'Leveraging American security policy in the Caribbean: Rafael Trujillo, the Axis threat, and Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930's'.

Author:Mottale, Morris


In July 1939 Rafael Trujillo, as head of the armed forces of the Dominican Republic and the real power behind a puppet presidency, visited Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his wife. (1) Critics of Trujillo and his ferocious dictatorship lambasted the American president for receiving a dictator while denouncing European fascists and Nazis. It was one of the seeming paradoxes of American foreign policy born out of the Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America, which had been formulated by the Roosevelt administration in the early 1930s as the US cast a wary eye on the totalitarian systems controlling Europe. Historically, American foreign policy toward Latin America had a starting point with Monroe's doctrine, which called for exclusion of the European powers from Latin American countries recently freed from Spanish domination. It had seen a corollary in Teddy Roosevelt, who asserted in a presidential address the right of the United States to intervene in Latin America in cases of "flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation." (2) In light of this corollary the US had intervened several times, for example in the Caribbean, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. American anxieties about the European--more specifically German--move into the area had already taken a place in American political memory during the Venezuelan crisis of 1903-1904 where European warships came to collect debts for European investors. In this episode Germany stood out and elicited in Teddy Roosevelt stronger and stronger antipathies towards Germany.

The Good Neighbor Policy was an attempt by Franklin Roosevelt to improve the image and substance of American relations with South America, which had been frayed by events ranging from the Spanish American war to the secession of Panama from Colombia to the invasions of Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in the first quarter of the 20th century. In his first inaugural address he had stated his commitment, "In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor--the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others--the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors." (3) When the policy was outlined at the beginning of his first administration in the midst of the great depression, Washington seemed to be bent on improving international economic relations with both Latin America and Europe as the documents make clear, but as time went by anxieties about the rise of totalitarian systems in Europe and their influence on the security of the United States in the western hemisphere became more pronounced. (4) Previous American experiences with a German presence in the Caribbean area predisposed the United States to see, even more so during the '30s, the Nazi experiment in Europe as a threat to American security. The United States had now a strategic interest in improving its relations with Latin America. The case of the Dominican Republic in the '30s stands out as an example of the shifting fortunes in the conduct of foreign policy for both Washington and the little Caribbean Republic.

Of the many Latin American dictators in the 20th century, Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic for nearly 30 years, stands out for his violence, racialism, and his adroit manipulation of American political necessities and the tragedies of the 1930's in Europe. While the stereotype of a Latin American dictator is one of a reactionary, oligarchic, conservative individual tied to traditional landed interests, the political and internal policies of Rafael Trujillo do not necessarily match such a stereotype. His domination of the Dominican political system saw also systematic economic development of his country, greater independence in internal and external policies from American pressures, and populist policies that appealed to the peasants in his nation through land reform. His system of domination ran along basically neo-patrimonial lines as his family members came to control many aspects of the internal and external policies of the republic. (5) One of the issues that propelled him to preeminence, which was also part of his psychocultural make-up, was his racialism. His racialist perspective was not unique to the Dominican elites and certainly not to the Latin American experience but it characterized the political developments of his country, one that was to persist all the way through the 21st century. (6)

One of the themes in Dominican politics had been its tortuous relations with Haiti and the African heritage of the island. The elites of the Dominican Republic found the African past unappealing and an indicator of underdevelopment. To put it bluntly, "blackness" and an African heritage were associated with underdevelopment and savagery. A 19th century war with Haiti, and a Haitian invasion of the Dominican Republic, had left some bitter memories. The notion of race, class, and caste in Latin America has been explored for quite some time now and certainly many observers have looked at some aspects of the Latin American wars of independence, especially in what we call "Indo-America", has many aspects of a race war. Certainly this was the case in Haiti, where the white and mulatto elites were practically destroyed, or in Mexico where the revolution of 1910 saw the rise of what is called Indianismo with a political-ideological focus on Mexico's Indian heritage and a downgrading of the Spanish European cultural and political heritage.

This was also the case in Brazil where, in the late 19th century the African heritage was so unappealing to its elites, that to promote modernization, the country brought in an ever increasing number of European immigrants, especially from Italy and Germany. (7) Some of the peasant revolts in that country were marked by racial overtones which left their political imprint on the country to the extent that by 2010 Brazil was in the midst of a debate on the issue of race. (8)

The Mexican example can be seen, even today, in Ecuador and Venezuela. Hugo Chavez's denunciation of the Spanish heritage of Venezuela and his outburst against Venezuela's elites, whether of Spanish stock or new European immigrant communities, of the last 60 years in contemporary Venezuelan history, are an example of his racialism and his appeal to the lower orders in their resentment of the upper classes. Likewise, Evo Morales' Bolivia has seen problematic conflicts between his pro Indian policies and upper-class Bolivians of European heritage. Of course, racial and class relations displayed to this day in many parts of Latin America are characterized by variables which make every nation in every way unique. Trujillo did accept the Indian heritage but did not care for the African. In the Caribbean, there was a residual of memory of the Indian heritage that went back to the Caribe Indian heritage which Trujillo did not deny.

Racial theories, economic development, and civilization were notions imbedded in 19th century European thought that had come to influence Latin American leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a consensus among leaders and members of the upper-classes that Latin America could catch up with Western Europe only by limiting the number and or growth of the aboriginal population of Indians or citizens of African origins. This became a policy in Brazil by the mid-19th century, one that was also put forth, for example, by the Cientificos in Mexico under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. (9) In both cases the influence of Sociological Positivism from Europe was striking in that the European especially the French model of economic and political development in the 19th century had come to be a model for Latin American nations. The accent on science...

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