British Ambassador reveals turning point in Dominican Republic’s democracy
By Steven Fisher, Her Majesty’s Ambassador in the Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo.- In August 1962, a new British Ambassador arrived at the Embassy in Santo Domingo. His name was S A Lockhart. He was to remain until April 1965, witness to a series of tumultuous political events which still mark Dominican politics and society to this day. 20th December 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the election of Juan Bosch. How did the newly arrived British Ambassador interpret that event half a century ago? What was his impression of Bosch? Did he have an inkling of what might be waiting just a little further down the line?
S A Lockhart’s reporting provides a colourful, frank, at times uncomfortable assessment of the events and personalities of the period. His previous postings had included time in Africa, in Belgian Congo. On arrival in Santo Domingo he committed a familiar diplomat’s error of judging his new surroundings through the prism of those which he had recently vacated. He came to the Caribbean and found Africa. In his First Impressions despatch, for some reason only sent to the Foreign Office on 5th December 1962, Lockhart tells us what he saw on arrival:
“My most vivid impression on arrival here was that I had returned to tropical Africa, for the people, the climate and the vegetation all recall the African scene. The towns are…overcrowded and…every second building seems to contain a general store or a bar, from which loud mechanical music blares forth no-stop”.
It seems Her Majesty’s Ambassador had discovered the colmado*.
He goes on in the same despatch to discuss the Dominican people, reflecting upon the African inheritance, but also recognising the mixture of races. “Among this mulatto people it is smart to be white,“ he wrote. “The girls seem to spend as much of their time taking the crinkle out of their hair as their sisters in Europe spend putting it in. The complexion of the late Generalissimo, I am told, got pinker as his fortunes prospered”.
Turning to politics, Lockhart drew a parallel between post-Trujillo Dominican Republic and the post-war Europe which had also experienced in his career.
“The political atmosphere awakens memories of Western Europe just after the war. Generalissimo Trujillo’s 30-year regime of murder and exploitation have left a legacy of poverty, humiliation and social tension, similar to that left by the Germans in occupied Europe. One finds here the same sort of cleavages between those who collaborated and those who stayed, that bedevilled social and human relations in the post-liberation period in Europe. The Communists have been busy creating the myth that they, and they alone, deserve the credit for resistance and deliverance. The people are disorientated, uncertain of the future”.
Against this background, Lockhart sought to inform the British Government about the forthcoming elections to be held on 20th December 1962. He quickly identified the two principal parties, the Union Civica Nacional (UCN) and the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD). In a despatch of 18th October, he introduces them and their leaders.
“The UCN first saw the light of day soon after the assassination of Trujillo, when a group of brave men who had been plotting – independently and rather ineffectually – against the dictator before his death dared (sic) the wrath of his heirs by publicly protesting against their indiscriminate vengeance”.
And of the UCN’s candidate, Lockhart had the following opinion:
“Its leader, Dr Viriato Fiallo, is a medical practitioner with a courageous record of open defiance of Trujillo. He is a voluminous but not very articulate speaker. He has a good presence and is backed by a well organised and powerful party; but whether he has the political judgment to make a good President, or the authority to sustain the role, has yet to be proved.”
Of the PRD, Lockhart had the following to say:
“[The PRD] was born many years ago in exile. It entered the political fray last year  when three of its leading members (not including Bosch, who with characteristic circumspection stayed abroad) returned under guarantees offered by Dr Balaguer **….The PRD has suffered internal divisions, two of the three leaders having walked out to form their own rival factions…but the lower ranks of the party are surprisingly loyal and well-drilled”.
Lockhart was clearly already impressed by Juan Bosch, though it seems he did not approve of all aspects of the future President’s character.
“Juan Bosch has the electoral disadvantage of having spent the last 25 years in exile. He has nevertheless a considerable following among the peasants, whose miseries and servitudes form the background to many of his short stories, and as an orator he is a spellbinder; but his extreme pessimism, his egoism and his sketchy understanding of economic problems suggest that he is even poorer Presidential timber than Dr Fiallo”.
It seems, therefore, that by mid-October, the British Ambassador was pessimistic about the qualities of either candidate, and indeed he had his doubts about whether the Dominican Republic was ready for full democracy. He concludes his 18th October despatch in a rather gloomy vein. “Democracy”, he writes, “has shown itself to be a tender plant which does not take root easily in the climate of the Dominican Republic”. His main concern was that the elections would deliver a weak President or a very closely contested result. “If [the elections] produce a weak and inexperienced government, there will be a danger of a breakdown in the administration and the economy of the country which will play into the hands of the Communists”.
Ambassador Lockhart was writing at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps this led him to reflect on what policy the United States would follow if Communism threatened the Dominican Republic. “I can hardly imagine”, he writes, “that the US Marines could intervene again, as they did between 1916 and 1924, – although some observers here believe that is what we are heading for – and the logical alternative would be to reinforce the government by an injection of local strong men”. Having hit upon this possibility, Lockhart ends his despatch by steering the Foreign Office to accept his rather cynical belief in a strong-arm government. “A sea-green incorruptible Democratic government is not necessarily the best answer to the country’s present needs. Important as it is that we and the Americans should be able to approve of the next government without stretching our consciences, it is even more important that it should able to govern”.
As December approached, Lockhart’s opinion of Bosch remained difficult to read. He was at once critical of what he saw as flaws and appreciative of the future President’s political skills. The Ambassador was put to the test throughout that historic month, December 1962, in conveying to the Foreign Office the twists and turns that saw Juan Bosch threatening to boycott the elections only to decide at the last minute to go through with his candidature and sweep to victory on 20th.
On 2nd November, Lockhart sent a letter to R M K Slater, Head of American Department in the Foreign Office, in which he described the arguments that were raging about practical arrangements for the elections. He also comments on the mood of the population. “The mass of voters, even in the capital city, appear to be displaying an extraordinary lack of interest in or enthusiasm for the campaign now in progress. So much so in fact that the five Roman Catholic Bishops have thought it necessary …to issue a Pastoral Letter…in which they stated categorically…that the duty to vote in free elections was undoubted. They reminded their flock explicitly of the Church’s prohibition to enroll in or vote for the Communist Party”.
But by mid-December the mood was certainly becoming more impassioned and in the last few days before polling day, the Republic passed through an acute political crisis. In contrast to today’s diplomatic reporting which needs to keep pace with the transfer of information and opinion via electronic media and social networks, Ambassador Lockhart could afford to watch events unfold between 12th and 18th December, before rounding them up in a single masterly report to his masters in London on 19th December. The main element of the crisis was the sequence of events leading up to Juan Bosch’s threat that the PRD would withdraw from the election if the Catholic Church did not retract its accusation that he was a Communist. The defining moment was the televised debate between Bosch and Father Lautico Garcia on 17th December 1962. The British Embassy Residence presumably boasted a television set. The Ambassador commented that “Bosch displayed his remarkable talents as a verbal duellist”.
By the end of the pre-polling day crisis, it appears from the Ambassador’s reports that he had grown tired of following the twists and turns, the threats to withdraw, the accusations and counter accusations. But he did have the lucidity to see that Bosch had emerged the stronger. “The upshot of this complicated and rather puerile affair is that Juan Bosch has almost monopolised the political limelight in the critical final stages of the campaign.” He hints that Bosch may have planned the whole affair “as a political stunt” but then suggests it was perhaps “the result of his prima donna character and his touchy personal pride”. The Ambassador’s patience had clearly been tested. He goes on, somewhat pompously in good old school British style; “Our notions of seemly behaviour may be offended by his [Bosch’s] histrionic performance, but it seems probable that in the minds of his supporters he has emerged from these last few days with his already high prestige considerable enhanced. “
The election was the Dominican Republic’s first democratic contest in over 30 years. Given the importance of the event, regional neighbours were forthcoming with support and help. Lockhart underlines the importance of the “the presence in Santo Domingo of a group of eminent Latin American personages.” He believed that they may have influenced Bosch’s decision to remain in the Presidential race. “Their dismay at Bosch’s petulant and capricious behaviour must have been apparent, as was the displeasure of the omnipresent US Ambassador, and Bosch is a man who prides himself on his international connexions”.
Bosch stayed in the race and on 20th December won the election with a very clear majority – securing over 60% and with more than twice the votes of his main rival. Lockhart gathered his thoughts, enjoyed a good Christmas and New Year, and finally summarised what had happened in a long despatch dated 2nd January. He added to the image he had been building of Bosch in previous reporting, quoted above: “a man of wide human sympathies, but with a streak of pessimism in his make-up”. Bosch’s novels and short stories “show a bitter understanding of the lot of poverty-stricken Dominican and Haitian peasants, working in the cane fields and on the large estates”.
The Ambassador praises Bosch’s decency as a politician: “He fought this campaign with skill and restraint, never for a moment descending to throw mud at his opponents, but always managing to project himself to the forefront”. Communication was seen as a strength. Bosch broadcast in “simple, direct and down-to-earth terms the illiterate could understand. He also campaigned assiduously among the peasants…by car, on horseback or on foot”.
Of course in the Cold War Caribbean of the early 1960s, any new Head of State would be carefully assessed for Communist sympathies. Lockhart informed the Foreign Office that Bosch was “no stranger to Marxist theory” but reassures the Foreign Office that the American Ambassador had seen no evidence to justify labelling the new President-elect a Communist sympathiser. “The US Administration now appear to have come round to the view that Bosch is a man they can work with…I hope their opinion of him is right”.
Finally, with a degree of foresight, Ambassador Lockhart identifies a dark cloud on the horizon. “There is much in his programme which it will be difficult to reconcile with the American conception of the sanctity of private capitalistic enterprise. He is committed to a wide measure of agrarian reform”. And, concluding his despatch with an ominous forecast, Ambassador Lockhart writes: “Although Bosch and his Congress [which had also been elected on 20th December]have a good chance of starting their four years in an atmosphere of goodwill, it would be idle to pretend that everybody will be as magnaminous as this. In the course of his campaign Bosch made lavish promises to the electorate; he stressed the revolutionary character of his movement and made remarks about nationalising the banks, which have alarmed the local business community. None of this is likely to be reassuring to international investors. He has a lot to live down as well as much to live up to, and his success will depend on his ability to do both”.
On 27th February 1963 Dr Juan Bosch assumed the mantle of President of the Dominican Republic. It is clear from the diplomatic reporting of the time that he was regarded with respect by the British and by others, not least the United States. There was also some trepidation. How far and how quickly would he try to go in terms of economic and social reform? Although Lockhart hints at some of the sources of concern and resentment that would come to confront Bosch, few went so far as to forecast the military coup which would rob the Dominican Republic of its democratically elected Head of State on 25th September 1963.
50 years ago, on a day like today, 20th December, Dominicans proudly went to the polls without the fear of oppressive dictatorship to elect their chosen candidate. The President they elected was Dr Juan Bosch. That achievement earned the respect of the free world. Shortly before taking office, Dr Bosch visited London and was well received by the British Government. He made a good impression on all of those whom he met.
The views expressed by Ambassador Lockhart in 1962 should not be taken as a reflection of UK Government policy or opinion. The article is intended for historic interest only.
* Colmado is the most common type of grocery and general store found across the country.
** Dr Joaquin Balaguer, puppet president for Trujillo.