The Militarization of Culture in the Dominican Republic, From the Captains General to General Trujillo
By Valentina Peguero
University of Nebraska Press Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE DOMINICAN MILITARY AND ITS CULTURE, 1844-1916
In his celebrated canto "Hay un país en el mundo" (There is a country in the world) Pedro Mir, the National Poet of the Dominican Republic, makes a painful comparison of the suffering of his nation with "an adolescent girl kicked in the hip." On December 5, 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived at the island that later came to be known as Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, and Mir's nation became the first territory under Spanish domination in the New World.
Once the Spaniards arrived carrying crosses and swords, soldiers and priests worked in partnership to convert and control their new subjects: the Taíno Indians. In addition to weapons, the conquerors brought with them the Spanish military tradition of prestige and privilege and the military spirit of the reconquista (reconquest) after defeating the last Moorish stronghold in Spain. The fusion of military power and social prestige allowed the role of the military in society to be firmly established during the colonial period.
The Colonial Experience
Because of the violent nature of the conquest, the harsh conditions of forced labor, and disease, within the first three decades of the arrival of the Spaniards theTaíno Indians disappeared. African slaves replaced them as the labor force. In the meantime, the island became the center of Spanish power in the Americas. After Spain's conquest of Mexico in 1520, Peru in 1533, and other richer territories on the continent, however, Hispaniola fell into neglect.
Lacking protection because of this neglect, the hacendados, or owners of large farms, recruited their own militias and assumed the responsibility of defending their property. But without a regular outlet for the colony's products, settlers traded with French, Dutch, and British smugglers who had established their base of operation in the Antilles.
In response, Spain set up a colonial defense program in the area that included the reinforcement of military forces to protect ports and ships, and fortification of capital cities like Santo Domingo. Furthermore, responding to the development of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Spanish Crown named captains general as presidents of the Royal Court of Appeals of Santo Domingo. They assumed both political and military leadership and became the highest authority in the colony.
The supremacy of the military weakened the power of the hacendados and altered the life of the colony. For example, Captain General Chávez de Osorio (1628-36) ordered the construction of fortifications and galleons in preparation for war. Although the ships were never completed, Chávez de Osorio and his assistants received large sums of money in granting licenses and permits to builders and merchants. For almost two hundred years afterward, the captains general monopolized all defense-related economic activities. In addition, they controlled the colonial elite, established a military oligarchy, and forced military culture on civilian life.
Despite the tensions between the military and the hacendados, French settlements advancing down the west coast of Hispaniola prompted the landed elite to unite forces with the military against foreign incursions. In addition, intercolonial wars strengthened the connection between the Catholic Church and the military. For example, in the Batalla de La Limonade, the Spaniards defeated the French on January 21, 1691. From then on January 21 was declared a holiday to honor the Virgen de la Altagracia. Every year hundreds of pilgrims travel to Higuey to visit the Basílica dedicated to the Virgen de la Altagracia. Thus a military victory became the foundation of one of the most important cultural traditions of the Dominican people, the devotion to the patron saint of the nation.
Her coronation took place on January 21, 1922, during the turning point in the U.S. occupation. In the spring the military government and the Dominicans reached an agreement for the departure of the Marines. Dominicans tied the announcement to the crowning of the Virgin of La Altagracia and claimed that the exit of the Marines was a miracle.
Mixing religious symbols with historical-military events can be traced to the time of Columbus. In 1495 during one of the bloodiest battles between the Taínos and the Spaniards in La Vega Real, a confederation of Taínos drove the Spaniards to desperation. In the midst of the fighting, the Spaniards claimed that they saw "a lady wearing a white dress with a baby in her arms" whom they believed helped them win the fight. In remembrance of the event, on September 24, pilgrims set out to Santo Cerro, a hill close to La Vega, to pray to the Virgen de las Mercedes. Like January 21, September 24 is now a holiday. Both examples illustrate how deeply the military culture and traditions have been ingrained within the national character of the Dominican culture.
Despite the success of La Limonade, the colonial forces could not stop the French. By the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. During the French Revolution, the Treaty of Basel brought the entire island under French rule in 1795. By then in the French colony, the slaves had organized a rebellion, which turned into the Haitian Revolution. In 1804 the former slaves declared Haiti's independence.
The grand sweep of the Haitian revolution intensified the militarization of Santo Domingo. During the first half of the nineteenth century, a mélange of French (1802-8) and Spanish (1808-21) military rulers exercised control over the Spanish-speaking inhabitants of the east. Coinciding with the independence movement of colonial Latin America, the Dominicans, lead by José Núñez de Cáceres, declared their independence from Spain on December 1, 1821. Within weeks, with an army of 12,000 men, Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer swept across the eastern part of Hispaniola, remaining in control for twenty-two years (1822-44). During this period Boyer enacted several measures that reinforced militarization in the eastern part of the island by combining administrative control with military values. Imposing a high level of military authority, Boyer appointed an army general, Maximilien Borgellá, to govern the new incorporated land. Borgellá established a military government and exercised power in a military fashion to rule the civilian population.
The Haitian military government created Battalion 32, which was made up of former slaves, and gave the command to Colonel Pablo Alí, who already was in charge of Battalion 31, made up of free blacks and known as Batallón de Morenos. These two battalions became the main line of defense of the Haitian government in the eastern part of the island. Boyer also enacted some revolutionary measures such as the complete abolition of slavery and land reform. These measures considerably reduced the power and land controlled by the traditional dominant groups (the landed proprietors, cattle ranchers, and the church), who together with other groups opposed Boyer's policies. The governor confiscated properties and subdivided large farms, primarily those of the mostly white hacendados, into smallholdings and gave the plots to soldiers and other functionaries.
Boyer also introduced two other controversial measures: the Rural Code and obligatory military services. The purpose of the code was to increase agricultural production in the island by regulating labor and laborers and forcing the peasants to work on plantations under the threat of punishment. The code stipulated that except for government employees and professionals, all men, women, and children had to work in the fields. Proprietors and workers needed permission to move from their place of residency or to work on another plantation. Soldiers supervised workers' labor and movements. The general population resented these impositions, and the soldiers who owned their own plots did not stringently enforce the code's provisions.
The establishment of obligatory military service required that all men between sixteen and twenty-five years of age serve in the army. To tap the young male population to fill the ranks, administrators enlisted many students from the University of Santo Domingo. As a result, the university, an institution with a curriculum similar to a Catholic seminary and that functioned almost exclusively to serve the children of privileged groups, closed its doors. Originally this action became another source of resentment among the members of the elite and the Catholic Church, but in the long run the closing of the university provided opportunities for Dominicans to receive military instruction. Indeed, military leaders of the first republic (1844-61) acquired their military training in the Haitian army.
Meanwhile, Boyer's insistence on the implementation of the land tenure system led to a decline in production, and an unfavorable economic situation fueled the opposition. Hostility against Boyer grew among Dominicans and Haitians alike. In the east in 1838, Juan Pablo Duarte, a liberal, organized a secret society called La Trinitaria to separate the eastern part of the island from Haitian domination. The group organized cells made up of only three members, each of whom was to recruit three more participants. If the plan did not work, the majority of the conspirators would be protected by their lack of knowledge about other members. In the west in 1842, General Charles Herard led a military revolt against Boyer. Haitians and Dominicans combined their efforts to overthrow Boyer, who, without military support, resigned and went into exile in Jamaica in March 1843. Afterward the Trinitarios continued to prepare the road for independence through a vast network of conspirators. Herard understood that the Dominicans wanted more than to get rid of Boyer and he tried to stop the separatist movement, but he was too late. Duarte's plan worked effectively, and on February 27, 1844, the Dominican people declared their independence from Haiti. Francisco del Rosario Sánchez and Ramón Matías Mella also played decisive roles in creating the new republic. Together with Duarte, Dominicans today honor them as Fathers of the Nation.
Militarization and Territorial Defense
Before Dominicans had time to organize military defense of the country, they faced the Haitians in the battlefield, and for the next twelve years successive Haitian invasions kept the nation at war and in a state of militarization. Dominicans forces suffered heavy casualties but also defeated the Haitian army in several battles (as happened on March 19, 1844, in Azua and March 30, 1844, in Santiago as well as on April 21, 1849, during a fierce battle near the Ocoa River in an area known as Las Carreras).
As the war wore on and weapons and manpower became scarcer, the national leaders debated over the nature of the new republic and its capability to defend its territorial integrity. Eventually the intensifying debate spawned civil war. Both the war for independence and the civil war contributed strongly to defining the role of the military in society and had far-reaching effects on the subsequent development of the nation, interrelating military ethos with national cultural values.
Some of the military patterns that developed during the nation-building process, such as military defiance and domination of civilian power, provide a broad basis for the understanding of Trujillo's experiments with new forms of military organization.
Military Leaders and the New Republic
A close look at the patterns and intricacies of the Dominican military before 1930 reveals that as independence was acquired, the military leaders interfered with the functioning of the government in three principal ways. They became protectionists, facilitators, or self-servers.
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