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Dominican Republic Occupation (1916-24)

On March 17, 1861, Dominican President Pedro Santana Familias announced the annexation of the Dominican Republic by Spain. A number of conditions had combined to bring about this reversion to colonialism. The Civil War in the United States had lessened the Spanish fear of retaliation from the north. In Spain itself, the ruling Liberal Union of General Leopoldo O'Donnell had been advocating renewed imperial expansion. And in the Dominican Republic, both the ruler and a portion of the ruled were sufficiently concerned about the possibility either of a renewed attack from Haiti or of domestic economic collapse to find the prospect of annexation attractive.

The conclusion of its Civil War promised that the United States would make new efforts to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, which barred European powers from the Western Hemisphere. Spanish military forces, unable to contain the spread of the insurrection, lost even greater numbers of troops to disease than they did to the guerrillas. The O'Donnell government had fallen, taking with it any dreams of a renewed Spanish empire. On March 3, 1865, the Queen of Spain approved a decree repealing the annexation of Santo Domingo.

The financial delinquencies and political disorders of the Dominican Republic attracted the increasingly urgent attention of the United States government. Since the 1870s, when President Ulysses S. Grant had sought to annex the island republic, many American leaders had perceived its potertial economic and strategic value to the United States.

General José María Cabral Luna, who had served briefly as president in 1865, was reelected to that post on September 29, 1866. The baecistas, however, were still a potent force in the republic; they forced Cabral out and reinstalled Buenaventura Báez Méndez on May 2, 1868. Once again, his rule was marked by peculation and efforts to sell or to lease portions of the country to foreign interests. These included an intermittent campaign to have the entire country annexed by the United States. He was once again overthrown by rebellious Blues in January 1874.

The influence of the United States had increased considerably during the first few years of the twentieth century. United States military forces had intervened in a minor way to ensure the safety of United States citizens and to prevent the deployment of warships by European governments seeking immediate repayment of debt.

On 26 July 1899 long-time Haitian dictator Ulises Heureaux was assasinated. Free, direct elections brought to the presidency Juan Isidro Jiménez Pereyra on 15 November 1899. The Jiménez administration faced a fiscal crisis when European creditors, led by the French, began to call in loans that had been contracted by Heureaux. Customs fees represented the only significant source of government revenue at that time. When the Jiménez government pledged 40 percent of its customs revenue to repay its foreign debt, it provoked the ire of the San Domingo Improvement Company. A United States-based firm, the Improvement Company had lent large sums to the Heureaux regime. As a result, it had not only received a considerable percentage of customs revenue, but also had been granted the right to administer Dominican customs in order to ensure regular repayment. Stung by the Jiménez government's resumption of control over its customs receipts, the directors of the Improvement Company protested to the United States Department of State. The review of the case prompted a renewed interest in Washington in Dominican affairs.

By 1904 Washington had begun to take a greater interest in the stability of Caribbean nations, particularly those -- like the Dominican Republic -- situated along the approaches to the forthcoming Panama Canal. Concern for the defense of the sea approaches to the Panama Canal intensified American interest. The Dominican Republic's financial entanglements with European powers seemed especially menacing to United States officials because, under the guise of upholding the claims of its citizens, a nation such as Germany might establish a colony and naval base within striking distance of the canal. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt took a particular interest in resolving the republic's economic situation. It negotiated an agreement in June 1904 whereby the Dominican government bought out the holdings of the San Domingo Improvement Company. The Morales government also agreed to accept the appointment by the United States government of a financial agent to oversee the repayment of the outstanding debt to the Improvement Company from customs duties. This agreement was subsequently superseded.

A financial accord signed between the two governments on February 7, 1905; under the provisions of this accord, the United States government assumed responsibility for all Dominican debt as well as for the collection of customs duties and the allocation of those revenues to the Dominican government and to the repayment of its domestic and foreign debt. Although parts of this agreement were rejected by the United States Senate, it formed the basis for the establishment in April 1905 of the General Customs Receivership, the office through which the United States government administered the finances of the Dominican Republic.

The Cáceres government became the financial beneficiary of this arrangement. Freed from the burden of dealing with creditors, Cáceres attempted to reform the political system. Constitutional reforms placed local ayuntamientos (town councils) under the power of the central government, extended the presidential term to six years, and eliminated the office of vice president. Cáceres also nationalized public utilities and established a bureau of public works to administer them. All of these actions engendered both opposition and support. The curtailment of local authority particularly irked those caciques who preferred to rule through compliant ayuntamientos. The continued financial sovereignty of the Yankees also outweighed the economic benefits of the receivership in the minds of many nationalistic Dominicans. Intrigues fomented in exile by Morales, Jiménez, and others beset Cáceres. On November 19, 1911, a small group headed by Luis Tejera assassinated Cáceres as he took his evening drive through the streets of Santo Domingo.

The assassination of Cáceres turned out to be but the first act of a frenzied drama that culminated in the republic's occupation by the United States. The fiscal stability that had resulted from the 1905 receivership eroded under Cáceres's successor, Eladio Victoria y Victoria; most of the increased outlays went to support military campaigns against rebellious partisans, mainly in the Cibao. The continued violence and instability prompted the administration of President William H. Taft to dispatch a commission to Santo Domingo on September 24, 1912, to mediate among the warring factions. The presence of a 750-member force of United States Marines apparently convinced the Dominicans of the seriousness of Washington's threats to intervene directly in the conflict; Victoria agreed to step down in favor of a neutral figure, Roman Catholic archbishop Adolfo Alejandro Nouel Bobadilla. The archbishop assumed office as provisional president on November 30.

Nouel proved unequal to the burden of national leadership. Unable to mediate successfully between the ambitions of rival horacistas and jimenistas, he stepped down on March 31, 1913. His successor, José Bordas Valdés, was equally unable to restrain the renewed outbreak of hostilities. Once again, Washington took a direct hand and mediated a resolution. The rebellious horacistas agreed to a cease-fire based on a pledge of United States oversight of elections for members of local ayuntamientos and a constituent assembly that would draft the procedures for presidential balloting. The process, however, was flagrantly manipulated and resulted in Bordas's reelection on June 15, 1914. Both horacistas and jimenistas took offense at this blatant maneuver and rose up against Bordas.

The United States government, this time under President Woodrow Wilson, again intervened. Where Taft had cajoled the combatants with a clear intimation of military action, Wilson delivered an ultimatum: elect a president or the United States will impose one. The Dominicans accordingly selected Ramón Báez Machado as provisional president on August 27, 1914. Comparatively fair presidential elections held on October 25 returned Jiménez to the presidency. Despite his victory, however, Jiménez felt impelled to appoint leaders and prominent members of the various political factions to positions in his government in an effort to broaden its support. The internecine conflicts that resulted had quite the opposite effect, weakening the government and the president and emboldening Secretary of War Desiderio Arias to take control of both the armed forces and the Congress, which he compelled to impeach Jiménez for violation of the constitution and the laws. Although the United States ambassador offered military support to his government, Jiménez opted to step down on May 7, 1916.

Arias never formally assumed the presidency. The United States government had apparently tired of its recurring role as mediator and had decided to take more direct action. United States forces had already occupied Haiti by this time. The initial military administrator of Haiti, Rear Admiral William Caperton, had actually forced Arias to retreat from Santo Domingo by threatening the city with naval bombardment on May 13. The first Marines landed three days later. Although they established effective control of the country within two months, the United States forces did not proclaim a military government until November. Most Dominican laws and institutions remained intact under military rule, although the shortage of Dominicans willing to serve in the cabinet forced the military governor, Rear Admiral Harry S. Knapp, to fill a number of portfolios with United States naval officers. The press and radio were censored for most of the occupation, and public speech was limited.

The surface effects of the occupation were largely positive. The Marines restored order throughout most of the republic (with the exception of the eastern region); the country's budget was balanced, its debt was diminished, and economic growth resumed; infrastructure projects produced new roads that linked all the country's regions for the first time in its history; a professional military organization, the Dominican Constabulary Guard, replaced the partisan forces that had waged a seemingly endless struggle for power. Most Dominicans, however, greatly resented the loss of their sovereignty to foreigners, few of whom spoke Spanish or displayed much real concern for the welfare of the republic.

The most intense opposition to the occupation arose in the eastern provinces of El Seibo and San Pedro de Macorís. From 1917 to 1921, the United States forces battled a guerrilla movement in that area known as the gavilleros. The guerrillas enjoyed considerable support among the population, and they benefited from a superior knowledge of the terrain. The movement survived the capture and the execution of its leader, Vicente Evangelista, and some initially fierce encounters with the Marines. However, the gavilleros eventually yielded to the occupying forces' superior firepower, air power (a squadron of six Curtis Jennies), and determined (often brutal) counterinsurgent methods.

After World War I, public opinion in the United States began to run against the occupation. Warren G. Harding, who succeeded Wilson in March 1921, had campaigned against the occupations of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In June 1921, United States representatives presented a withdrawal proposal, known as the Harding Plan, which called for Dominican ratification of all acts of the military government, approval of a loan of US$2.5 million for public works and other expenses, the acceptance of United States officers for the constabulary--now known as the National Guard (Guardia Nacional)--and the holding of elections under United States supervision. Popular reaction to the plan was overwhelmingly negative. Moderate Dominican leaders, however, used the plan as the basis for further negotiations that resulted in an agreement allowing for the selection of a provisional president to rule until elections could be organized. Under the supervision of High Commissioner Sumner Welles, Juan Bautista Vicini Burgos assumed the provisional presidency on October 21, 1922. In the presidential election of March 15, 1924, Horacio Vásquez Lajara handily defeated Francisco J. Peynado. Vásquez's Alliance Party (Partido Alianza) also won a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress. With his inauguration on July 13, control of the republic returned to Dominican hands.



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