On April 24 1965, in the words of historian Ricardo Santiago, “the workers and farmers of the Dominican Republic poured into the streets, arms in hand, with the goal of creating a truly democratic, independent country”.
The United States didn’t stand idly by. Invoking his “beloved” predecessor’s assertion that the United States must “use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere”, President Lyndon Johnson moved swiftly to counter the revolution. According to Johnson (aided by McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara) the aim of the revolution was not true democracy but the “establishment of a communistic dictatorship” and despite initially having “no desire to interfere in the affairs of a sister republic”, he soon changed his mind.
US Marines first landed in Santo Domingo in May 1916. Already in control of the Dominican customs authority, after 1916 it sought full control of its lucrative sugar cane industry and, eventually, its government. The US stayed in de facto control until 1924, but its influence remained.
In May 1930 Rafael Leonidis Trujillo rose to power following a sham election. His brutal reign was only ended 31 year later by a CIA backed assassination following public pressure. The US tried to bring Trujillo’s protégé Joaquin Balaguer into power, but the popular uprising that brought a brutal end to Trujillo, stood firm.
In February 1963 Juan Bosch, a liberal poet and longtime opponent of Trujillo, was elected President. He remained President for only seven months however, ousted by a US backed coup d’etat in September 1963. In those seven months Bosch sought to redistribute Trujillo’s vast wealth and began a nationalisation and land redistribution programme. Though an anti-Communist he angered businessmen by seeking to strengthen the labour movement. He angered the Catholic church by legalising divorce. With his country under the shadow of the United States and its interests in the region, his presidency was doomed from the start. In the words of Matias Bosch of The Juan Bosch Foundation in Santo Domingo “U.S. foreign policy supported the promotion of democracy in Latin America provided that the Latin Americans protected U.S. national security and economic concerns in the region”. Bosch’s Presidency was seen as a threat to these “economic concerns”.
His replacement was nothing short of a military dictatorship, led by General Elias Wessin y Wessin. A series of strikes, leading to the events of April 24th, saw Colonel Francisco Caamano take control of the government. Caamano stated that –
“We pledge to fight for the withdrawal of foreign troops on the territory of our country. We pledge to fight for the observance of democratic freedoms and human rights, and not to permit any attempt to reestablish dictatorship. We pledge to fight for the unity of all patriotic sectors to make our nation truly free, truly sovereign, truly democratic.”
This became known as The April Revolution. What began as an internal (though obviously US influenced) struggle soon became, in Matias Bosch’s words “a patriotic war because of the U.S. military intervention”.
Johnson’s statement, released a week or so after Caamano’s coup, sought to rather coyly paint the US as peacemaker. He spoke of rescuing those American and foreign nationals under threat, of sending planes and ships to evacuate those seeking to flee. However, soon these warships and planes would be bringing American soliders in their tens of thousands. Rather than end the struggle, US military intervention only served to prolong it.
Six months of fighting and several thousand lives later the revolution was crushed. In those six months there were more American soldiers stationed in the Dominican Republic than in Vietnam. In yet another sham election (historians Bailey and Nasatir claim that some 300 Bosch supporters were killed by Balageur’s men in the run up to the election), Balageur returned to power in 1966 where he would remain for 22 years, ushering in a new reign of oppression that continued unabated under the watchful eye of the United States. In 1975 Juan Bosch stated that his country “is not pro-American, it is United States property”.
Santo Domingo is, in effect, a kind of point-proving addendum to his Cops of The World. Yet it is not presented as a list of dry-facts in song. It is a song rife with drama and tension. There is sadness and violence, but it is measured, precise. There is a clarity to the language that still allows for moments of poetry. At its heart however this is perhaps Phil’s finest moment of song as motion picture. The lyrics act as a camera sweep, picking out detail amidst the carnage.
Beginning with images of scuttling crabs, burning sand, scattering fish and the churning sea, which act as a kind of pathetic fallacy. So much of what is really going on here is implied. Far from the bluntness of his earlier songs, there is subtlety here. Coming as it does so soon after Cops of The World adds meaning to it certainly, but the implied threat is nevertheless powerful, if subtly delivered.
Simple images of quiet locals – sweating fishermen, boys throwing pebbles on the shore – contrast with the warships and their accompanying “thunder”. These contrasts are everywhere – farmers yawning in the “grey silver dawn” (such a typically Ochs image) alongside the boldness of the soldiers, in their “cloud dust whirl” – singing merrily, whistling at the girls. The seagull’s “cold cannon nest” hints at an uneasy peace as well as the threat of violence to come.
A killer line follows –
“The old women sigh, think of memories gone by, they shrug their shoulders”.
For all the drama unfolding, with a little bit of a wider perspective, this is just history repeating. This is a key lyric, and something that Phil was particularly fond of (“we’ve done this before, so why all the shock”). For all the jibes of his topical songs becoming quickly dated, one of the key messages that Phil’s songs impart is that so little ever changes. Think of I Ain’t Marching Anymore with its historical sweep, or his history-lesson-as-protest-song We Seek No Wider War. It’s little wonder then that Phil’s “topical” songs remain so pertinent now.
Other images stand out. The single sniper in a gunfight, hopelessly outnumbered seems heavily loaded with symbolism; the puny revolutionary forces being crushed by the imperialistic might of the United States.
And what about –
“the soldiers make a bid, giving candy to the kids, their teeth are gleaming”?
Again it’s such a rich lyric, alive with meaning. One the one hand it implies the meagreness of what the soldiers (and by extention) the US occupancy is offering. They’ve just shot someone dead, and all they can offer is sweets. That final line part though, “their teeth are gleaming” is all about contrast. Contrast between the healthy young soldiers and the scatty kids. Contrast between the mess that the soldiers are making on foreign soil, leaving their homeland clean and safe. It’s a wonderful lyric.
And a final moment for the history books.
“The traitors will pretend that it’s getting near the end when it’s beginning”.
This wasn’t a wild leap of faith on Phil’s part. This is what history had taught him. You do not stem revolution through violent action and walk away scot free. The reverberations of violence ring through the generations. It brings to mind the final verse of We Seek No Wider War, one of Phil’s finest –
“And the evil is done in hopes that evil surrenders,
but the deeds of the devil are burned too deep in the embers,
and a world of hunger in vengeance will always remember”
The impact of the events of April 1965 are still being felt today. The same mind-set that sent US marines to Santo Domingo has sent US troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. The same issues that led to a “failed” revolution in 1965 are still prevalent today. Some have argued that the time has come for new revolution across poverty stricken Latin America. Phil’s song acts, as so many of his do, as a warning from history – try to step out of the United States’ shadow and you’ll find yourself in a whole heap of trouble.