Former Dominican leader dies

2002-07-14 20:46

Santo Domingo - Joaquin Balaguer, who ruled the Dominican Republic for 22 years and retained enormous influence until today, died on Sunday.

The 95-year-old strongman fought fate until the last minute, an aide said.

Balaguer died at 04:30 (0830 GMT) at Santo Domingo's Abreu Clinic, where he had been since July 4 to treat a bleeding ulcer, said Rafael Bello Andino, vice president of Balaguer's Reformist Social Christian Party. Bello Andino said he last visited Balaguer on Saturday.

"We left him ... in good condition. All of a sudden, when he was sleeping and the doctors had left him, at around four, the machines started to beep with complications, so the doctors tried to save him until 04:30, when he died fighting," he said.

Heart failure

Balaguer died of heart failure, said clinic director Dr Luis Rojas.

"I hope I die as well!" a man waving a photograph of Balaguer yelled at the funeral home where his body was taken. Several women wailed loudly among more than 100 supporters, rich and poor, who gathered there.

Balaguer was one of Latin America's last "caudillos", or strongmen, though he didn't look the part. Not much more than 1.5m tall, lame and squinting behind thick spectacles, he presented more the image of kindly country doctor than a strong-willed national leader.

But his power was as pervasive as that of his mentor, dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled this Caribbean nation from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

Balaguer last appeared in public a year ago and left office in 1996, but he still helped engineer the elections of his successor, Leonel Fernandez, and current President Hipolito Mejia.

His last bid at the presidency was in 2000, when he was 92. Coming in third, he endorsed Mejia, forcing the second candidate to resign instead of go to a second round.

This year, some political supporters already were nominating Balaguer for the 2004 presidential race.

Unquestionable leader

From his home office and bedroom, Balaguer continued to bend the country's politics as the unquestionable leader of his opposition party, which has held the presidency of the House of Representatives for the last three years.

"For the country, until the last moment, he was a source of political harmony and stability," Bello Andino said. "The last two presidents constantly visited him to ask him for orientation."

Few had access to Balaguer, who never married or had children. He confined his passions to politics, collies and antique cars.

As president, Balaguer invested billions of dollars in roads, housing and other public works. He erected monuments including the Christopher Columbus lighthouse that rises 10 stories above Santo Domingo's shantytowns, its lights casting a giant cross against the night sky when the electricity works.

Yet more than half the country's eight million people live in poverty, and thousands fled hardship for the United States.

Joaquin Antonio Balaguer Ricardo was born September 1, 1906, in Navarrete, now called Villa Bosono, in the northwest province of Santiago.

He published the first of 20 books when he was 14, and drew attention for speeches attacking the 1916-1924 US occupation of the Dominican Republic.

Balaguer received a law degree from the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and studied law, economics and political science at the Sorbonne in Paris.

He began his long association with Trujillo by working in the then-army chief's 1930 election campaign and was a foreign ministry official when Trujillo in 1937 ordered the massacre of some 18 000 Haitians along the border the countries share on the island of Hispaniola.

Balaguer served abroad as a diplomat, at home as foreign and education minister, and taught law in the university. In 1956, Trujillo named him vice president. In 1960, he made Balaguer president.

Balaguer was ousted by the army after Trujillo's assassination in 1961 and fled to New York City.

His successor, leftist President Juan Bosch, worried the United States with his fiery support for land reform and nationalising businesses, and he, too, was ousted in a military coup.

Leftists in the army revolted in 1965 and tried to restore Bosch. But the United States - preoccupied with the communist regime in neighbouring Cuba - sent 20 000 US Marines to stifle the revolt.

With US backing, Balaguer was elected president in 1966.

He was accused of persecuting political opponents as hundreds were kidnapped or disappeared. Many critics went into exile.

Now that he is dead, people hope to learn more about the assassination of celebrated journalist Orlando Martinez Howley in 1975. Balaguer wrote in a book that the identity of the assassins would remain secret until after his death.

A retired general and three accomplices were convicted in the murder two years ago, but the family said the people who gave the order, including Balaguer, escaped justice. Martinez belonged to the outlawed Dominican Communist Party and was director of the opposition magazine Ahora.

Later, Balaguer's human rights record improved.

He was defeated in 1978 by Antonio Guzman and failed to win re-election in 1982. In opposition, he formed the Social Christian Reformist Party and regained the presidency in 1986.

Balaguer defeated Bosch in a fraudulent 1990 election. He was declared victor in 1994 elections also marred by fraud. Under domestic and US pressure, Balaguer stepped down to allow new elections in 1996.

Under Balaguer, the Dominican Republic was a staunch anti-communist ally of the United States and one of the biggest US aid recipients in the Caribbean.

Balaguer was nearly blinded by glaucoma and suffered from phlebitis but maintained a vigorous schedule.

An excellent orator, he gave speeches filled with historical references and statistics.

Balaguer was a nationalist and a racist, even though nearly 75 percent of people in this former Spanish colony are of mixed European and African descent. In his 1983 book, The Island in Reverse, he opposed race-mixing and accused Haitians of reproducing too quickly.

His body was to be displayed in his bed at his modest Santo Domingo home before his burial on Wednesday in Christ the Redeemer Cemetery.

Balaguer donated much of his earnings to the Roman Catholic Church and charities during his lifetime. He leaves behind the sister with whom he lived, Carmen Rosa Balaguer Ricardo. - Sapa-AP