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Dominican Military Take-Over Offers Latin American Lesson

Role of Elite

By Peter H. Darrow

Peter H. Darrow '64 is a senior concentrating in American History. He spent the past summer in Santo Domingo working for C.I.D.E.S., a privately financed agency providing technical advice and assistance to the Bosch administration.

On December 20, 1962, the Dominican Republic held the first free election in its violent history. Juan Bosch emerged from the cluster of candidates with 60 per cent of the vote, and the lawyers, judges, and journalists, invited through the O.A.S. as observers, called the election "most encouraging for those who desire the strengthening of representative democracy."

Yet seven months after the formal and ceremonious inauguration, the Dominican armed forces--proclaiming themselves the guardians of civil liberties and the democratic process--arrested and exiled their president and established a civilian triumvirate composed of "more suitable men."

For the American whose society is dominated by a concensus of political opinion, and whose economy is relatively egalitarian (except for blatant enclaves), such politics are all too easily dismissed as the result of Latin temperament. But if the United States is to maintain that the democratic process can wipe out social and economic inequalities, the Caribbean coup must be closely considered.

The basic fact about Latin America is not that the people are excluded from politics but that they are excluded from the economy. A legacy of the Spanish colonial land-holding system, only a tiny fraction of the population share in any form of economic life above subsistence. Prices reflect this stratification. While commodities such as food and clothes are more expensive than in the United States, services are cheap--a maid gets paid $20 a month. Over 30 per cent of the population is unemployed.

Politics and the Economy

Latin American politics take their shape from the pattern of the economy. Those who own the land, deal in exports and imports, or control distribution feel they must maintain elitist status. The economically disenfranchised, however, hold the balance of votes in a democratic election.

In fact, this tension is all too often resolved by the single permanent source of power in Latin America: the military. And the military, for its part, feels as threatened by economic equality as do the land owners. Consequently, the characteristic response to democratic reform is a military coup followed by a civilian junta.

In the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch had this expreience. A social reformer working within a constitutional framework, Bosch suddenly found himself caught between two extremes: those who insisted that the Dominican revolution ended with the assassination of Trujillo, and those who cried that revolution would begin only with widespread land reform.

The Dominican elite had assassinated Trujillo in an effort to seize for themselves the enormous economic power he retained for his personal pleasures. But releasing economic control from the Trujillo dictatorship was in no way an effort to redistribute wealth. Social responsibility among the elite is non-existent.

After the elections the military and businessmen, who had controlled the interim government, seemed willing to give Bosch a chance. In the next seven months, however, they became increasingly convinced that Bosch was acting against their interests.

Most important, Bosch proposed legislation to confiscate the property of ex-Trujillo scpporters. Under the new plan, old Trujillo landlords would have been forbidden to plead their cases in court. Although Bosch advisors privately considered the new laws unconstitutional, practical politics offered no alternative: the land holding elite controlled the courts and the courts were stalling land reform. Property owners immediately envisioned a rash of confiscations.

Rapidly, fear of expropriation spread through the ruling elite. Despite government guarantees, the major Dominican newspaper feared seizure; it turned against the president. Military leaders sincerely began to consider themselves the only protector of constitutional liberties.

The military also labeled the Bosch administration "soft on Communism." They sharply criticized his refusal to outlaw the Communist party. Some leaders even charged that Bosch himself had Communist sympathies. Bosch, in turn, insisted that Betancourt's problems with terrorism in Venezuala stemmed from his suppression of the Communist party. Better to let them operate in the open, he reasoned. But the army and police, robbed of their suppressive function, disagreed.

Bosch alienated another segment of the Dominican elite when he tried to allow the poor to buy basic commodities at government stores. Merchants who controlled distribution of basic basic items immediately joined the military in calling Bosch "Communist." There thus formed an upper-class-military alliance, each vested interest with its own definition of the "Communist threat." Shortly, "Communist" came to mean any popular threat to elitism.

Some efforts to deal with Dominican problems led to more general charges. The Bosch administration tried to cut unemployment by hiring as many government employees as could fit into office space, and by swelling the payrolls of government controlled industries. Bosch then was charged with inefficiency and over-bureaucratization. Yet his alternative was still more unemployment.

Attacks on the Dominican government were by no means limited to conservatives. There was also considerable discontent among those who had elected Bosch. He had, they felt, failed to live up to his campaign promises of economic equality.

Nevertheless, despite the heavy pressure from right and left, Bosch might have stayed in power. But his administration suffered from a momentous strategic flaw: the president's inflexibility. During his years of exile, Bosch's political sense was developed from textbook democracy and the model of United States politics. As a result, Bosch tried to rule from theory, not from pragmatic understanding of Dominican needs.

Bosch and the Military

Typically unyielding were his relations with the military. In July, while riding to the air base for a speech, he was assured by various military officers that he had their "full support against extremist groups in the country." He curtly told them to mind their own business. The military is apolitical and should take no stand either for or against the government, he explained. Such tactlessness was hardly likely to encourage the military to remain apolitical. From July on, the Dominican "elitist alliance" was only concerned with the timing of the coup and with the hope of quick American recognition.

Finally, on September 25, Bosch was overthrown.

Today, after 32 years of dictatorship, the Dominican people have been asked to chart their own future. Many of their present concerns reflect a society allowed to examine itself for the first time. Involved in such thought are the most fundamental questions of man and his relation to society. A chief issue of the summer, for example, became whether illegitimate children deserve equal status under the law.

With the assassination of Trujillo, Dominican society found itself cut loose from the only foundation it had ever known, the feudal supports of personal power and privilege. Present turmoil in the Dominican Republic is at bottom a struggle to define a system of values and law. The only hope for stability rests with the elite; they must shed the remnants of a feudal mentality and develop some sense of social responsibility. If not, stability can only come after violent revolution.

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