History and Politics

Títeres en el Caribe: Debunking the Myth of Dominican (In)Dependence

Written by: Jay Espinosa

Every February, the Dominican Republic becomes a bumping cultural stage for carnaval. A historic cultural festival started by enslaved African people, carnaval ends on the week of the 27th, the Dominican day of independence. Yet, the origin and integrity of this independence are rarely questioned. To be truly independent, a country must determine its own political and economic interests. Has this ever been the case in the Dominican Republic? Is the Dominican Republic actually independent? 

1821 – 1865: From Dominican Independence to Spanish Chains

Before separating from Haiti in 1844, the Dominican Republic was briefly known as the Estado Independiente del Haití Español (Independent State of Spanish Haiti) after winning independence from Spain on December 1, 1821. This two-month old nation then united with Haiti on February 9, 1822 for twenty-two years. Another victorious war of independence in 1844 separated the island and established the Dominican Republic. 

The new country’s leadership was quickly consumed by internal beef over who should lead the nation. These leaders were also afraid of Haiti, which until 1856 unsuccessfully attempted to reunite the island. The United States government also feared Black sovereignty spreading throughout the Caribbean. This led U.S. officials, who were already suspicious of the non-White mulatto composition of Dominican people, to conditionally support Dominican nationalism in order to block Black nationalism at the Haitian border.

During this time, the Dominican Republic was not a homogenous class society. Following independence, most Dominicans were impoverished Black people and preferred Haitian rule because it guaranteed freedom from slavery and better economic conditions. The Dominican leadership that triumphed over Haiti, however, was of a bourgeois hue and preferred independence. Its members descended from wealthy families and owed much of their prestige and paler complexion to Spanish colonialism; their privileged class status and racial composition did little to prevent factional splits.

La Trinitaria, comprised of urban elites from Santo Domingo, formed the nationalist faction, while caudillos, or military strongmen, represented an authoritarian annexationist position that fetishized submission to colonization. Caudillos ruled with a machista iron fist that ultimately forced Juan Pablo Duarte and his Trinitaria comrades out the country. The remaining leadership argued that Dominican independence could not be defended against Haiti without foreign protection. 

No one represented this cowardly obsession of anti-Haitian resubmission to colonization more than Dominican caudillo dictators Pedro Santana and Buenaventura Báez. Even though they helped to win the Dominican Republic’s first war of independence, Santana and Báez found every way to literally sell out Dominican people. In 1846 and 1849, Santana and Baez failed to convince France and the U.S. to colonize the country, before successfully inviting Spain to recolonize the Dominican Republic in 1861.

The U.S. was too distracted by civil war to invoke its imperialist Monroe Doctrine — a policy that blocked Europe from taking American lands and riches the U.S. claimed for itself — against Spain. Nevertheless, Spanish rule was again challenged by the two-year Dominican independence War of Restoration on August 16th, 1863. It was co-led by the African-descended Dominican nationalist Gregorio Luperón, who united with peasants to prevent the reinstatement of slavery and defeated Spain on July 15, 1865. The Dominican Republic was, once again, a republic. That we celebrate the 1844 day of independence from Haiti and not the 1865 one from Spain is purposeful; it enshrines the country’s opposition to Haiti.

1865 – 1916: From Dominican Independence to U.S. Chains

Recolonization efforts reemerged after 1865, as divisions continued and a commitment to Dominican independence remained unsettled. In 1868, Dominican president José María Cabral asked the U.S. to partially colonize the country by leasing the Samaná peninsula. That same year, Báez became president again and one-upped Cabral by again shamelessly begging the U.S. to colonize the country. Báez was negotiating an annexation treaty with U.S. president Ulysses Grant when he asked Grant to help protect the Dominican Republic from alleged Haitian pirates. Realizing that the “pirates” threatened U.S. commercial ships, Grant ordered the first official U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1869.

The 1869 U.S. invasion triggered a third Dominican war of independence, this time against U.S. imperialism. The annexation treaty was later dropped by the U.S. Senate, which was considering making the Dominican Republic a 38th state. Still, Báez briefly leased Samaná to a U.S. corporation before being overthrown in 1874. Dominicans spent the rest of the late 1800s ruled by a mix of individual and coalition presidencies, some elected and others overthrown through golpes de estado. The longest and most notable presidency during this time was served by the Haitian-descended Dominican general Ulises Heureaux. 

A popular war hero in the second and third wars of independence and a close friend of Luperón, Heureaux attempted to finally stabilize the country’s economy. He boosted tobacco and sugar production, modernized infrastructure, electrified Santo Domingo, and built railroads. However, Huereaux evolved into a corrupt dictator who looted the Dominican treasury and drowned the country in debt after ridiculous borrowing from U.S. and European banks. 

The first railroad system in the Dominican Republic, 1880s.

The first railroad system in the Dominican Republic, 1880s.

Haiti, on the other hand, was enjoying a more stable and prosperous period that promoted stronger political, economic, social, and cultural development. Haiti had even paid off most of its debt (or rather extortion for winning its independence) to France by the late 1800s. Haiti’s independence was thus more tangible, mature, and sustainable. 

In fact, by 1900, Haiti was the only independent nation in the Caribbean, as all neighboring territories were colonized by Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. After Heureaux was assassinated in 1899, the Dominican Republic entered the 20th century with its independence — both political and economic — still hanging by someone else’s strings. 

By 1900, Dominican leaders still could not agree on who should lead the nation, as revolts flipped presidents like queso frito in a frying pan. Conditions were ripe for another invasion, as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt picked up where Grant left off in the quest to colonize the Dominican Republic. After conquering Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines, Roosevelt and his glutenous corporate vultures ordered a second U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1904 to protect U.S. sugar interests and end the “Santo Domingo Affair.”

Political cartoon “Hands Off!” by Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, 1905

The Dominican Republic still owed a lot of money to the U.S. and Europe. In order to prevent another European violation of the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt ordered a third U.S. invasion of the Caribbean country in 1905. By conjuring the self-imposed powers of the Monroe Doctrine and its amended Roosevelt Corollary, the stage was set for the U.S. to do as it pleased in Dominican affairs. 

Roosevelt sent the U.S. military to take over the Dominican Republic’s customs house and pay off its debt by 1907. That same year, the U.S. replaced the Dominican peso with the dollar, and imposed a one-sided treaty to restore “order.” The Dominican Republic barely stabilized, as political turmoil ravaged the country in 1911 and 1914, sparking a fourth and fifth U.S. invasion.

By 1914, there had already been forty-three presidents and nineteen constitutions in the Dominican Republic since 1844, compared to eleven and one in the U.S. by that year. The 44th Dominican president was Juan Jimenes, a caudillo who was pressured by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to:

“(1) grant the United States control of virtually every aspect of Dominican finances, to include collecting and disbursing the customs revenues; and (2) dissolve the Dominican armed forces and replace them with a constabulary (later known as La Guardia Nacional) commanded by an American officer appointed by the U.S. President.”

Jimenes surprisingly resisted, worried that he would be seen as a traitor by the Dominican people. However, another potential golpe de estado prompted Wilson to send the marines in 1916 to support Jimenes, even against his wishes. With a sudden backbone, Jimenes immediately resigned, opening the floodgates for a sixth U.S. invasion.

This is a multi-part article in a series critically analyzing the history of “independence” in the Dominican Republic. The second part was published on March 15, 2020, the date of the country’s rescheduled municipal elections after they were suspiciously suspended on February 16, 2020.

Jay Espinosa is an Nuyo-Dominican writer and photographer. He was born and raised in the Bronx, New York to parents who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Jay can be followed on Instagram @thejayespi. 

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