Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part I

1917-4 EGAIt is often proclaimed that Christopher Columbus discovered America. He did no such thing.  What he did do is depart Spain with no clear idea about where he was going.  Then he quite miraculously bumped into an island, a large one, located in the present-day Greater Antilles.  At that time, Columbus didn’t know where he was.  He named the island Insula Hispana (Latin) or in Spanish, La Isla Española.  When he returned to Spain, he could not, with any degree of certainty, tell his employers where he’d been.  Clearly, however, Columbus did set into motion the beginning of an almost unbelievable Spanish Empire, both in terms of land and wealth.

The indigenous people of Hispaniola called themselves Arawak/Taino people.  The Arawak originated in Venezuela, traveling to their island paradise around 1200 A.D. Each settlement was a small independent kingdom.  At the peak of this society, there were five separate kingdoms.  There may have been as many as 750,000 people living on Hispaniola.

Typical of Hispanic society, Columbus and all those who came after him enslaved the natives.  It is a sad story, of course and one repeated many times at every location the Spanish conquistadores placed their boots in the Americas.  Also typical of the Spaniards, interest in Hispaniola waned as Spain conquered new regions on the mainland.  In 1665, the French began their colonization of the Island; they called it Santo Domingo.  In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of the island to France.  Santo Domingo quickly came to overshadow the eastern two-thirds in both wealth and population.  Under the French, with a system of enslavement used to grow and harvest sugar cane, Santo Domingo became the richest colony in the West Indies. Slavery kept the cost of production low and maximized profits.  It was also an important port for goods flowing to and from France and Europe.

Still, Santo Domingo was no paradise; tropical diseases created a high death-rate among European colonists.  Added to this were a series of slave uprisings in the late eighteenth century.  During the French Revolution in 1791, a major slave revolt broke out on Saint-Domingue. France abolished slavery in their colonies in 1794 and many of the ex-slave army joined forces with France in its European wars.  In 1795, Spain ceded the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola to the French.  It became the Dominican Republic and French settlers began to colonize some areas in the Spanish side of the territory.

In 1802, Napoleon reimposed slavery in most of its Caribbean islands, a decision reinforced by French army garrisons.  Yellow fever [1] ended up killing off many of these soldiers. After the French removed its remaining 7,000 troops in 1803, revolutionary leaders declared western Hispaniola the new and independent nation of Haiti.  France continued to rule Santo Domingo but in 1805, Haitian forces under General Henri Christophe attempted conquest of all Hispaniola.  A show of force by the French caused Christophe to withdraw back to Haiti.  In 1808, following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the criollos [2] of Santo Domingo revolted against the French and, with the aid of Great Britain, Santo Domingo was returned to Spanish rule.

Concerned about the influence of a society that had successfully fought and won against their enslavers, the United States and European powers refused to recognize Haiti (the second Republic in the Western Hemisphere).  To settle this issue, France demanded a rather substantial payment for compensation to slaveholders who lost their property, the effect of which threw Haiti into debt for many decades.  Haiti became (and remains) one of the poorest countries in the Americas, while the Dominican Republic gradually developed into one of the largest economies of the Central American-Caribbean region.

It was not long before the Dominicans began to regret their return to Spanish authority.  The Spaniards were cruel masters.  In 1821, Santo Domingo joined with other Caribbean and South American territories in declaring independence from Spain.  Initially, the Dominicans expressed a desire to attach their country to the new Republic of Columbia, far to the south.  Instead of that ever happening, independence brought new foreign domination: in 1822, the Haitian government sent troops to conquer its neighbor, which could offer no resistance.  From then until 1844, Haiti ruled Santo Domingo.  During this period, the Haitians made a concerted effort to stifle all Dominican cultural and economic activity.  Santo Domingo was reduced to a nation of economic stagnation and cultural and psychological despair.

In 1844, Dominican nationalists succeeded in throwing off the Haitian yoke of domination.  It was the beginning of the emergence of the modern Dominican Republic.  It was a rough road, however.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the Dominican people experienced a succession of corrupt and arbitrary rulers who maintained themselves in power by playing upon the people’s fears of Haitian domination. The rule of caudillos [3] in Santo Domingo was also not a new story in Hispanic America: caudillos diverted the nation’s meager resources to serve their own personal designs.

Of these, General Ulises Heureaux [4] was among the most destructive. Keeping himself in power by methods that foreshadowed those of modern totalitarian regimes, Heureaux brought modest economic growth and strengthened the armed forces from a centralized government, which is also a consistent element of Hispanic governments.  He also fostered corruption and violence in Dominican politics and vastly increased the national debt by borrowing money from European and American banks —banks that expected their governments to support their claims for repayment and collect debts.

A succession of governments who found themselves in trouble at home made a habit of borrowing money from foreign governments; when the payment on the debts became due (or overdue), corrupt politicians often attempted to play their foreign creditors off against one another as a means of preventing foreign military intervention, which their behaviors in fact invited.

During the 1890s, a group of idealistic young generals and politicians organized to oppose Heureaux’s political machine.  They were led by General Horacio Vasquez.  As a figurehead for their movement, they chose the nation’s wealthiest planter, Juan Isidro Jimenez —a man who some described as completely lacking in character or vision.  After Heureaux’s murder, Vasquez and Jimenez proclaimed a new revolutionary government.  It began a period of political disorder that eventually provoked the United States [5] to intervene in Dominican affairs.

Heureaux’s enemies divided themselves into competing factions —groups loosely associated with Vasquez and Jimenez.  Juan Jimenez soon developed his own taste for power.  The feud led to a series of weak presidents, coup d’état, and counter-coups.  All the while, each successive regime continued to borrow money from foreign banks to purchase arms pay the men who would help them suppress revolution.  The Dominican Republic steadily sank even further into debt and political chaos; foreign creditors began to demand repayment, threatening military intervention if necessary.

Dominican financial delinquency and political upheaval attracted the attention of the United States.  After 1900, concern for the defense of sea approaches to the Panama Canal intensified American interest.  Dominican entanglements with European powers seemed particularly worrisome because, under the guise of upholding the claims of its citizens, a country such as Germany might be compelled to establish a colony and a naval base within striking distance of the Canal.  Combined Anglo-French-German expeditions against Venezuela [6] during the early 1900s caused President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten to send the US fleet to interdict foreign ships. European behavior dismissive of the Monroe Doctrine eventually brought the issue to a head: the United States decided to take strong action [7] to protect the Caribbean.

The Roosevelt Corollary received its first practical application in the Dominican Republic.  At the initiation of the Dominican president, the US and Dominican Republic (DomRep) negotiated a treaty under which American representatives would collect the customs revenues at Dominican ports and divide the proceeds between current government expenses and payments on foreign debt.  In February 1905, the agreement was submitted to both legislative bodies for ratification and, at the same time, the two governments established a modus vivendi, the practical effect of which placed the treaty into immediate operation.

The treaty met significant opposition in the US Senate, resolved in 1907 with DomRep legislature accepting the treaty later that year.  Meanwhile, between 1905-1907 under the modus vivendi, the claims against Dominican creditors were reduced from $30-million to approximately $17-million.  Beyond implementing a customs receivership, the 1907 also treaty provided for the floating of a bond issue of $20-million (at five percent interest) to be devoted exclusively to paying off long-dormant accounts and financing specified public works projects that were designed to reduce domestic discontent.  By 1912, Dominican debt had been reduced to about $14-million.

In 1906, Ramon Caceres was elected president of the DomRep.  He was perhaps the most honest and capable of Dominican leaders during this period.  He fully supported the receivership as the best possible solution to the country’s debt, and he was enthusiastic about using revenues to improve public services and stimulate economic development.  Caceres was assassinated on 19 November 1911 [8] and the internal stability of the DomRep deteriorated —along with its relationship with the United States.  New regimes resorted to their old habit of enriching themselves and borrowing foreign money to suppress revolutions.

In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson sent envoys to the DomRep who were far less capable than those under earlier administration (Roosevelt-Taft).  They began throwing their weight around, making demands to form stable governments.  When this didn’t happen, the United States seized control over all Dominican revenues and began supervising public works projects.  In 1914, with rival politicians fomenting civil war, President Wilson decided that he’d had enough of the squabbling and sent in the U. S. Marines.

The Fifth Marine Regiment (5thMarines) made their presence known aboard ships of the US Navy off-shore.  It was enough to bring about a political truce and an orderly presidential election. Juan Isidro Jimenez assumed the presidency with US guarantees of support against future revolutions.  Of course, the US continued to insist that Jimenez abide by the 1907 Treaty [9].

On 15 April 1916, Jimenez arrested two close associates of the Dominican Minister of War, General Desiderio Arias.  General Arias had been one of the trouble-makers in 1914 and now established himself in the fortress of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital. Supported by his loyal followers, Arias raised the standard of open revolt.  Opponents of Jimenez flocked to join the revolutionary army.  When Jimenez and Arias failed to make a settlement, the American Minister to Dominica called for Marines to protect the US legation.  Then, on 2 May, the Dominican legislature (under pressure from Arias) voted to impeach President Jimenez.  Jimenez then fled to the countryside to gather an army of his own.  Fighting commenced on 5 May 1916.  US Marines came ashore on that same day.

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Marines come ashore at Santo Domingo, 1916 Photo from National Archives

The landing force consisted of two rifle companies (about 150 Marines) from USS Prairie: The 6th Company, under Captain Frederic M. Wise, and the 9th Company, equipped with field artillery, under Captain Eugene Fortson.  Captain Wise, as senior officer present, exercised overall command of the contingent, which was designated a provisional battalion.  Captain Wise was a strict disciplinarian, a no-nonsense officer with a volatile temper.  His orders were to occupy the US legation and consulate, as well as the strategically placed Fort San Geronimo.  Wise was also ordered to assist President Jimenez against Arias’s rebel forces.

In fact, Captain Wise and his Marines found themselves in the middle of a miniaturized civil war.  Some 250 troops loyal to Arias were reinforced by hundreds of civilian irregulars to whom Arias had distributed rifles and ammunition from government arsenals. Arias controlled Santo Domingo City. No sooner had the Marines entered the city, Arias blockaded the principal avenues to deny the Marines access to resupply.  Captain Wise was not a happy man.

Forces loyal to President Jimenez numbered around 800.  They had initiated assaults upon the city from the north and west.  By the time Wise arrived ashore, Jimenez’ attack had already failed; his men running low on ammunition.  Captain Wise acted with a combination of courage and discretion.  Knowing that his 150 Marines could not defeat a thousand Dominicans, Wise put up a brave front.  While his men occupied their objectives, Wise went directly to Arias and demanded safe passage for foreign nationals out of the city, and the right to resupply his Marines.  Arias agreed to both points.  All foreign nationals were evacuated to the USS Prairie; hired civilians hauled supplies from dockside to the Marine positions.

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Lieutenant Colonel Frederic M. Wise, USMC Photo from public domain

Captain Wise then established contact with General Perez, commanding the president’s forces.  Perez asked for 100 rifles and ammunition (Wise refused), and for artillery support for an attack scheduled for the next day, which Wise agreed to furnish. During the night of 5-6 May, Wise deployed his artillery and infantry to support a government advance.

Without consulting with any of his subordinates, President Jimenez resigned the presidency on 6 May, citing as his reason for doing so a refusal to turn American guns on his own people.  Perez was forced to abandon his assault and the Dominican Republic was suddenly without a national leader.  The Congress created a provisional council of ministers to carry out executive functions.

Unsure of what might happen next, Captain Wise requested additional forces from the USS Prairie; 130 sailors were sent ashore to reinforce him.  In conjunction with the US minister and naval commander, Wise arranged a truce between the warring factions.  Arias dismantled many of his fortifications and disbanded the civilian irregulars; most government troops withdrew to Fort San Geronimo just outside of Santo Domingo City.  Wise and his Marines held their original positions and awaited further instructions and reinforcement.

Commanding the Cruiser Squadron, Atlantic Fleet aboard USS Dolphin, Rear Admiral William Caperton [10] arrived offshore on 12 May 1916 and assumed overall command of the operation.  Marines from the 4th and 5th Companies (from Haiti) and a detachment from the 24th Company (from Guantanamo) came ashore on 13 May.  With 400 Marines ashore, Admiral Caperton met with Arias on 14 May and demanded that he disband his army and surrender his arms by 0600 on 15 May —or face a full-scale American assault.  General Arias refused Caperton’s demand but did agree to vacate the capital.  Marines entering the rebel-held area of the city on 15 May encountered no significant resistance.  The salts who had participated in the conflict at Vera Cruz were relieved; not one of them wanted another taste of urban warfare.

Marine strength continued to increase.  USS Panther arrived on 23 May with Colonel Theodore P. Kane commanding the 2nd Regiment of Marines and three additional rifle companies.  Kane assumed command of the land forces, setting up his headquarters in the American Consulate.  He stationed his Marines at key locations throughout Santo Domingo: on the east bank of the Ozama River, the northwestern approaches to the city, and at the Guardia Republicana barracks.  Additional Marines bivouacked at Fort Ozama.  Marines remaining afloat served as a reserve force off the north coast.  USS Sacramento, with two Marine companies, awaited orders off Puerto PlataUSS Panther and USS Lamson with two companies patrolled offshore near Monte Cristi.  By 28 May, Colonel Kane commanded eleven companies, drawn mostly from the 1st and 2nd Regiments in Haiti.  On deck in Santo Domingo were about 750 Marines.  Colonel Kane determined that he required a still larger force if he was to seize the entire country.

Meanwhile, the unresolved revolution had caused the collapse of the Dominican Republic’s civil government in many interior towns.  Some of these were left unprotected when civilian police detachments departed to fight for Jimenez.  Senior US commanders believed that the next step would have to be an occupation of the entire country.  Of concern, General Arias was at large with at least several hundred men.  No matter where Arias was located, his personality became a rallying point for bandits, local caudillos, and malcontents.  There were only about 300 remaining Dominican army troops, men who seemed somewhat unenthused about the possibility of engaging Arias further.

Continued next week

Sources:

  1. Wiarda, H. J. and Michael J. Kryzanek. The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1982
  2. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005
  3. Fuller, S. M., and Graham A. Cosmas. Marines in the Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.  History and Museums Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974

Endnotes:

[1] Yellow fever is a viral disease causing fever, chills, nausea, muscle pain, and severe headache. Liver damage can occur, causing a yellowing of the skin, hence its name.

[2] Criollo (French: Creole) persons are Latin Americans who are full or near full Spanish descent, which distinguishes them from multi-national Latinos and Latin-Americans of the post-colonial period European group.  They were at the top of a long list of social classes in Hispanic societies.

[3] Spanish word for military dictator.

[4] Heureaux ruled from 1882 to 1899 when he was assassinated.  Called Lilís, he was the son of Haitian mulatto parents.  He served as the 22nd, 26th, and 27th president of the Dominican Republic; when he wasn’t president, he control those who were.

[5] Perceiving it’s potential economic and strategic value, President Ulysses S. Grant made an attempt to annex the island republic in the 1870s.  He was unable to gain the support of the Congress, however.

[6] European navies in fact bombarded Venezuelan coastal towns.

[7] In December 1904, President Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The corollary reaffirmed US opposition to European military intervention in any Western Hemisphere country, for any reason, but also assumed responsibility for enforcing international good-behavior of the Latin American nations.  If Latin-American countries would not police themselves, the United States would do it for them.  This was the genesis of the so-called Banana Wars.

[8] Political assassination became a frequent strategy within Latin American countries; being fast, cheap, and permanent, no place on earth has had a greater number of such incidents.

[9] In 1915, US Marines occupied the Dominican Republic’s neighbor, Haiti, in an effort to establish stable government.  Wilson’s stated policy was to “teach the Latin Americans to elect good men.”

[10] Rear Admiral William Banks Caperton, USN (1855-1941) graduated from the USNA in 1875.  He commanded naval force interventions in Haiti (1916), Dominican Republic (1916), and served as Commander, Pacific Fleet (1916-1919).  He participated in the Spanish-American War, and World War I.  He was a recipient of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.