/** nacla.report: 332.0 **/
** Topic: Two Caudillos by James Ferguson **
** Written 12:56 PM May 1, 1997 by nacla in cdp:nacla.report **
Reprinted from the March/April 1997 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.
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[James Ferguson is the author of Dominican Republic: Beyond the Lighthouse]
In the end it was their common enemy and potential nemesis, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, who brought Joaquin Balaguer and Juan Bosch together in a final, ironic act of reconciliation. The meeting of the two veteran caudillos in June 1996 to launch the so-called National Patriotic Front and ensure the victory of Leonel Fernandez symbolized the end of thirty years of political rivalry. It also typified the personalism and cynicism which have run through Dominican politics during the Balaguer-Bosch decades.
The 1996 presidential campaign was the first in living memory in which both men had been forced to watch as mere observers. Balaguer was precluded from running as the price paid for his dubious "victory" in 1994, ans Bosch was sidelined by age, ill health and the rise of his protege, Fernandez. As Fernandez trailed Pena Gomez--the real winner of the 1994 election--in the first round, it seemed possible that the two caudillos' shared nightmare, a Pena Gomez presidency, might materialize. For Balaguer, this raised the specter of inquiries into corruption and human rights violations, as well as the abrupt dismantling of the anillo palaciego, the "palace ring" of cronies and supporters. For Bosch, it threatened the triumph of an old adversary, and recalled the bitter struggles of the 1970s for control of the PRD. Unceremoniously dumping his own party's candidate, Jacinto Peynado, Balaguer embraced his old enemy in a last and successful bid to frustrate Pena Gomez.
Even by the standards of Dominican politics, in which individual ambition and opportunism have typically outweighed party allegiance, this unholy alliance seemed cynical. For 30 years, Bosch and Balaguer had been locked in a bitter and intractable struggle. Balaguer was usually the winner, beginning in 1966 when the United States ensured that he defeat a muted Bosch in post-invasion elections. His promise of "social peace" led to the murder of thousands of Bosch supporters in the barrios of Santo Domingo by the paramilitaries of La Banda. Convinced that running against Balaguer was futile, Bosch boycotted the polls in 1970 and 1974. In 1990, having painstakingly built up the PLD, Bosch was again cheated of political power by what had then become his opponent's well-rehearsed process of electoral fraud.
Even when Bosch had jettisoned any residual radicalism, Balaguer's propaganda machine was able to paint him as an unstable extremist. In 1990, when he was extolling the virtues of privatization and foreign investment, Balaguer skillfully tarnished him with blame for the chaos of the 1960s. He was continually outmaneuvered by Balaguer, and became the perennial runner-up. That he should ultimately have welcomed Balaguer's support may therefore seem perverse, but he reasoned that only with Balaguer's support could he ensure Fernandez's victory and, above all, keep Pena Gomez out of the presidential palace.
Popular legend has it that despite their history of official antagonism, the two caudillos have always expressed mutual respect and admiration. And to avoid the threat of widespread armed confrontation between their supporters, they have entered into a series of informal agreements dating back to the 1960s, which led to Bosch accepting self-exile in 1966. They share a similar background. Both were born into middle-class white families of recent Hispanic migrants, and both have established reputations as literary figures and historians and often operate within a world of bookish gentility. (A cursory reading of Balaguer's racist La Isla al Reves, however, reveals his intellectual shallowness.) Both, too, have managed to avoid allegations of personal corruption and thereby have been able to claim the high moral ground of Dominican politics.
They have much more in common than background and tastes. The trademark of the Balaguer-Bosch period was the primacy of the leader, el jefe, and the cult of personality which both men cultivated. While Balaguer created an aura of omniscience, mixing authoritarianism with paternalism, Bosch proclaimed his own infallibility, demanding total allegiance from his party cadres. Both leaders saw their parties as personal vehicles, molded in their image and subservient to their will. The intense factionalism of Dominican party politics reinforced this megalomania and led to a dramatic series of splits and alliances. When the (then) left-leaning Bosch lost control of the PRD to Pena Gomez in the 1970s, he simply resigned and formed his own party--the PLD--rather than suffer the indignity of playing a supporting role. Balaguer was more adept at neutralizing would-be successors and coopting rivals. But when he finally lost the PRSC candidacy to Peynado, the party itself no longer mattered and he did not even deign to cast his vote.
The reverse side of personalismo in both men has been a changeable, unpredictable, repertoire of ideology. Bosch moved from the social-democratic nationalism of the 1960s, through an idiosyncratic Marxism to the born-again neoliberalism of his last electoral campaign. Many of his traditional supporters were left demoralized by this rightward trajectory. Balaguer, meanwhile, was able to shrug off his image as Trujillo's puppet and forge several complementary identities--the defender of Dominican nationhood, the economic modernizer and the patriarch who brought water and electricity to grateful villages. Balaguer could one day be an exemplary anti-communist, and an advocate of closer ties with Cuba the next. He might defend the state sector as the "national patrimony" while simultaneously paying lip service to privatization policies. He saw no contradiction in mixing populist pledges with tough austerity measures. Each political position was first and foremost an affirmation of his leadership. By the 1990s, there was no discernible ideological difference between the two veterans-just a common claim to personal authority.
In this respect, Bosch and Balaguer were both products of the Trujillo dictatorship and its culture of authoritarianism. But while Bosch defined himself squarely in terms of opposition to Trujillo, Balaguer emerged from the wreckage of the dictatorship, able to reassure the country's power brokers--the military, the church, competing economic elites and the United States--that business would continue as usual. Bosch's promise of "starting from scratch" in the aftermath of Trujillo's death may have rallied popular support, but it threatened vested interests and worried an already nervous U.S. State Department. Balaguer, in contrast, offered a sort of continuity, distancing himself from the excesses of the trujillata but promising its beneficiaries more of the same.
And in terms of winning votes--fairly as well as unfairly-Balaguer consistently outplayed Bosch. Using state resources as a private budget, he oversaw high-profile public works, providing schools, clinics and housing in return for political loyalty. Although Bosch had promised a sweeping agrarian reform in 1963, little materialized. Balaguer, on the other hand, recognizing the importance of the peasantry, made a great show of handing out land titles and improving rural infrastructure. Time after time, conservative rural committees voted for Balaguer. Some elements of the local elites came to support the latter-day Bosch, but more remembered his earlier pledges on nationalization and workers' rights and opted for the safe Balaguer.
In retrospect, the real differences between the two caudillos were as much tactical and strategic as political. Balaguer's genius lay in defusing opposition, balancing opposing economic and political forces, using the divide-and-rule principle. Manipulative and unaccountable, he took credit for successes but rarely accepted blame. Bosch's weakness was precisely the lack of such skills. Over-cautious in power, intemperate in opposition, he managed to antagonize radicals and conservatives alike.
The final reconciliation of June 1996 closed an overlong chapter of Dominican history. A generation of Dominicans were alienated or excluded from politics by the Bosch-Balaguer dominance and the cult of the leader. For decades, personalism, clientelism and deal-making eclipsed democratic development. If a new generation of "modernizers" wish to move their country out of its anachronistic political culture, this is the pervasive legacy that they will have to abandon.