50 years ago, Dominican Republic glimpsed at democracy for the first time
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Juan Bosch, the Dominican Republic’s first democratically elected president. Though his presidency lasted only seven months, it was the first time my native country glanced at political freedom, and we have not been the same since.
The son of immigrants, Bosch was well educated and possessed left-leaning views, which were at the time seen as essentially communist. He gained supporters during Rafael Trujillo’s xenophobic and bloody dictatorship, and Bosch’s message of liberation and democracy increasingly resonated with a growing swath of working-class Dominicans.
In the 1930s, Trujillo jailed him for several months for his progressive ideas about nationalizing several industries, widespread land reform and expansive public works projects. But locking him away did not persuade him to stop his rabblerousing, so Trujillo offered him a position in the Dominican congress.
Bosch quickly left the country in 1938 — no one survived to tell the tale of turning Trujillo down — and took his message of liberation throughout Latin America, to Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.
While leading the opposition in exile for nearly 25 years, the prolific writer and public intellectual planted the seeds for his country’s first real political party, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD).
After Trujillo’s assassination, an election was cobbled together to appease the rising call for democracy. The status quo expected to remain firmly entrenched, but in a shocking turn of events, Bosch was elected president. The country ignited in celebration as if it were carnival.
But Machiavellian military forces were plotting his ouster while the confetti was being swept from the streets. A military coup partially funded by the United States ran him from the presidential palace seven months later. A three-man military junta was convened and the flame of democracy was essentially extinguished for decades.
The vilified dictator’s right-hand man, Joaquin Balaguer, eventually seized power, plundered the country’s coffers, and made a representative democracy merely a prop of the literary magical realism popular in Latin American writing.
In many ways, Bosch may have never been destined to be an actual president, just the metaphorical representation of one, the symbol of a man of principle who was laid low by the schemes of the powerful.
Bosch remains a beacon of light for the people of the Dominican Republic, who struggle even today to fulfill his vision of a genuine democracy.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is a Dominican-American writer who writes about contemporary issues. She can be reached pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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