COHA: Francisco Caamaño Deñó, Presente

COHA is pleased to release the first in what will be an ongoing series of articles on forgotten Latin American heroes. Today’s commentary on a celebrated Dominican constitutionalist will be followed in the coming weeks by features on a revolutionary Colombian priest, the father of Barbadian independence and a persecuted Dominican democrat.

  • Francisco Caamaño Deñó was a nationalist and Constitucionalista revolutionary during the 1965 U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic’s civil conflict
  • He struggled to help restore the democratically-elected government of Dr. Juan Bosch after he had been pushed out by the military

All war comes at some cost. The loss of human life, damage to infrastructure and sagging national morale are often among the most painful consequences of armed combat. The Dominican Republic’s Civil War of 1965 was no exception. During the 1960s, Dominican citizens found themselves embroiled in both internal and external conflicts. Within the country, they found themselves faced with growing political discord. It was during this spreading conflict that the revolutionary military officer Francisco Caamaño Deñó came to national prominence.

In 1963, following years of authoritarian rule under the Trujillo dictatorship, Dr. Juan Bosch was elected in the country’s first free election in nearly 40 years. Unfortunately for Bosch, his left-leaning policies were anathema for Washington, whose Cold War lenses saw even the hint of socialism or anti-U.S. policy, and any other variation of Marxist ideology, as a security threat to the U.S. A military coup hatched by the CIA removed Bosch from power in 1963 and replaced him with rightist General Elias Wessin y Wessin. In the aftermath of the coup, the fighting between the military and an allied oligarchy against the constitutionalists became more intense, much to the chagrin of the Johnson administration. During this period a number of Bosch loyalists were attempting to restore Bosch to power. Led by Caamaño Deñó and his close supporters, who were commonly known as the Constitucionalistas, the group rallied to restore the constitutionally-elected Bosch. This faction was not only a backer of Bosch but of the democratic process which he stood for. To the Caamaño Deñó-led Constitucionalistas, the military junta was simply a puppet extension of the dictatorial Trujillo regime that would inevitably see to it that the Dominican Republic would revert to the former era that featured political authoritarianism and a looted economy. Under Francisco Caamaño Deñó, the Constitucionalistas were able to briefly seize power in Santo Domingo with the intention of restoring Bosch. During the following four-month period of unrest, the National Congress chose Deñó as Constitutional President of the Dominican Republic.

President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized an armed invasion of the island under the specious pretext that he was protecting Americans and other foreign nationals who had been instructed by U.S. embassy officials to gather at the El Embajador Hotel in Ciudad Trujillo to await rescue by U.S. forces after General Wessin had announced that he couldn’t guarantee the safety of foreigners in the country. In fact, that message was actually authored at the State Department and was dispatched to General Wessin, who then telexed it back to the embassy, which bounced it back to Washington. This phony document then legitimized the command that U.S. authority had ordered the troops to safeguard the status of foreigners in the country. This marked the second time in the 20th century that American forces would invade the island nation in an attempt to ‘restore order.’ In doing so, Johnson essentially ignored the democratic will of the Dominican people and reinforced the notion that Washington only supported so-called democracies if the ‘right’ person was elected. Additionally, many historians believe the timing of the Dominican Civil War and the dispatch of 20,000 U.S. troops to the island was a function of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Johnson’s simple-minded interpretation of what was really happening in Santo Domingo. It should be noted that in addition to Washington, the Inter-American Peace Force (IAPF), consisting of, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay all contributed troops to help stabilize the nation.

During this period, the U.S. was already playing a more active role as the region’s arbiter. What drove U.S. policymakers when it came to the D.R. was that they feared that the Dominican Republic under Bosch would turn into a ‘second Cuba.’ If this were to occur, it would have been a major blow not only to the White House’s Cold War containment policy, but also to Johnson’s reelection bid in 1968. Furthermore, Johnson wanted to ‘send a message to the North Vietnamese of U.S. strength and a willingness to use it.’ Despite a valiant effort, the Constitucionalistas proved no match for the U.S.-backed Dominican military and the total might of the Pentagon’s thousands of U.S. forces in the country, as well as from elsewhere. Facing such an over-whelming military force, Caamaño slipped out of the country into exile, and Washington’s puppet military junta retook power, with Joaquín Balaguer, a Trujillo straw man, ascending to the presidency soon after. After years of exile abroad, Caamaño returned to the Dominican Republic in 1973 hoping to incite a peasant revolt against Balaguer. The attempt was unsuccessful. With the revolt unable to muster broad national support, Caamaño was eventually captured by Balaguer’s forces and summarily executed on February 16, 1973.

Despite his premature death, Francisco Caamaño Deñó played an integral role in the eventual democratization of the Dominican Republic. The revolutionary had been an inspiration to the nation by peacefully stepping down from his role as Constitutional president, in which he gave a stirring speech that inspired his countrymen to continue struggling in support of the democratic process. While Caamaño Deñó would not get to see his dream of free and fair elections realized, without the sacrifices that he and his Constitucionalista brethren were prepared to make, it might have taken far longer for Dominicans to unify behind a call for democratic change. Caamañno Deñó’s name deserves to be remembered as the true Dominican patriot – with the possible exception of Francisco Peña Gomez (a proud political leader who strove to prevent the country from coming apart after Peña had been defrauded of his presidential victory) as well as a towering Latin American figure in the constant struggle that the hemisphere has waged against authoritarian rule.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Adam Kott

March 30th, 2009
Word Count: 1100

Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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