Sugar and Strife: the Dominican Republic and Caribbean Policies in the 20th Century

United States intervention across the South American continent largely took the form of an ideological proxy war with the Soviet Union. While these military and political conflicts varied in intensity and scope, it could be argued that U.S. engagement was never for the sake of any direct threat to national security. The same, however, cannot be said for the policies employed for the island nations of the Caribbean. While the government had the luxury of forming policy thousands of miles away, the internal affairs of nations such as Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coast, were of large import. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had made the security concerns of the Caribbean more salient to both the American public and actors in Washington D.C.

The island nation of Cuba has long been a geopolitical thorn in the side of the United States. As a Spanish colony, Cuba represented a threat to the established “Monroe Doctrine” of western supremacy, and even as Spanish influence waned the American government sought to control the nation through economic and political actions. Following the Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro assumed power, relations between the two nations deteriorated as his Regime aligned itself with the Soviet Union. In return for economic aid and political support, the island became a strategic position for Soviet military resources, with the Cuban army often acting as a paramilitary group in the proxy wars in South America that I have focused on in my previous posts. U.S. policies regarding Cuba underscored the need for intervention across the Caribbean in order to protect regional security interests.

The Dominican Republic, occupying roughly half of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the nation of Haiti, is another such nation that has long been a focus of U.S. Caribbean policy. Unlike Cuba, the U.S. has enjoyed what they deem to be “excellent” relations with the nation both politically and economically. However, this is arguably the result of a longstanding assertion of dominance over the nation, both before and since the emergence of Cuban defiance. As far back as the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. policy was to promote economic and political policies in the nation that were agreeable, following the departure of Spanish forces at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war. To fill the void, the U.S. maintained a military presence on the island from 1904 to 1916 in order to protect the Sugar industries on which the U.S. relied. However, this soon grew to a full-scale military occupation under the Wilson Administration, where U.S. literally ran the government for eight years amid political uprisings. Writing for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) in 1967, Fred Goff and Michael Locker put the relationship between both nations in historical context, asserting that this occupation was the basis for the relationship that, over the course of the 20th Century, would come to be characterized as one of domination. The Violence of Domination: U.S. Power and the Dominican Republic is one of many scholarly examinations commissioned by NACLA to understand how U.S. power is exerted towards these nations. Following the formal U.S. occupation of the DR, the policy morphed back to supporting the fiction of DR autonomy, and instead U.S. influence was used to prop up the regime of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who established a totalitarian regime in 1928. Trujillo was infamous for his use of the Army and secret police to maintain power, which he used to further the interests of the U.S. government. His regime was not only propped up with the official support of the U.S. government, but also through connections with American industrialists, who gave him a favorable and mutually advantageous deal for purchasing the U.S. West Indies Sugar Company towards the end of the 1920s. These maneuverings had a positive economic impact on the economy of the DR, which led to the perception that Trujillo was irreplaceable both among his citizens who, despite the violence and oppression of his fear-enabled regime desired socioeconomic advancement.

The economic benefits of working with Trujillo were of significant importance even before cold war dynamics made regional security a priority. His tactics, including business deals, sex, flattery and, most interesting, campaign contributions to U.S. politicians, blackmail and murder, were largely successful in maintaining internal and external control of DR affairs. He became close to Joseph Davies, a multi-millionaire serving as a New Deal Diplomat, whose connections in Washington became useful to the regime. This relationship led President Franklin Roosevelt to receive a positive assessment of the political stability of DR in 1931, and Trujillo was able to leverage his firm control, as well as a chain of well paid politicians in Washington, for the benefit of the DR’s emerging economy. Specifically, as the ensuing decades saw the shift in regional power dynamics as a result of the Cuban Revolution, Trujillo was able to maintain beneficial policies with regards to U.S. sugar export quotas in exchange for his loyalty. Further, his domestic control through intimidation and violence was overlooked.

However, like all U.S. puppets, Trujillo’s strings were ultimately cut as he fell victim to shifting geopolitical winds. Although the Cuban situation had allowed him to develop close relationships with the U.S., it also changed the domestic and international landscape in which he operated. In June of 1959, Dominican Exiles in Cuba launched an unsuccessful invasion, which had the effect of shaking his regime and highlighting his hard-handed tactics. For the first time in three decades, substantial opposition to Trujillo formed domestically, as well as through the denunciation of his regime by the Roman Catholic Church. Gradually, the U.S. began withdrawing their support, both militarily and financially. The U.S. initially plead for Trujillo to abdicate power, and ultimately took the position of advocating sanctions within the Organization of American States (OAS) to lower the sugar import quota.  With his congressional network upheaved and his usefulness in doubt, Trujillo was assassinated by his own generals in an unsuccessful coup attempt only 41 days after the U.S. launched its own unsuccessful coup attempt in Cuba, known as the “Bay of Pigs” fiasco in 1961.

Being successful in killing Trujillo, and unsuccessful in dominating the government, this coup initiated a period of rampant conflict, with state-sponsored murder, torture and political repression used to maintain “stability”. Although responsible, the U.S. initially hedged its bets, and a number of governments attempted to form without the benefit of large U.S. sugar import quotas. Juan Bosch, a Dominican exiled in Cuba, ultimately returned and, in short, managed to upset nearly everyone but the Dominican people. The U.S. found a partner unwilling to enforce its will through oppression. Industrialists both foreign and domestic lamented his proposed land reforms. The Roman Catholic Church, a very significant group to island citizens, embraced the establishment of civil liberties, but took issue with what they perceived as the overly secular nature of the country’s new constitution. By September 1963, Bosch was overthrown in a coup, and it seemed as though that would satisfy all other parties. However, the Cuban issue had caused the price of sugar to skyrocket, and after two years, Bosch was returned to power with the assistance of 42,000 American troops. The reason for this policy reversal was the assassination of President Kennedy and the succession of President Lyndon Johnson, who deployed lent the support of the U.S. military to counter the growing perception that the Dominican Republic was turning into “another Cuba”, and Bosch returned to power with the agreement that he would work to marginalize the “Castro-ite” Leftist parties.

The restoration of Bosch as president and the 1963 constitution involved a consortium of seemingly opposing factions, including left and right elements of the military, cooperating with one another. Further, elements that had supported Trujillo lent their support to the restoration of rule. The Johnson Administration, lacking political connections to the DR, lent military support in the interest of maintaining economic control of the sugar industry. In restoring the regime, the U.S. was able to consolidate its influence on the island nation, and the relations between the two nations have endured since, and had been categorized as “friendly”. The U.S. imports an estimated 3.5 billion worth of Dominican goods each year, and has proven a stable and democratic ally. However, this characterization is contested by those who view the historical influence of the U.S. in the Caribbean as one of domination and subjugation. One such individual is Cheddi Jagan, a Guyanese academic and ideologue who, among other affiliations, served as General Secretary of Guyana’s Marxist-Leninist People’s Progressive Party. Jagan asserts that U.S. policies in the DR reflect the trends of domination that can be seen across the U.S.’s regional relationships. His reasoning is not without merit, especially when considering the military and economic measures taken in the first half of the 20th Century. However, with the cold war, the policies became part of the geopolitical maneuverings and containment of communism. In his noted pamphlet The Caribbean: a Zone of Peace, Jagan posits that despite the curtailment of intervention that characterized the Carter administration’s foreign policy, the history of oppression and the threat of its re-establishment was the basis for the Reagan Administration’s policies to control the domestic political and economic workings.

What makes the case study of the Dominican Republic so interesting is the degree to which the small nation was valued as a regional threat and ally. While the nation was never in the position to pose a direct threat to the U.S., the contextualization against the backdrop of Cuban revolution dramatically enhanced the perception of small nations as “threats” to capitalism and democracy. Rather, the U.S. policies themselves divorced the island’s sugar industry from the free market through Trujillo’s assertion of influence among the politicians on his payroll and U.S. economic actions to prop up his rule. Further, the support for an undemocratic, oppressive regime at that time provided further evidence that the rational for these policies was divorced from truthfulness. Rather, it becomes evident that these policies, as well as the later policies to return the Bosch government, were motivated by real politik. The broader ambitions of the U.S., and the century of domination that Latin American and Caribbean nations experienced was merely a gambit for regional security with the overall goal of pursuing global dominance over the Soviet Union.

–Michael Piersall

Further Readings at Dodd Archives and Special Collections:

Alvarez, J. (2002). Before we were free. New York: A. Knopf.

Camejo, M. J., Americas Watch Committee (U.S.), National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, & Caribbean Rights (Organization). (1991). Half measures: Reform, forced labor and the Dominican sugar industry. New York, NY: Americas Watch.

Islands of discontent: The Caribbean today (1985). . San Francisco: Synthesis Publications.

Wallach, J. (1987). Fidel Castro and the United States Press. Washington, D.C: Cuban American National Foundation.

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About Graham Stinnett

Curator of Human Rights Collections and Alternative Press Collections, Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut. Stinnett holds a Master’s degree in Archival Studies from the History Department at the University of Manitoba, where he also earned a Bachelor’s degree in Latin American History. Stinnett's graduate work focused on human rights non-governmental organizations and their importance to archives and the role of archivist as activist. He has published in the Progressive Librarian on the subject. Stinnett has worked in University Archives with human rights collections at UC Boulder, Manitoba and UConn. His involvement with the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives collection project and the LGBTTQ Oral History Initiative, the El Salvador Human Rights Archive at Boulder and the extensive AltPress & Human Rights Archives at UConn have resulted in a multitude of engagement and outreach activities. He also briefly served as the Archivist for the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club in British Columbia.

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