was sustained by a much higher degree of industrial employment.10 Secondly, there was in Europe nothing approaching Latin America’s urban squatter problem that tends to divide cities into distinct asphalt and marginal areas.11 If the demands of those who are moving into the cities for food, jobs, and housing are in no way satisfied, they become dangerous to the regime: only terror and force will control them.

The tattered country people who came to Santo Domingo have built flimsy, clapboard shacks that sprawl away from the city’s center along both banks of the Ozama River and under the Duarte Bridge. In 1965, thousands of the slum dwellers, using Molotov cocktails and small arms captured from the police, defeated elite tank and infantry units at this bridge in one of the episodes that demoralized the Dominican military and led to the US intervention.12 This humiliation has generated in the Dominican armed forces and police an obsessive hatred and fear of the shack settlements and the dense, fetid warrens, called patios, of cardboard and palm-bark huts which are squeezed behind the façade of the pastel-colored wood-and-concrete houses in the interior of each city block in the parte alta of Santo Domingo.

The people in these slums have kept a blind and stubborn faith in their idol, Juan Bosch—pronounced Juan Bo in the liquid, Dominican rural Spanish that sounds like a Mississippi drawl. Life stops at midday when he speaks on the radio, the slow, seductive indignation of his voice blasting into the street from every shack. In a recent radio speech Bosch asked:

Why do you think there are armed bands punishing the poor barrios of the capital? Why are there so many political murders, so many spies, so many political prisoners, so many abuses? It is for the same reason that the country has had a large commercial deficit in recent years. It is because the country does not produce enough for all Dominicans to live at least with enough food, and besides this what is produced is badly distributed. A few have much, others have enough to live on but the great majority don’t even have where to fall dead.

The economic problems of these people are immense, almost immeasurable. A survey of one marginal barrio by Santo Domingo’s Urban Planning Office found that only 16 percent of employable family heads had regular work, 44 percent survived by occasional odd jobs, called chirripa, while 40 percent were totally unemployed. Of those working full or part-time, 93 percent earned less than $100 monthly. 13 Survival under these conditions is partly in the cash economy, partly through barter, but probably most important, through elaborate and highly codified exchanges of personal favors, like tribal or communal customs in many rural subsistence economies.

Six years after the revolution, Santo Domingo is still divided into two enemy camps: the slums of the old rebel zone, and the comfortable residential neighborhoods surrounding the American embassy. I talked to an old and wise Trujillista politician who these days rocks on his porch a few blocks from the embassy. “In the old days, when a fire broke out in a sugar cane field, the way to fight it was to start another fire, called a counter-fire [contrafuego]. In 1965 a big fire called the revolution broke out in Santo Domingo and the terror is the contrafuego aimed at putting it out.”

One flaw of Professor Slater’s book is that he treats the 1965 intervention as an isolated episode with virtually no reference to the history of US involvement in Dominican affairs: President Grant’s efforts to annex Santo Domingo, which were blocked by Congress; the US Marine occupation of 1916-24; the US receivership of Dominican customs duties from 1905-1940, when Trujillo arranged for final payment of the foreign debt, one of his proudest achievements. Nor does he mention the CIA role in the assassination of Trujillo,14 and the US military and diplomatic maneuvering to dismantle the Trujillo political apparatus (twice US warships were sent into Dominican coastal waters to block attempts to restore the dictatorship) and to establish the provisional regime that held the 1962 elections in which Bosch won by a large majority.

A major element of the US presence in Santo Domingo since the fall of Trujillo has been the intimate relationship of US advisers with the Dominican military and police.15 After the intervention of 1965, these advisory missions expanded enormously. In 1967 and 1968 the Dominican Republic, with a population of only four million, had the largest AID Public Safety (sic) or police assistance program of any country outside Vietnam. The second and third largest programs were respectively in Brazil (with 90 million people) and Guatemala, the two other Latin American nations where major outbreaks of right-wing terror by paramilitary death squads have occurred in recent years.

One of the most interesting documents to appear recently on the American presence in Santo Domingo was the transcript of a taped interview with David Fairchild, who served with AID in the Dominican Republic for eighteen months in 1966-67. The interview deals mainly with the frustrations and complexities of administering the vast US aid program to stabilize the Balaguer regime. Fairchild has this to say about the AID Public Safety program:

There were six positions in the Public Safety Division of AID which were CIA officials. They were CIA employees. They were paid by AID because there was no way of keeping the accounting separate without exposing them. Their location there was unknown to other members of Public Safety. I had to become familiar with this because one of my jobs was getting the positions and the budgets straightened out. They worked with the police. There were only six of them out of 20…they were in intelligence, communications, management training…here are the figures: in fiscal ’67, there were 15 [AID Public Safety officers]; in fiscal ’68, there were 18, of which six, one-third, were CIA.16

The 1965 intervention, and all the desperate, Byzantine machinations that have followed in order to justify it, not only compounded the raw and mounting tragedy of the Dominican people, but achieved the very opposite of its stated ends. Slater writes, correctly, that “Communist, or, at least, radical and extremist strength in the Dominican Republic is far higher today than it was in April 1965, in good part because of the intervention.” Beyond this, the political regime that is the creature of the intervention has proved to be a revival of the era of Trujillo, with the apprentices sitting in the sorcerer’s chair and practicing his brutal powers.

President Balaguer, who was placed in power by US troops and US money, pleaded in a speech at a dinner of the American Chamber of Commerce in Santo Domingo for an increase in the republic’s quota for sugar exports to the US: “We depend,” he said, “in full measure on the political and economic collaboration of the Fatherland of Washington and Lincoln, and we cannot allow ourselves the luxury, taken by other countries of Latin America, of shaking off the so-called yoke of North American imperialism to accept others that are, indeed, ignominious.” 17 But the Dominican sugar quota is being cut by Congress, Balaguer is running out of money, and his military and political support is beginning to desert him.

It is a pity that the PRD has provided more of an insurrectional mystique than a workable political formula for ruling the Dominican Republic. Juan Bosch remains a popular leader and a man of high principles, but his erratic character makes it doubtful that he can provide the steady leadership that the Dominican people need. Still, if political terror continues it will lead to a popular explosion more violent than that of 1965.


According to secret Dominican government documents I obtained while investigating the political terror in Santo Domingo, the intelligence and security apparatus of the Balaguer regime has been making use of Cuban exiles.

One typewritten memorandum under the letterhead of the National Police says [see photocopy on opposite page]:

Very courteously, you are informed that you should have ready a group of five men, since on the 25th of this month it was agreed to stage a simulated attack on the Royal Bank of Canada to discredit the movements of the left, which have been gaining strength in recent months. J. 1 says that the personnel selected for this purpose should be Cubans. The uniforms that will be used will be supplied by Lieutenant Cedano.

Another memorandum, written under the letterhead Presidencia de la Republica and dated April 22, 1970, gave these instructions:

Very courteously, it is communicated that you should send Agent M.10 to the Airport of the Americas at 6 a.m. to await the arrival of the personnel of Cuban nationality that will carry out this service under your supervision.

Another memorandum, marked “Confidential” and dated July 29, 1970, says:

Very respectfully I communicate that the members of this body (CUBANS) have instructions as well as the arms they will use in their work. At the same time I inform you that P. 17 wished to return to Miami as soon as he performs the service. This should be discussed with J. 1 since it could bring problems in that the person mentioned has disagreements with the other men.

This Issue

July 22, 1971