In May 1916 US troops entered Santo Domingo. They would leave eight years later, after reshaping the economy in the interests of US big business. But the legacy of the occupation has been much more lasting both economically and in terms of democracy, writes Hassan Mahamdallie.
On 5 May 1916 an advance party of two seaborne companies of US marines landed on the coast of the Caribbean republic of Santo Domingo (also known as the Dominican Republic) with orders to secure US interests. Ten days later they had taken over the capital city. They would not leave for another eight years, by which time they had made sure that Santo Domingo’s freedom had been subjugated to the political and economic imperatives of the US. From that time onwards US power, backed by the threat of re-invasion and re-occupation, would hang over the country, resulting in instability, impoverishment and decades of violent authoritarian rule.
By November 1916 the marines had “pacified” the population to such an extent that the US commander could declare that “the state of Santo Domingo is hereby placed in a state of Military Occupation under my command”. A decree enforcing censorship against criticism of military rule was enacted, quickly followed by Executive Orders by which native citizens were barred from all major offices of state and their powers transferred to the US military. US Navy commander Rear Admiral Harry Knapp became the foreign dictator of the country. By the time US direct rule ended in 1924 it had embedded all the levers of one-person rule deep into Santo Domingo society, facilitating the seizure of power by brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Santo Domingo occupied the eastern half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The republic of Haiti, liberated by the famous slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1791, made up the west of the island. Santo Domingo was founded in 1844 when it broke away from Haiti. This region had for centuries been colonised by European states Britain, Spain, France, Holland, Denmark and Sweden, who had set up slave plantation economies to produce highly profitable commodities such as sugar and coffee for their home markets.
From the early 19th century onwards the US began to look for countries within its geographic sphere of influence where its own capitalists could invest their profits. Cuba was the first target, as it was seen as the richest of the plantation economies and was closest to the US coast.
Thomas Jefferson, who had led the war to free America from British rule, wanted Cuba to become part of the Union, while his secretary of state John Quincy Adams, although careful not to be seen as a coloniser like the British, argued that the US’s “Manifest Destiny” meant it should have its empire too. In 1819 he argued of the European Caribbean colonies that:
“It is impossible that centuries shall elapse without finding them annexed to the US: not that any spirit of encroachment or ambition on our part renders it necessary, but because it is a physical, moral and political absurdity that such fragments of territory, with sovereigns at 1,500 miles beyond the sea, worthless and burdensome to their owners, should exist permanently contiguous to a great powerful and rapidly-growing nation.”
In 1823 President Munroe formulated his famous “doctrine” by which the US, although it would not interfere in the existing European colonies, would not allow them to expand. He was thinking particularly of the various Latin American states which were throwing off Spanish rule, which he did not want to see recolonised by the British, Dutch or French. Any attempt by the Europeans to do so would be seen as an act of aggression against the US.
The victory of the Northern industrial class in the American Civil War (1861-65) accelerated the process of US capitalist investment in the Caribbean and Latin America. By the end of the 19th century $50 million was invested in Cuba alone, and another $55 million in property in Mexico and other Caribbean areas. As one historian put it, “This investment was worth defending, and so were the American employees who came out as foremen, accountants and managers on the various estates in the Caribbean and Central America. When there were disturbances in any of these places, American lives, property and capital were all threatened.” US investors were making their profits out of the brutal colonial set-up in these territories, and when the populations, or sections of them, rose up against their oppression, it was in the interests of US capital to see “normality” re-established.
In 1895 the US saw its opportunity to gain a foothold in the prized possession of Cuba. That year a revolt against Spanish rule erupted on the island. It was brutally put down by the Spanish, with the notorious military governor General Weyler incarcerating non-combatants in concentration camps, leading to between 200,000 and 400,000 civilians dying from starvation and disease. This led to international outrage, and the US, citing humanitarian concerns, sent a battleship to protect its interests. The ship was blown up in Havana harbour and the US declared war on Spain — and won in ten weeks. Spain was forced to give up its colonial possessions; Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were passed to the US, while Cuba, although formally independent, was to be controlled by the US.
The “right” of the US to militarily intervene and bring under its control countries in its own backyard had been asserted by force. The US president vowed that he would “teach the South American republics to elect good men”. The US government now rapidly developed a navy and seaborne military force, the Marines. Strategic naval bases were established to strengthen its reach — for example the US leased the Guantánamo Bay naval base from Cuba for $5,000 a year. As the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams wrote, “The stage was set for American intervention in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.” In 1907 the US had forced the Santo Domingo government to agree that the “Santo Domingo Improvement Company”, based in the US, would collect all customs duties and take a majority cut to pay debts owed to US banks. This plunged the country into financial dependency, impoverishment and instability.
The US also forced the Santo Domingo president to dissolve the standing army to be replaced by a national constabulary trained by and under US control. The head of the army, General Desiderio Arías, along with most of the population, rejected this interference. Arías became “an anathema to Washington” and when his nationalist forces moved to take power the Americans invaded. Arías was forced to flee the capital. In a defiant act, what was left of the Santo Domingo government elected a new president who refused to comply with US demands. So the US military enacted Executive Order No 12 that decreed, “For the present and until further notice no elections will be held in the Republic of Santo Domingo” and the government “will not be recognised as valid by the military government”.
The way had been cleared for US business interests to continue extracting profits from the Santo Domingo population. One of the US military administration later admitted that he was simply a “high class muscle man for Big Business. I helped make Haiti…a decent place for the National City Bank Boys. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.”
The revenues extracted by the Santo Domingo Improvement Company were used to set up transport infrastructure — roads and railways. US government propaganda made out this was to modernise the island — really it was to ensure sugar and other raw materials could get to the coast quickly and cheaply.
Campaigners in the US raged against the military occupation. Columnist Lewis S Gannett wrote in progressive weekly magazine The Nation in 1920:
“Santo Domingo is conquered territory… We, the US of America, who prate of democracy and republicanism and small nations and rights, have driven out the lawful officials of the Dominican Republic, dissolved the congress, forbidden elections, ruled by martial law and sanctioned atrocities… There is a censorship so dictatorial and so humorless that the word ‘Liberty’ is stricken out from the programme of the Teatro Libertad… And this is in the name of America, while we were fighting to make the world safe for democracy!”
The black Communist George Padmore, in his famous book The Life and Struggles of the Negro Toilers, documented the true nature of US “pacification”:
“Thousands of marines were spread over the country and with unlimited authority over the natives, public meetings were not permitted; destructive bombs dropped from airplanes upon towns and hamlets; every home was searched for arms, weapons and implements; homes were burned; natives were killed, tortures and cruelties committed. As was to be expected, the toiling population of Santo Domingo were the greatest sufferers. Before the intervention Santo Domingo was a country of peasant proprietors. But after the American bankers abrogated the constitution which safeguarded the peasants’ economic rights and confiscated the land, which was turned into large plantations for the cultivation of sugar, coffee, cotton and other tropical products. The peasants, having been driven off the land, are forced to pay exorbitant taxes and to become the wage slaves of the Yankee landlords.”
In 1924 the military occupation came to an end, due to resentment by Dominicans, leading to ongoing guerrilla attacks against US troops and rising hostile public opinion in the US, particularly after the end of the First World War. Elections were held, but anti-democractic forces had taken root. Rafael Trujillo, trained by the Americans in the Dominican National Guard, seized power in a coup in 1930. His US-backed dictatorship lasted until he was assassinated in 1961, sustained by a regime of terror characterised by utterly ruthless political repression, abductions, torture and murders.
The US was not finished with Santo Domingo. In 1965, during the Cold War, an invasion force of 22,000 US troops would re-invade the republic to stop a “Communist dictatorship” taking power and install a conservative US-friendly government.