The Dictator Next Door: The Good Neighbor Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1930-1945

The Dictator Next Door: The Good Neighbor Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1930-1945

by Eric Paul Roorda

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The question of how U.S. foreign policy should manage relations with autocratic governments, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America, has always been difficult and complex. In The Dictator Next Door Eric Paul Roorda focuses on the relations between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic following Rafael Trujillo’s seizure of power in 1930. Examining


The question of how U.S. foreign policy should manage relations with autocratic governments, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America, has always been difficult and complex. In The Dictator Next Door Eric Paul Roorda focuses on the relations between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic following Rafael Trujillo’s seizure of power in 1930. Examining the transition from the noninterventionist policies of the Hoover administration to Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, Roorda blends diplomatic history with analyses of domestic politics in both countries not only to explore the political limits of American hegemony but to provide an in-depth view of a crucial period in U.S. foreign relations.
Although Trujillo’s dictatorship was enabled by prior U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic, the brutality of his regime and the reliance on violence and vanity to sustain his rule was an untenable offense to many in the U.S. diplomatic community, as well as to certain legislators, journalists, and bankers. Many U.S. military officers and congressmen, however—impressed by the civil order and extensive infrastructure the dictator established—comprised an increasingly powerful Dominican lobby. What emerges is a picture of Trujillo at the center of a crowded stage of international actors and a U.S. government that, despite events such as Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of 12,000 Haitians, was determined to foster alliances with any government that would oppose its enemies as the world moved toward war.
Using previously untapped records, privately held papers, and unpublished photographs, Roorda demonstrates how caution, confusion, and conflicting goals marked U.S. relations with Trujillo and set the tone for the ambivalent Cold War relations that prevailed until Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. The Dictator Next Door will interest Latin Americanists, historians, political scientists, and specialists in international relations and diplomacy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Dictator Next Door is a powerfully argued, full-blown diplomatic history that sheds much useful light on a crucial period of United States foreign relations. There are many fine studies of the Good Neighbor Policy, but none comes close to Roorda’s densely textured knowledge of U.S.-Dominican relations.”— Lars Schoultz, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“An excellent piece of research on a topic that is both important and neglected. Roorda’s determination to look at this bilateral relationship as the product of a multiplicity of actors is indeed unique.”—Bruce Calder, University of Illinois at Chicago

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The Dictator Next Door

The Good Neighbor Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1930â"1945

By Eric Paul Roorda

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9832-5


Dominican History, the United States in the Caribbean, and the Origins of the Good Neighbor Policy

The western Atlantic Ocean washes a wide arc of land formed by the coast of North America and the archipelago of the Greater Antilles, five thousand miles of shoreline rarely viewed from the sea before the sixteenth century. The native inhabitants of the small (and often seasonal) settlements on the shore built only small craft for fishing and local travel, and only infrequently did they navigate around the stormy capes that lay between the populated estuaries in the north or cross the windy passages between the large islands in the south, called Siboney (Cuba), Quisqueya (Hispaniola), and Borinquen (Puerto Rico) by the Taino people living there. Visitors from the eastern edge of the Atlantic came very rarely, and the ocean remained a virtually insurmountable barrier until the Spanish invasion initiated by Columbus. The admiral's beachhead was the island he named Hispaniola, and the city of Santo Domingo on the south coast became the capital of Spanish colonization in the region and the base from which armies of warriors conquered the neighboring islands and the mainland along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.


Santo Domingo's years as the center of Spanish expansion were few, however, partly owing to the devastation of the native Taino population from disease and slavery in mines that held little gold or silver. Also, the mineral booty of Mexico and Peru far outstripped the profits of sugar and tobacco cultivation on Hispaniola, and the geographical advantages of the port of Havana, situated near the Gulf Stream on the north coast of Cuba, exceeded those of Santo Domingo, which lay at the mouth of the flood-prone Ozama River far from the transatlantic sea-lanes. As a result, the colony stagnated on the margin of the Spanish empire, which continued to spread southward across South America into the seventeenth century. And although the traffic of ships between Spain and the principal ports of the Caribbean increased and gained importance as the Spanish empire grew, the connections between Spain's Antillean outposts and the landmass to the north, which Spain claimed but did not occupy, remained few.

The seventeenth century brought settlers defiant of Spanish authority to the North American coast and the Lesser Antilles, the chain of small islands running south from Puerto Rico to the coast of South America. English, Dutch, and French colonists from Canada to Curacao produced food crops, tobacco, cotton, and sugar, often using the labor of slaves taken from West Africa, and gathered furs, timber, and fish, all on land and water claimed by the Spanish. Spain's imperial control of the region slipped further as networks of exchange developed among the new settlements in the western Atlantic and spread to the insular fringe of the Spanish New World empire. Spain's violent opposition to incursions on its mercantile border was ineffective, and the northern European colonies gained a firm purchase and began to expand.

In addition to these rival colonies, which were conceived and underwritten by organizations in London, Amsterdam, and Paris, an international population of "freebooters," mainly former sailors seeking less arduous lives, found a niche for settlement in northwestern Hispaniola. There they hunted wild pigs and cattle, descendants of the conquistadores' livestock, and smoked the meat as the Tainos did on boucans. These "buccaneers" traded the product to passing ships, which they also occasionally attacked in small boats from shore. Spain attempted to exterminate the buccaneers on Hispaniola in seaborne assaults launched from Santo Domingo, but the brutal raids gave that heterogeneous lot a common cause: revenge on the Spanish. The buccaneers' damaging piracy against the empire, and their de facto control of the western third of Hispaniola, provided an opening for France to establish the colony of Saint Domingue there in 1697; Spain ceded the territory and recognized French control in return for the suppression of the buccaneers.

French Saint Domingue became the most prosperous colony in the region, while Spanish Santo Domingo on the eastern side of the island remained an imperial backwater. The small population there continued to rely on cattle ranching on open land and subsistence cultivation on small plots, still isolated from the commercial activity of the Atlantic world. But colonists in Saint Domingue turned to agriculture and slave labor during the eighteenth century, importing more than nine hundred thousand unwilling Africans to cultivate cash crops, especially sugar, on large plantations. The tremendous wealth produced by slaves in Saint Domingue made it one of the richest of all the European colonial possessions in the world during that imperial age. The sugar boom drew the ports of Cap Francois and Port-au-Prince into a closer orbit with metropolitan France and oriented Santo Domingo toward its western border in a paradoxical relationship of trade and aggression that in some respects has not changed even today. But the vicious system of gang labor and the demographic imbalance between the free population (mostly white and mulatto) and the black slave population, which was ten times larger, combined to destabilize the plantation society. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 further confused race and class relations among free colonists, and in 1790 a revolt led by fugitive slaves grew into a general bloodletting that lasted fourteen years and killed legions of French, Spanish, British, African, and Creole fighters of every shade of skin color. In 1801, the most celebrated of the African generals, Toussaint L'Ouverture, invaded the eastern half of the island, which had changed hands among the European powers several times since the uprising began eleven years earlier. Although Spain eventually regained control over Santo Domingo, France could not wrest Saint Domingue from the native armies, who won its independence in 1804 under the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines; he chose the pre-Conquest Taino word for the region, Haiti, as the new country's name.

Changes of a different nature took place in the British colonies of North America during the eighteenth century. The mainland colonies were spared a large measure of the conflict that swept back and forth across the Caribbean islands, but prospered from an active commerce with them, even in time of war, when prices rose to offset the added risks of doing business. In fact, the system of plantation agriculture that developed in the British West Indies was dependent on the northern colonies for food, livestock, timber, shipping, and markets for sugar and molasses. North American merchants also traded with the non-British colonies of the western Atlantic, although the Navigation Acts governing British commerce reduced the legal options for lucrative trade outside the empire. The mercantile regulations of Britain notwithstanding, Yankee entrepreneurs sought sugar wherever it could be purchased at a good price, developing trade connections in the Caribbean wherever the "sugar frontier" of plantation agriculture moved. One of the measures that precipitated the revolt of the North American colonies against Britain was the Sugar Act, which sought to enforce the long-ignored duty on cane products from foreign colonies like Saint Domingue. Success in the American Revolution gave citizens of the United States the right to pursue trade outside the British empire, but they lost the profitable privilege of trading within it. The economy of the new republic was further imperiled by the manifold upheaval of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Haitian Revolution, which obstructed its commercial relations both in continental Europe and the Caribbean.

Although George Washington dabbled with enterprises in support of L'Ouverture's rebellion in Haiti, the "black republic" was mainly shunned politically by American leaders, especially those in the South, who feared the contagion of slave revolt. But the wars of colonial independence that broke out in Spanish America, where new nations declared their sovereignty one by one in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, were welcomed by the United States. The colony of Santo Domingo proclaimed itself to be the independent Dominican Republic in 1821, but Haiti invaded soon after and began a unification of the island that lasted more than two decades. Haitian rule brought the abolition of Dominican slavery and caused many of the landowning Dominican elite to leave the island. The "Dominican" portion of Hispaniola now became a region of Haiti, whose national sovereignty was not recognized by its former occupiers, Spain, France, and Britain, or by the rising power in the western Atlantic, the United States. Haiti did not share significantly in the growing commerce between North and South America, while neighboring Cuba and Puerto Rico (the last vestiges of Spain's New World empire) expanded the system of sugar and slaves to supply the booming markets in New York and Boston, among other growing cities.


When the Dominican Republic won independence from Haiti in 1844, it reentered the arena of imperial rivalry. The liberal "trinity" of the Dominican independence movement—Juan Pablo Duarte, José del Rosario Sánchez, and Ramón Mella—quickly lost power to the leader of the Dominican military forces, Pedro Santana, who alternated rule with his personal rival, Buenaventura Báez, for most of the next thirty years. The United States, Spain, France, and Britain competed with one another for advantage with Santana and Báez, who maneuvered among the powers for advantages of their own, especially for protection against Haiti. The European empires and the United States all appointed agents to scout the situation in the Dominican Republic, report on its economic and strategic potential, and sound out the Dominicans on the possibility of annexing a part or all of the republic. Both Santana and Báez proposed annexation to each of the foreign powers at one time or another, and such plans received serious consideration in Washington during that expansionist era. Despite several near misses between 1844 and 1860, the four powers prevented any one of their number from gaining territory in the Dominican Republic, with the European states gradually uniting behind Báez, who raised the specter of U.S. encroachment at every opportunity, against Santana, who had U.S. support. The American Civil War ended the stalemate, providing an opening for Spain to reannex the Dominican Republic in 1861 to prevent it from becoming "Haitian or Yankee," and for Santana to secure the foreign military assistance he desired to combat threats both external and internal.

The sectional conflict in the United States temporarily delayed the steady increase of the nation's influence in the Caribbean region that had begun with the acquisition of Louisiana in 1803. The new American port of New Orleans had boomed with trade since then, an increasing amount of it with Cuba. The Spanish cession of the Floridas in 1819 and the Mexican War settlement of 1848 added two more coasts to the United States: the Gulf Coast and the coast of California. The transportation systems that developed between these new destinations for settlement and trade and the cities of the East Coast brought the Caribbean more closely into the dynamic of U.S. economic development. The extension of the coastal sea-lanes of the United States around Florida to the Gulf Coast increased traffic to Havana and western Cuba, which supplied correspondingly greater amounts of sugar and tobacco to the United States in the decades before the Civil War. Those who wanted to try their luck in California could go there overland across plains and mountains, around brutal Cape Horn on at least a three-month voyage, or across Central America on one of two routes connecting Atlantic and Pacific steamship lines. The first route was a coach road across the Colombian province of Panama that was inaugurated just in time to catch the first wave of the 1849 California Gold Rush; a Railroad along the route opened in 1855. The second route was across Nicaragua, using small steamers on the San Juan River and Lake Managua on the way from sea to sea.

After the establishment of these intracoastal enterprises, the United States closely monitored affairs in Panama and Nicaragua, sending gunboats to maintain order along the Panama Railroad and to back up Cornelius Van-derbilt in his squabbles with the Nicaraguan government. The sea-lanes between the East Coast and the two isthmian routes, both of which were imagined as sites for an interoceanic canal, were important in the strategic calculations of the U.S. government. Ships on their way into the Caribbean Sea most often navigated through the Windward and Mona passages flanking the island of Hispaniola, which would have to be defended in the event of war. For this reason, the acquisition of a naval base, or "coaling station," at Samaná Bay in the northeast Dominican Republic was one of the main objects sought by a succession of American envoys to Santo Domingo beginning in 1854. The Spanish Annexation of 1861 interrupted these plans, but they quickly reemerged after the Dominicans expelled the Spanish in the War of Restoration, which ended four months after the American Civil War in 1865.

The Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant administrations in the United States and the administration of Buenaventura Báez in the Dominican Republic came close to concluding agreements for Samaná Bay on several occasions, with negotiations often in the hands of prominent American military men: Admiral David Dixon Porter for Johnson and General Orville E. Babcock for Grant. The U.S. Navy under Grant also intervened against the enemies of Báez under the command of Gregorio Luperón, who planned an attack from Haiti by sea. But the Báez regime proved to be too shaky, and anti-imperialist sentiment in the U.S. Congress too strong, for territorial deals to solidify, despite a very close call in 1870. On that occasion, the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner denounced the proposed annexation treaty by comparing it to the murderous acquisition of Naboth's vineyard by the biblical Ahab, who incurred God's wrath and was eaten by dogs. Also working against annexation during the 1870s was the nationalist war hero Luperón, leader of the powerful Azul Party after the Restoration. The strategic potential of Samaná Bay continued to be one of the dominant motifs in relations between the Dominican Republic and the United States, however, even after the Spanish-American War provided the U.S. Navy with prime anchorages in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Luperón's protégé, Ulisis Heureaux, came to power in 1883 and, breaking with his mentor, established a dictatorship in 1888 that lasted eleven years. Also in 1888, Heureaux took out a loan of three-quarters of a million pounds sterling from the Dutch banking house Westendorp, money intended to stabilize the existing debt (contracted by Báez) and to finance the infrastructure development of the Dominican Republic, especially railroad construction. Heureaux used impressive uniforms and military spectacle "to underscore visually the importance of authority" and reduce the fragmentation of armed forces around the country, where up to a thousand local leaders called themselves "generals" in 1880. He also conducted his foreign policy personally from a power base of unprecedented internal stability, although the expanded foreign debt posed new threats of external interference by the governments of European creditors. The Westendorp Company collected all Dominican customs through an office set up under the terms of the Dutch loan, subtracting what was owed to the bondholders from the country's external revenues and providing operating expenses to the Dominican government from the remaining funds. The Westendorp Company went bankrupt in 1892 after its agent revealed fraud in the Customs Service, where Heureaux had arranged preferential tariff treatment for certain of his domestic creditors.

A consortium of U.S. businessmen calling themselves the San Domingo Improvement Company bought out Westendorp soon after its failure and took over its Railroad contracts and European bondholders. The American takeover precipitated a dispute with the Dominican National Bank, which had been chartered by the French banking house Crédit Mobilier. A French warship called at Santo Domingo in 1892 to protect the interests of Crédit Mobilier and its investors, and two more came in 1895 to investigate the treatment of French nationals. The second time, three U.S. Navy ships were on hand as well to observe the dispute, which was settled when the San Domingo Improvement Company purchased the National Bank from Crédit Mobilier and paid an indemnity to the French, putting off for the moment European intervention on the grounds of Dominican insolvency. In the meantime, the U.S.-owned Clyde Line established regular steamship service between New York and the principal Dominican ports, increasing the frequency and regularity of contacts between the countries and forming "part of the advance wave of American economic penetration into the West Indies." American steamships and investments also fueled the growth of the Dominican sugar industry during the last twenty years of the century. When Heureaux was assassinated in 1899, he left the foreign debt intact and the Central Dominican Railroad unfinished; the American investors of the San Domingo Improvement Company controlled both.


Excerpted from The Dictator Next Door by Eric Paul Roorda. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Eric Paul Roorda is Assistant Professor of History at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky.

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