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Dominican Republic


Spanish colonial militias were the first organized military forces in what is now the Dominican Republic. These forces maintained law and order over the entire island of Hispaniola (La Isla Española), which from 1496 was ruled from Santo Domingo, the center of Spanish colonial administration in the New World (see The First Colony , ch. 1). By the mid-1500s, when Spain's interests shifted to the richer colonies of Mexico and Peru, the Dominican colony had a well-established hierarchical social system that was based on authoritarian rule by a small white elite. The colony also included a large black slave population (see Ethnic Heritage , ch. 2).

The shift in Spain's colonial interests and the consequent withdrawal of most of Spain's military from the Dominican colony was followed by a long period of economic and political decay, during which domestic order deteriorated. The colony was threatened by pirates along the coast as well as by periodic encroachment by the forces of France and England, which were competing with each other and with Spain for territory and power in the New World.

As a result of this competition, Spain was forced in 1697 to cede the western third of Hispaniola to France. Tension over the boundary and continued international competition between France and Spain manifested itself in border disputes, and by 1797 France had prevailed on Spain to cede the rest of the island.

Before French rule became established in the Dominican colony, however, a slave revolt broke out in the western portion of the island, which came to be known as Haiti. In what proved to be the first in a series of Haitian incursions into Dominican territory, the rebellious Haitians invaded the poor and less populous eastern side of the island in 1801. Haitian forces were repulsed, but the rebellion within Haiti continued, and the French were forced to withdraw from the island by 1804. In 1809, helped by Britain, Spain regained control of the Dominican portion of the island. Spain ruled only until 1821, however, when the Dominican colonists revolted. Independence lasted just a few weeks before Haiti invaded in 1822. The Dominicans were not able to expel the Haitian forces until 1844 (see Haiti and Santo Domingo , ch. 1).

The long-delayed achievement of independence did not bring peace to the new Dominican Republic, nor did it improve public order. Political power was extremely decentralized, and competition among factions of the landowning white elite produced a level of national disunity that had disastrous effects on public safety. Although the central government had established a national army, this force essentially consisted of a small group of officers who were interested chiefly in personal enrichment and whose duties were largely ceremonial. The national army was far outnumbered by armed militias that were organized and maintained by local caudillos, who had set themselves up as provincial governors. Using these militias, the caudillos waged bloody civil wars as they contended for regional and national power. National political life was characterized by repeated coups and military uprisings against whichever caudillo--usually self-promoted to general-officer status--had gathered enough power to grab the presidency.

The continuous civil war, political upheaval, and misrule that characterized the republic's early years was punctuated by repeated Haitian attempts to invade. During such periods of danger, forces larger than the small national army were needed to defend the nation. These forces, hastily raised and poorly equipped, were essentially conglomerations of regional militias that had been filled out by poor farmers or landless plantation workers who had been impressed into service. Once the threat had subsided and Haitian forces had been repulsed, the militias would return to advancing the cause of particular regional leaders. The impressed troops would return home, where some would contribute to the general state of disorder by taking up banditry.

During its first thirty years of independence, the Dominican Republic was run directly, or indirectly, by General Pedro Santana Familias and General Buenaventura Baez Méndez, whose bitter rivalry was played out in civil wars that resulted in alternating Santana and Baez regimes (see Santana and Baez: The Caudillos Take Charge , ch. 1). Each of the two generals used his position to enrich himself, his relatives, and his followers at public expense. In order to deal with the national bankruptcy caused by civil war, corruption, and mismanagement, Santana called on Spain in 1861 to restore colonial rule. Nationalistic rebellions during 1861-65, however, forced the Spanish out.

General Ulises Heureaux took over the presidency in 1882. During his rule, political factionalism was repressed, and the nation enjoyed relative internal peace. Heureaux ruled in an increasingly brutal, autocratic, and corrupt manner, however, employing a network of spies and assassins. After he was himself assassinated in 1899, political factions again warred for power and for access to the national treasury. By 1904 the economy was a shambles, and foreign governments were threatening to use force to collect defaulted loans. Citing the need to avert European intervention, the United States assumed control of the management of Dominican customs receipts in 1905. During the next decade, a growing contingent of United States marines and other American officials attempted to establish internal order. Their limited efforts were apparently unsuccessful. The marines were authorized by President Woodrow Wilson to take full control of the Dominican government in 1916 (see Occupation by the United States, 1916-24 , ch. 1).

The marines disbanded the regional militias, and they ruled the nation directly for eight years, acting as police in cities and in rural areas. As part of its effort to build effective institutions of government in the Dominican Republic, the United States formed a new Dominican Constabulary Guard to replace the old national army. Up to this time, both the civilian and the military elites had been drawn from the same wealthy landowning class. Intense resentment, among the elite, against the United States presence made it impossible to find recruits for the new constabulary among the landowning class. The ranks became filled by the lower strata of Dominican society, and, as a result, the new force had neither ties nor debts to the traditional elite. The most notable representative of the new military leadership was Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, who entered the Dominican Constabulary Guard in 1919 as a second lieutenant.

In 1924, after the Dominican Republic had adopted a new constitution and had elected a civilian president, the United States forces withdrew. The same year, the guard was renamed the Dominican National Police, a somewhat misleading title for what had become more a military entity than a law enforcement organization. By that time, Trujillo had risen to the rank of major and had assumed one of the nation's two field commands. He had also emerged as one of the most influential voices within the force, increasingly able to mold its development to suit his personal ambitions. In 1928, when the National Police was renamed the National Army (Ejército Nacional), Trujillo became a lieutenant colonel and army chief of staff. As head of the nation's only centralized military force, Trujillo was the most powerful individual in the nation, even before his election to the presidency in 1930 (see The Era of Trujillo , ch. 1).

By 1930 the new Dominican military establishment had developed into a centrally controlled and well-disciplined force that was both larger and far better equipped than any previous Dominican military force. The unified, apolitical, and professional force that had been envisioned by the United States military government had not been realized, however. Instead, traditional Dominican patterns of military service persisted, including factionalism, politicization, and the perception that position entitled one to personal enrichment. Trujillo encouraged and strengthened these patterns, and he used them both to retain the support of the armed forces and to control them. Military officers became an elite national class, gaining wealth, favors, prestige, and power, and developing an ésprit de corps that Trujillo carefully nurtured. Under these conditions, a career in the military came to be esteemed as an avenue of upward mobility. The services themselves were built up, large quantities of arms were imported, and a defense industry was established.

Trujillo rationalized maintenance of a large military by citing the purported need for vigilance against Haiti and, particularly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, against communism. For the most part, however, Trujillo used the large and powerful military establishment to maintain internal control over the nation. The army and the navy intelligence services were among the numerous agencies Trujillo employed to maintain close surveillance and rigid control over the population. In 1957 the intelligence and the secret police organizations were unified into the State Security Secretariat. With a personnel strength of 5,000, this new organization was larger than either the regular National Police, the air force, or the navy.

Trujillo did not rely solely on rewards to keep control over the military. From the time of his election in 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961, he maintained personal command of all aspects of military organization, including promotions, logistics, assignments, and discipline. He constantly shuffled personnel from assignment to assignment, and he prevented any potential rival from gaining an independent power base. Trujillo also used the tactic of frequent inspection, sometimes in person and sometimes by undercover operatives, to keep tabs on both men and operations. In addition, he brought many of his relatives and supporters into the armed forces, promoting them rapidly as a reward for loyalty.

As part of his effort to keep control over the armed forces, Trujillo also built up the air force as a political counterbalance to the army, and he encouraged factionalism in all the services. During a major expansion of the military after World War II, Trujillo acquired armored fighting vehicles from Sweden and formed a full armored battalion at San Isidro Air Base outside Santo Domingo. This battalion, which was directly subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, essentially constituted a fourth armed force, further splintering power within the military.

After Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, the military, as the nation's most powerful and best-organized interest group, claimed a major role in the political competition that followed. It soon became clear, however, that the factionalism encouraged by Trujillo prevented the military from acting as a unified institution. Instead, elements in the armed services allied with various civilian politicians. After Juan Bosch Gaviño of the center-left (or, social democratic) Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano--PRD) won the presidential election in 1962, portions of the military became alarmed over his reforms and his tolerance of leftists and legal communist parties. In 1963 armed forces officers, led by Elías Wessín y Wessín (a colonel at the time), overthrew Bosch and replaced him with a civilian junta. Another military faction made up principally of army officers who called themselves Constitutionalists favored the return of Bosch. In 1965 this faction overthrew the civilian junta. In the following days, civil war erupted as the armed forces split into warring camps. The majority within the armed forces united behind Wessín y Wessín (who by this time had become a general) and attacked the new government with armored and air support. The Constitutionalists armed their civilian supporters in order to defend the capital (see Civil War and United States Intervention, 1965 , ch. 1).

United States intervention in the conflict halted the fighting, but subsequent efforts to reunify the armed forces were only partly successful. The agreement to reintegrate those officers who had supported Bosch was never fully implemented, and only a few gained readmission. Politically, the outlook of the officer corps as a whole remained right of center after the civil war.

Although the armed forces continued to be a significant factor, their influence on national political life steadily declined. This decline began during the administration of Joaquin Balaguer Ricardo, who made effective use of some of the same tactics employed by Trujillo to maintain control over the military, including the encouragement and the manipulation of factionalism within the officer corps and the frequent shuffling of top assignments. At the same time, Balaguer gave senior officers a stake in his regime by appointing many to positions in government and in state-run enterprises. He also increased the number of general officers from six in 1966 to forty-eight by 1978.

The process of reining in the military advanced significantly during the terms of Balaguer's successors, Silvestre Antonio Guzmán Fernández (1978-82) and Salvador Jorge Blanco (1982-86), each of whom made a determined effort to institutionalize the armed forces and to remove the powerful group of officers who had supported Trujillo and Balaguer. The partial success of their efforts was demonstrated in 1984 to 1985, when the armed forces' leadership repeatedly and publicly supported Jorge's government in the face of social unrest provoked by adverse economic conditions. Although Jorge had not been the military's preferred candidate in the 1982 elections, the leadership chose to support him as constitutional head of state rather than to take power itself.

Military capability in the years after the 1965 civil war declined to an even greater extent than did the armed forces' national political role. After that time, each administration faced increasingly difficult national economic constraints that forced stringent limits on defense spending. Although force levels and personnel budgets were generally left untouched, aging equipment was not replaced. As a result, equipment in all three services was outmoded, in short supply, and in poor repair as of 1989.

Data as of December 1989

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