Sunday, November 23, 2008

Imperialism and International Migration in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1961-1966

Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Publication Date: 01-JAN-04
Author: Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse

Abstract. This article re-examines the relationship between United States imperialism in Santo Domingo and the advent of mass Dominican migration to the United States in the early 1960s. There was no coherent imperial plan to displace Dominicans from their homeland. The United States relied on a combination of brutal domination and negotiated consent in its attempts to control politics in Santo Domingo. Knowingly or not, Dominicans capitalized on Washington's desire to present the US as a friend of the Dominican people to wedge their way from the periphery to the centre of the imperial system. However, the rise of migration did not signal the beginning of a new, more egalitarian alternative to imperialism in hemispheric relations. More research is needed about the new system of international inequality that emerged as Dominican migrants moved back and forth between a perpetually reeling Dominican economy and the bleak urban spaces of the United States.

In 1968 an anthropologist studying rural to urban migration in the Dominican Republic found, to her surprise, that reaching Santo Domingo was not the ultimate goal of the campesinos she interviewed. As she expected, the rural population was mobilizing in response to shifting economic conditions and rumours of distant urban comforts. And the largest number of those who left their villages did end up in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. But peasants' notion of progress, she found, was shaped around the eventual prospect of reaching New York (Gonzalez 1970).

That Dominicans might imagine a world in which movement from rural backwardness to urban modernity had its logical conclusion in the United States is, in retrospect, no surprise. From the middle of the nineteenth century, relations between the United States and the Dominican Republic were both intimate and brutally lopsided. Representatives of the United States government sought to purchase a portion of the Dominican Republic shortly after it achieved independence from Haiti, and later President Ulysses S. Grant nearly succeeded in a project to annex the entire country. In the 1890s a group of Wall Street chiselers, with connections in Washington, purchased the Dominican national debt. In collaboration with Dominican dictator Ulises Hereaux, they drove the country into bankruptcy. In the wake of that disaster, the United States government, declaring itself the arbiter of civilized economic behaviour in the hemisphere, took control of the Dominican customs house. In 1916, the United States military occupied and ruled the country by force for eight years, then supplied a 30-year dictatorship with legitimacy and aid, then invaded and occupied a second time in 1965. United States movies, music, and consumer products also leaked into the small national market. Representatives of the United States occasionally made earnest, if self-serving, attempts to alleviate poverty, build a modern state, and establish a democratic polity in the Dominican Republic. A strident rhetoric of friendship and tutorship, and an open assumption of the superiority of North American society, accompanied these wildly asymmetrical arrangements. The image of the United States as the epitome of modern life overshadowed the projects of economic extraction and national modernization begun under its condescending tutelage (Atkins and Wilson 1998; Gleijeses 1978; Moya Pons 1995; Roorda 1998; Veeser 2002).

In short, the Dominican Republic was a primary target of United States imperialism as it evolved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, the United States held a powerfully ambivalent grip on the imaginations of Dominican elites, who both admired and deplored the neighbour that so dominated them. And as popular sectors began to incorporate the idea of progress into their own lives in the middle of the twentieth century, it is little wonder that the United States lured them as well. The United States was in many ways a more convincing symbol of power, modernity, and well-being than the intrusive Dominican state. The image of New York was widely diffused in Dominican popular culture, offering a more convincing icon of progress than Santo Domingo. This deep historical influence of United States imperialism on Dominican imaginations makes peasants' unexpected desire to travel to the United States in 1968 wholly understandable.

What was surprising, after the early 1960s, was that the prospect of reaching the most famous city in the heart of the imperial system suddenly came within reach for many thousands of Dominicans. As in much of Latin America, the middle twentieth century had seen a gradual increase in Dominican travel to the United States. In the 1930s, 1,150 Dominicans immigrated to the United States. In the 1940s, another 5,627 joined them, followed by 9,897 in the 1950s. But between the death of Rafael Trujillo in 1961 and the United States invasion of Santo Domingo in the spring of 1965, the number of immigrant visas granted to Dominicans jumped to nearly 10,000 a year. With slight fluctuations, immigrant visas averaged about 10,000 a year for the next decade, then grew steadily for the rest of the century (Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999). By 1970, about 100,000 Dominicans lived legally in New York City (Graham 1996). Also, beginning in the period between 1961 and 1965, 20,000-30,000 Dominican tourists and students received permission to travel to the United States each year (Graham 1996; Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999; Mitchell 1992). This increase in tourism persisted throughout subsequent decades, providing still more opportunities for migration, as many Dominicans overstayed their non-immigrant visas in order to work. Starting from almost zero, in the span of a decade Dominicans became one of the largest new immigrant groups in New York, and New York became one of the largest Dominican cities.

The accepted wisdom in United States history holds that the boom in new immigration from the Third World in the 1960s resulted from the passage of the Immigration Reform Act in 1965 (Foner 2000). The 1965 act is usually seen primarily as its liberal sponsors intended: as a repeal of national origins restrictions originally put in place in the 1920s to keep out undesirable races. The reform granted a set number of immigrant visas to the eastern and western hemispheres, without discriminatory national origins quotas. This change in policy spurred transformation of New York into an archipelago of new ethnic neighbourhoods, home to hundreds of thousands of new migrants from the Third World. New York's largest group of newcomers after 1965, Dominican migrants led this remarkable ethnic explosion. But the Immigration Reform Act does not help to explain the sudden jump in Dominican migration. The Dominican Republic, like all the republics of the western hemisphere, had been exempted from the immigration restrictions of the 1920s. While often imagined as a removal of restrictions, the 1965 reform actually placed the first numerical restriction on the number of visas that could be granted to Dominicans and other Latin Americans. In any event, the legislation passed in 1965 could not have been a condition for the explosion in Dominican migration. By the time the reforms were enacted in 1968, Dominicans' colonization of New York was already well underway (Reimers 1985).

A shift in international politics, not the reform of immigration laws, produced the sudden opportunity for migration and a massive displacement of Dominicans to New York. In the early 1960s, immediately after the fall of the Trujillo dictatorship in Santo Domingo, politicians in Washington scurried to prevent what they feared might become a second Cuban Revolution, sending aid, advisors, and eventually tens of thousands of United States Marines to Santo Domingo. As its meddling in Dominican affairs increased in the early 1960s, the United States government built a large visa office in Santo Domingo and a second in Santiago, greatly increasing the number of visas it granted. United States officials also sometimes provided visas to help the local government deport troublesome members of the Dominican opposition, pushing them into exile in New York or Puerto Rico. Five years before immigration politics in Washington placed a limit on the number of Dominicans who could acquire visas, United States foreign policy created an infrastructure capable of processing tens of thousands of visa applicants per year.

To historians of the Dominican Republic, and perhaps to a majority of Dominican citizens, the argument that US foreign policy concerns, or imperialism, helped to form a Dominican colony in New York will seem painfully obvious. It has been decades since scholars first argued that Washington opened up migration as a "safety valve" to help stabilize the complicated politics in Santo Domingo after Trujillo's death (Grasmuck and Pessar 1991; Levitt 2001). Sherri Grasmuck and Patricia Pessar, in their essential work on Dominican migration, also observed that emigration to the United States served as a stabilizing force in the 12-year regime of Joaquin Balaguer (1966-1978), providing an exit for political actors excluded by its authoritarianism and social classes impoverished by its development model. This could be seen as a goal of United States foreign policy, since bolstering Balaguer eventually became a crucial part of Washington's meddling in the Dominican Republic. Grasmuck and Pessar were careful to point out that at the time the consulates were constructed "it was not possible to foresee the longer term consequences of a growing community of Dominicans living abroad" (Grasmuck and Pessar 1991, 33). Silvio Torres-Saillant and Ramona Hernandez have likewise distinguished Washington's short-term goals from what they take to be Balaguer's long-term goals (Hernandez 2002; Torres-Saillant and Hernandez 1998). (1) Others have been less circumspect. In Santo Domingo it has become common wisdom to imagine that Washington carefully designed the tearful separation of Dominicans from their native soil. Frank Canelo, writing a series on international migration in the Dominican news weekly !Ahora! in 1977, suggested, albeit in the form of a rhetorical question, that Dominicans had been "manipulated to immigrate to the United States exactly as Puerto Ricans had been" (Canelo 1982, 66). Two decades later many Dominican intellectuals presume that the reason the United States built new embassies in the early 1960s and flexibilizo (that is, eased) the granting of visas was to empty the Dominican Republic of surplus population. (2)

This essay returns to the crucial years between the death of Rafael Trujillo and the second United States military intervention in Santo Domingo. While it confirms much of the detail first uncovered by Christopher Mitchell in his excellent analysis of United States foreign policy and Dominican immigration (1992), it offers a new interpretive perspective. With the exception of a small number of deportations, the idea that Washington conceived of migration as a political "safety valve" in the early 1960s probably overstates the intentions of United States representatives. The evidence suggests that Dominicans themselves made use of the crisis in the early 1960s to put massive pressure on the United States consular offices in Santo Domingo. Consular construction was a response to pressure by angry Dominican visa seekers. Representatives of the United States government, who had few scruples, but neither the intelligence nor the forethought to manipulate the Dominican masses, were forced to accept Dominican migration as a quid pro quo for their claims to be the sole friend and ally of the Dominican people. The sudden jump in Dominican migration to the United States is an example of just how difficult the prospect of imperial control proved to be. And it is an example of how short-term crisis management on the periphery of an imperial system can create profound, unanticipated, long-term transformations at the core.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, during the United States occupation of 1916-1924, and again after the United States invasion of 1965, Dominicans engaged with imperialism by means of a pervasive and often quite astute nationalism. But calling for national sovereignty, with or without social revolution, was only one way to engage empire in the early 1960s. The events that led to the construction of new consulates in the Dominican Republic show how many Dominicans, whether conscious of the choice or not, chose instead to find space for survival within the architecture of international inequality and imperial self-justification. Instead of seeking to dismantle the empire, many sought to move from point to point within it. The pervasive notion of progress, the shape that popular aspirations took in a context of inter-national inequality, made this movement seem natural. Caught unawares by a great surge in demand--perhaps convinced of their own rhetoric about the openness and friendship of the US toward Dominicans, perhaps simply trapped by it--US policy-makers responded by making room for unprecedented mobility. Still, if the steady stream of Dominicans escaping to the United States was an alternative form of Dominican agency within the limits of the international system, to many nationalists (including many who found themselves boarding airliners to New York) it was also one of the most ironic and infuriating aspects of the United States' presence in Santo Domingo. The empire had insinuated itself into the available solutions to the very problems it helped to create (Hoffnung-Garskof 2002).

Nor did the aggregate effects of migration do much to level the terrible inequalities of power and wealth between the United States and the Dominican Republic, as some modernization theorists predicted (Georges 1990; Grasmuck and Pessar 1991; Piore 1979). Despite the very real space for economic mobility and democracy opened by the construction of the visa offices, widespread movement to New York did not erode the broader architecture of empire in the Dominican Republic. Rather, as United States imperialism evolved along new lines in the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship between the United States and the Dominican Republic revolved increasingly around an exchange between a reeling national economy and an embattled ethnic enclave in post-industrial New York City. This essay confines itself to the early opening of Dominican international migration during the high water mark of Washington liberals' Cold War imperialism. Yet it fits into a broader attempt to rethink the relationship between imperialism and migration in the Dominican Republic and beyond. The events analyzed here should lead us to ponder not only how imperial policies, ideologies, or institutions contributed to international migration, but also how the tug of war between imperialism and nationalism formed the cultural and intellectual context within which Dominicans made sense of their newfound mobility. Finally, we should ask how migration and imperialism evolved together through the 1980s and beyond the Cold War. How did new regimes of national and international inequality reshape the meanings of migration, and how did migration help to form these newer systems of hemispheric exchange (Hoffnung-Garskof forthcoming)?

The Death of the Goat: Dictatorship and Hemispheric Crisis in Santo Domingo

To understand how imperialism helped open the doors to migration in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s it is first necessary to construct a basic narrative of the political history of the Republic at the time. Most important, the death of the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in 1961 and the sudden crisis it produced in local and international affairs are an essential backdrop for Washington's intense intervention in Santo Domingo in the early 1960s and for Dominican settlement in New York.

For 31 years Rafael Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic, skillfully balancing the vicious impunity with which he conducted local affairs against the need for friendship from the United States. Trujillo was fully a product of the classical era of United States imperialism in the Dominican Republic. A watchman in a sugar enclave east of Santo Domingo, he was trained as a soldier by the US Marines. He rose to prominence through the national army created by the United States military government during its tenure from 1916 to 1924. Close friendships with important figures in the Marines and the War Department in Washington helped to assure recognition, aid, technical assistance, and military supplies when he took power in Santo Domingo a mere six years after the United States military government departed. Trujillo then grew up under the Good Neighbour Policy. Washington, proclaiming an end to its interventionism in the hemisphere, willfully ignored the cruelty and illegitimacy of regimes like his. In the 1950s Trujillo integrated himself into the security build-up of the early Cold War. The United States installed a guided missile base in the Dominican Republic and helped Trujillo to beef up his weaponry, passing him off as a bulwark against international communism. Trujillo's tyranny was therefore, in the strange calculus of United States foreign policy, part of the fortress that protected "freedom" in the hemisphere (Atkins and Wilson 1972; Roorda 1998; Vega 1990, 1991, 1992).

Trujillo served the purposes of the United States in exchange for a free hand in ruling the Dominican Republic. But Trujillo took much of the initiative in defining his relationship with Washington. He was a manipulator, not a puppet. He kept United States congressmen and lobbyists on his payroll, and set up newspapers and radio stations in the United States to broadcast favourable accounts of his regime. In Santo Domingo, too, Trujillo made the United States serve his purposes, sometimes as an ally, and sometimes as a foil for his nationalism. He paraded military hardware and representatives from the United States in the banquets, parades, and other elaborate displays of power that constituted the public culture of the regime. At the same time he used well-orchestrated defiance of the United States as an extraordinarily powerful tool for garnering local support (Derby 1997; Marrero Aristy 1998; Vega 1990).

Despite this undercurrent of anti-imperialism, Trujillo's alliance with the United States, especially the United States military, persisted into the late 1950s. In 1959 and 1960 the regime in Santo Domingo began to implode in the face of a growing internal resistance, the disastrous economic effects of Trujillo's venal policies, and widespread capital flight. As the Organization of American States pushed the United States to cut Trujillo loose, politicians in Washington waffled over whether to support a coup. Some argued that toppling the dictator might lead to unrest and provide a foothold for communism. Others argued that supporting him might build up resentment of the United States and provide a foothold for communism (Atkins and Wilson 1998). Finally, in May of 1961, a mere six weeks after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, an anti-Trujillo conspiracy succeeded in killing the dictator. Armed by the CIA, and likely given encouragement by United States businessmen in Santo Domingo, a group of disgruntled military and political figures waylaid and killed Trujillo on the Sanchez Highway, west of the capital (Diederich 1978; Wiarda 1980).

The assassination resulted in exactly the kind of unrest that some in Washington had feared. Trujillo's brothers and sons, still in control of the military, quickly unleashed a reign of vengeful terror on the capital. Meanwhile, large crowds began to assemble in the Parque Colon, along the Conde, and into the Parque Independencia, the main artery and public spaces in the capital's Colonial District. They demanded an answer to their hunger and poverty, and the departure of the surviving Trujillos and Joaquin Balaguer, who was the dictator's handpicked president at the time of the assassination. They tore down statues of the dictator, and clashed with police, armed forces, and paleros, bands of thugs armed by the government. Even after Balaguer and the Trujillos fled the country in early 1962, and a civilian-military Council of State began planning new elections, the confrontations did not subside. Newly elected, and still smarting from the unmitigated disaster of the Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy saw the Dominican Republic as a major crisis that might swing the Caribbean toward Cuba, and further damage his reputation as a Cold Warrior. The Dominican Republic could not be allowed to go communist (Martin 1966).

President Kennedy and the Washington liberals who surrounded him were a new brand of imperialist. They espoused the theory that the problem in Latin America was one of instability caused by backwardness and poverty. Communists, according to this view, were cunningly able to take advantage of instability to take over national politics. The answer was to use the power of Washington to alleviate poverty in the region, to breed positive public regard for the United States, and to provide the military might to crack down heavily on any sign of communism. Liberals, steeped in a New Deal ideology of social peace, hoped that moderate reform could be used to outflank revolution (Schoultz 1998). The Dominican Republic, which seemed to resemble Cuba in many ways, would be the crucial first test of this new strategy. Kennedy sent John Bartlow Martin, a journalist and speechwriter, to Santo Domingo as ambassador to coddle "moderate" anti-communists, create a Dominican equivalent of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and generally manage the situation. Washington also hurriedly put a novel array of tools at Martin's disposal: the newly created Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps (Martin 1966).

Despite the great burst of energy invested in this new Latin America strategy, the Dominican Republic would become one of the first places where the initial idealism of the Alliance for Progress would boil down to its cynical core of meddling and repression (LaFeber 1983). Helping the country to create a just social order or a democratic government was, in the end, a secondary consideration. At heart Martin's mission was to achieve stability and to avoid the political catastrophe that appearing "soft" on communism would inflict on Democrats if they made a second mistake in the wake of the Bay of Pigs. Washington would show its fundamental commitment to stable anti-Cuban governments in Santo Domingo, even at the expense of democracy, through its eventual support for the junta installed in a 1963 coup, its invasion of Santo Domingo in 1965, and its support for the authoritarian rule of Joaquin Balaguer from 1966 to 1978 (Gleijeses 1978).

These were the political and economic circumstances that gave birth to the colonization of New York City by thousands of Dominican citizens. From the moment of Trujillo's death, through the United States invasion of 1965, and into the early years of the Balaguer regime, the United States grew ever more inextricably involved in the politics, the economy, and the local workings of Dominican society. With the high visibility of Marines, investors, advisors, and tourists, the 1960s seemed, as historian Frank Moya Pons has written, to be a period of rapid "North Americanization" on the island (Kryzanek and Wiarda 1988; Moya Pons 1975, 1986). Not only did this mean that the fingerprints of the United States were evident on the economic and political system from which migrants began to flee, it also meant that the process of Americanization, a central challenge for Dominicans who moved to New York, was already a hotly contested topic in Santo Domingo when the first settlers boarded planes to the United States. Washington's attempts to remake the Dominican Republic, beginning with the customs receivership in 1904 and now reaching renewed heights in the 1960s, meant that assimilation was a central problem for Dominican identity with or without migration. But, most crucially for the present discussion, the political crises of the 1960s also provided the sudden opportunity for Dominicans to flee the country through a new, highly politicized portal: the United States Visa Office.

Politics at the Visa Office: 1961-1965

Because Trujillo had strictly controlled the international travel of his subjects, the dictator's death was a decisive moment for Dominican settlement in New York. In the 1950s, wealthy families in many Latin American countries began flying to the United States to vacation, to shop, and to form middle-class immigrant enclaves. Cuban elites moved comfortably across the border in both directions between Havana and Miami, and South Americans began their own settlements of professionals, students, and exiles in Queens. Dominicans also felt this pull. In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s the average number of Dominicans migrating to the United States each year rose from 110, to 560, to 980 (Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999). Still Dominicans lagged behind Argentines, Colombians, and especially Cubans, because getting out of Santo Domingo was not easy. In the first place, the high cost of passport applications and the severe penalties for crossing the border without a passport prevented most Dominicans from traveling internationally. But even for those who could afford the application, the Dominican government presented great obstacles. According to one report, in 1959 the dictatorship received 19,631 passport applications but granted only 1,805 passports (Canelo 1982). Historians have offered several explanations for Trujillo's stinginess with passports. Trujillo's economic advisors believed the Dominican Republic to be underpopulated and sought to encourage both fertility and immigration. The restriction of any outward flow of Dominicans was owed, in part, to this conviction that population growth was crucial to modernization and national consolidation. But restricting the availability of passports also had a political purpose. Preventing the escape of possible dissidents was one way of ensuring loyalty to the regime. If an enemy crossed the dictator, or an ally passed out of favour, he or she had to endure the consequences from inside the country. By preventing his opponents' escape Trujillo may also have intended to prevent the flow of information between disaffected Dominicans and opponents on the world stage (Hernandez 2002). This was in contrast with the experience in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, where the government allowed, even encouraged, dissenters to emigrate as a way to diffuse organized opposition. Though his strategy was different, like Fidel Castro, Trujillo sought to control the terms, transactions, and symbolism of emigration, deploying his power over national borders to consolidate his political power (Garcia 1996; Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999). Trujillo's model of control over travel was perhaps workable only because of the relatively weak opposition inside the Dominican Republic.

Trujillo's death, however, brought a sudden relaxation of Dominican controls on international travel. In the winter of 1961 and the spring of 1962, the Council of State periodically stepped up the number of passports it issued. (3) It is impossible to know the exact reason for the change in passport policy, but the context provides some clues. The Dominican Congress announced a new guarantee of freedom of travel just before the Council of State took power. This act was likely an attempt to convince the Organization of American States that progress was being made on human rights (New York Times 1961; Bianchi Gundian 1967; Mitchell 1992). The United States frankly opposed the measure, favouring forcible deportation of any political actors who could not be controlled. (4) Freedom of travel, especially the right of return from exile, was important to Latin American sensibilities, however, and the United States was likelier to relax economic sanctions if the OAS went along. It seems likely, then, that the Council of State began dispensing passports as part of a broader attempt to please Latin American observers.

Quite possibly the change in policy also reflected the importance of travel for many powerful sectors of Dominican society, including the families of many of those working in the government. Trujillo had used travel restrictions to prevent many of his collaborators from defecting. This meant not only that middle-class and elite Dominicans had pent-up desires to travel, study, and shop in the United States (17,000 had been denied passports only two years earlier). They were also keenly aware that they needed a way to escape as Dominican politics swayed uneasily between neo-Trujillismo and social revolt. President Joaquin Balaguer was only the most prominent member of the old regime who fled to New York City in the early 1960s in order to save his skin. As political tides ebbed and flowed, no one could be sure that he or she would not be the next in line to need to flee the country.

What is more, after the departure of the Trujillo brothers and sons, no one in power had much reason to prevent opponents from escaping. To the contrary, now that Trujillo's clear monopoly on power had been broken, it seemed ideal to switch strategies and adopt the more established model of encouraging exit to diminish the number of dissenting voices in Santo Domingo. Making it easy for political opponents to leave might help to secure power in a political crowded landscape, and it would surely help present a positive face to the international community. It seems likely that this shift in strategy occurred to the members of the Council of State without prompting. But if it did not, Ambassadors Hill and Martin were on hand to point it out to them. Martin recalled providing visas for these deportations at the request of the Council of State, despite some personal misgivings. Yet secret documents suggest that United States policy-makers were active advocates of political deportations throughout the early 1960s, seeing this as a strategy for getting rid of remnants of the Trujillo military or, more frequently, young nationalists and leftists (Martin 1966). (5) Issuing passports more freely might, then, have been a way to satisfy Latin American calls for freedom of travel, pent-up Dominican desires for exit, and United States pressure to push certain Dominicans into exile.

Finally, Dominican officials may have quickly discovered a potential for income, both licit and illicit, in passport transactions. When tens of thousands of middle- and working-class Dominicans began lining up alongside elites and political refugees, it was surely a windfall for the officials who collected the application fees and the bribes that were required to speed their processing (Hendricks 1974).

Whatever the exact combination of reasons behind it, the change in passport policy abruptly loosened the reins on Dominican international travel. Just as quickly, it passed them into the hands of United States visa officers. Each time the Council of State increased the number of passports granted, the US delegation saw a sudden surge in visa applications. (6) The United States, it appears, is where almost all Dominicans with passports wished to travel.

The fact that more passports automatically translated into more visa applications, while it seemed perfectly natural at the time, deserves some consideration. It is a pattern that continued long after the crisis of the early 1960s passed. The United States was the destination, for instance, of some 80% of Dominican tourists (many of whom were in fact clandestine migrants) between 1965 and 1975. (7)

Among the reasons for this choice of destination was, as has already been suggested, the way the dominating presence of the United States in Dominican life, and the widespread assumption of United States superiority, modernity, and power, shaped Dominican aspirations. The United States controlled marvellous symbols of power: warships, airplanes, tanks, dollars, and rocket ships. New York was a fantastic city of skyscrapers and underground trains. If progress was what Dominicans were after, it was clear that New York was preferable to both the campo (countryside) and the capital. But the imperial system provided more than an ideology supporting travel to the United States, it created a transportation infrastructure that enforced that ideology. In practice, San Juan, Miami, and New York were the necessary portals between Santo Domingo and the rest of the world. Airline routes out of Santo Domingo nearly all required at least a stopover in United States territory. In the web of trade and travel routes that crossed the hemisphere, the Dominican Republic was a tiny spoke off the giant hub of the United States (Oficina Nacional de Estadistica 1959-1965).

Airplane routes were only one of the sinews connecting the two societies culturally, economically, religiously, and personally. Dominican business and political elites had ties to North American companies or directly to the embassy. In San Pedro de Macoris, local Protestants, whose parents had been brought from the West Indies to work in sugar factories built with US investments, used ties with various Episcopalian dioceses in the US to get to New York (Graham 1996; Yolanda Richardson, author interview, 2001). The descendants of Puerto Rican migrants, also brought to the island to work in the sugar industry and in administrative posts during the US occupation in the 1920s, could claim US citizenship and settle, along with their close relatives, in New York (Juan D. Balcacer and Luis Simo, author interviews, 2000).

Perhaps just as important, however, was the way that representatives from the United States imagined and publicized that country's role in managing Dominican internal affairs. As anti-Yankee sentiment began to spread in Santo Domingo, the representatives of the United States saw themselves forced to respond carefully to Dominican public opinion. Earlier in the century Washington had dressed even its dictatorial military government over the Dominican Republic in an ideology of sovereignty, equality, and mutual friendship between the two nations (Derby 1998). Now as students and workers across Latin America began turning their ardent nationalism against the imperial meddling of the United States, it became all the more important to Washington's aims to put a friendly face on such meddling, even while intensifying the meddling itself. Claims of friendship and attempts to project the US as eminently able to solve the development problems of its weaker allies were the new justification for empire. It was only natural that Dominicans would turn to the United States for help in solving their need to escape the country. The pressure on the United States visa office in Santo Domingo in 1962 was not unlike that in Havana in 1960, Saigon in 1975, or Tehran in 1979.

Once the Dominican state relinquished control over travel as a political tool, it fell to Washington, actively seeking impose its own order in Santo Domingo, to take charge of the border. Washington's desire to manage Dominican public opinion gave Dominican visa seekers considerable leverage. In early 1962, as Democrats in Washington grew increasingly jittery about the constant unrest in Santo Domingo and the growing visa backlog, Ambassador John Bartlow Martin worried, "the situation has taken on political importance, and the public image of the United States is being impaired." (8) The long lines at the visa office undermined his attempt to present the United States as the unconditional and generous ally of the Dominican people.

The political geography of Santo Domingo aggravated the problem of the "visa mess." Between the death of Trujillo and the election of Juan Bosch, varied opposition forces gathered huge crowds of students and, most shockingly to the representatives of the United States, youths from the poor barrios north of the city. Smaller spontaneous disturbances, or turbas, broke out periodically in the capital as barrio residents hunted down calies, the thugs and spies who had long patrolled on behalf of the dictator, and crowds tore down the many statues of Trujillo erected about the city (Fortunato 1998). Though the interior of the country and most of the capital remained peaceful, these demonstrations had disproportionate symbolic power because they took place in the old Colonial Zone. Usually they began at the Parque de Colon, proceeded down the Conde, and ended at the Parque de Independencia or the Presidential Palace several blocks farther on. This sliver of Santo Domingo was home to banks, government offices, stores, nightclubs, and other social spaces that had been explicitly reserved for the powerful when Trujillo rebuilt the capital after the San Zenon hurricane in 1930 (Derby 1998).

The central avenue of the Colonial Zone was also home to the United States visa office, where, by 1962, the sudden increase in applications was much more than the small staff could manage. Lines had grown to more than 500 applicants daily, clogging the stairway and stretching around the corner on the hot pavement of the Conde. The wait for an application to be processed stretched to as long as 64 weeks. As groups of young demonstrators marched along the Conde, they invariably met an angry queue, suffocating on the hot pavement and ready to vent its frustrations. The mingling of visa applicants and protesters, Ambassador Martin later wrote, produced frequent "full-fledged anti-American riots" in front of the consulate. "On some days it almost seemed that the young vice consuls spent more time throwing tear gas out the windows than issuing visas"(Martin 1966, 98).

Perhaps the rioters perceived that demonstrations against the United States were an effective way to force the embassy into solving the visa backlog. Members of the Council of State, after all, spent their lives warning and threatening that unless the United States delegation met one set of conditions or another, the country was sure to go communist. This was standard political rhetoric used throughout Latin America--an attempt to manipulate the fears and ignorance of United States officials and to turn the rhetoric of tutelage and friendship back on itself. One member of the Council of State threatened Ambassador Martin that he personally would seek to create a public relations catastrophe for the United States if the visa backlog was not quickly resolved (Martin 1966). These kinds of threats continued well into the 1970s, when Dominicans politicians and journalists frequently complained of ill treatment at the hands of United States visa officers, and, in one instance, responded to rumours of widespread crackdowns on undocumented migrants with the intimation that this would lead to disaffection with the United States and a Cuban-style revolution (El Nacional, 1971).

Maybe the riots were a way for the crowds outside the consulate similarly to twist the arm of the ambassador. But whether the rioters in Santo Domingo understood themselves to be pressuring the United States to grant more visas, or were simply expressing their immediate outrage at the long lines, the turbas outside the visa office did inspire Kennedy and Martin to quick action. By April of 1962, Martin, Kennedy, and the State Department agreed to contract two Mexican-American officers from the Los Angeles Police Department to advise Dominican police on riot control. They appointed a Puerto Rican public relations firm to work on improving the image of the Council of State and the United States. And they agreed to "take immediate steps to reduce Embassy Santo Domingo's visa backlog to the point where it is no longer a political liability." (9) By September, they built a new and larger consulate in the western suburbs far from the troubled city centre. They built a second consulate in the city of Santiago, which handled 20% of non-immigrant visa applications in the Dominican Republic from 1963 to 1970, when it closed (Mitchell 1992). The Santiago consulate also served as a base for monitoring the political situation in the north. (10) Kennedy and Martin increased the consular personnel, sending in a "planeload of visa experts" and hiring more local staff. And for a brief time, they considered accepting visa applications by mail, thereby reducing the possibility of large crowds at the embassy. (11) Also in 1962, Dominican protests prevented the United States from shutting down two temporary processing centres that received applications for visas in Manzanillo and La Romana. (12)

The United States responded to the turbas, in short, by making it much easier for large numbers of Dominicans to get quickly into the United States. The resolution of the visa crisis created an active border between the Dominican Republic and the United States where none had existed before. Washington built an infrastructure capable of processing tens of thousands of immigrant visa requests and scores of thousands of tourist visa applications each year. The number of United States immigrant visas issued in the Dominican Republic rose quickly, from 464 in 1960, to 1,789 in 1961, to 3,680 in 1962, to 9,857 in 1963, when the new consulates were fully functioning. With some fluctuations, the number of immigrant visas granted would remain at this level, averaging just over 10,000 a year over the next decade (Immigration and Naturalization Service 1999). Employers in New York undoubtedly enjoyed the influx of a new, vulnerable workforce. But, unlike most previous instances of migration, employers did not need to send labour recruiters to round up new workers. Dominicans took hold of the opportunity created in 1962 and quickly laid the foundations of what would become the largest immigrant enclave in the city of New York over the following 25 years, as well as smaller settlements in San Juan, Boston, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Ambassador Martin did not, however, change the rules governing visa eligibility as has sometimes been supposed. In fact, according to United States immigration law, there was already no theoretical limit to the number of visas that could be granted to Dominicans deemed deserving by consular officials. In accordance with existing immigration law, visa applicants had to pass literacy tests, convince consular officials that they would not become public charges, and satisfy basic health requirements. Also they could not be polygamists, prostitutes, homosexuals, or communists. Local officials may have enjoyed considerable leeway in interpreting these rules, tightening or loosening them in response to political considerations or individual whim. But since there had never been anything resembling the flood of applications that reached the visa office in the early 1960s, there is no way to compare the way officers interpreted the regulations before and after the death of Trujillo. Nonetheless, according to confidential reports, the visa office rejected close to 40% of applicants even as it sought a way to resolve the problem of angry crowds. (13) This suggests that Martin's goal was improving public perception without lowering the bar for immigration. As Christopher Mitchell has argued, Martin's solution was to apply, effectively and expeditiously, the existing US immigration laws to all who requested visas. His hope was that by increasing bureaucratic efficiency he could take the politics out of the visa process (Mitchell 1992). Of course this was, in itself, a political objective.

To call this policy of consular construction a strategy to create a safety valve suggests that Washington hoped to solve an unrelated political or social crisis by dispensing visas and encouraging migration. In fact the pressure Washington hoped to release was rising precisely because of Dominican anger over the availability of visas. Washington did see visas and deportation of key political figures as important political tools, but a policy of targeted exile would not have required new visa offices. Overall, the evidence suggests that Washington in the 1960s had anything but a coherent policy designed to bring Dominicans to the United States. As the administration struggled to resolve one set of political concerns in Santo Domingo, at home the mood in Congress turned darkly against Latin American immigrants. As the new consulates were being built in the Dominican Republic and the first trickle of Dominican migration began to flow into Washington Heights, a neighbourhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, Latin American demand for visas ran up against the stern limits of United States hospitality. By the middle of the 1960s, powerful voices in Congress began warning that the US was becoming a "dumping ground" for surplus Latin American populations. The passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, touted by its sponsors as opening up old national origins restrictions, in fact had just the opposite result for Latin Americans. In the same year as he authorized the invasion of Santo Domingo, President Lyndon Johnson approved a fixed limit of 120,000 immigrant visas for the Western Hemisphere. While he did not favour the measure, he accepted it in exchange for the elimination of old national origins quotas for Europe, Asia and Africa (Reimers 1985).

Dominicans, with their large new consulates, were in a prime position to apply for these 120,000 visas. Then, in the late 1970s, when limits of 20,000 visas per country were extended from the eastern to the western hemisphere, the Dominican Republic was partially shielded from the blow by the simultaneous extension of the family preferences provisions. Dominicans, who already had a strong foothold in New York, used family unification to keep the flow of visas open. But this loophole had little to do with United States policy toward the Dominican Republic. In Washington, the idea of the family unification preference was introduced in 1965 to assure anti-immigrant groups and organized labour that the new migration to the United States would mirror the existing ethnic makeup of the country. In essence it had an identical purpose to the original national origins quota system. Italians and Poles would be favoured over Africans, since they already had families in the United States lining up to request visas for them. Congress justified the extension of per-country limits and family preferences to the western hemisphere in the 1970s as the creation of a uniform, rational policy. The change unintentionally reinforced the head start given Dominicans by the turbas and the construction of new consulates in the early 1960s (Reimers 1985).


How are we to make sense of the crucial moments in 1962 when Dominicans, self-consciously or not, pressured Washington into opening the gates to migration? It was ironic, surely, that applicants looking for permission to move to the United States would join with crowds chanting "Fuera Yanqui" [Yankee go home] and other anti-imperialist slogans. And, Martin wrote with some relish, it was odd when he and other embassy representatives appeared at one of the anti-Yankee turbas and were instantly besieged by youths clamouring for visas (Martin 1966). The irony of the Dominican predicament in the 1960s offers a new wrinkle in the theoretical relationship Albert Hirschman has proposed between exit and voice (Hirschman 1970). What happens if disaffection from a political and economic regime leads to exit, but the only place to go is a nation that is deeply implicated in the sustenance of that regime and complicit in the repression of dissent? The irony is expressed by a famous bit of graffiti that appeared in Santo Domingo in these years. To the typical slogan "Fuera Yanqui," someone added the phrase "y llevame contigo!" ["Yankee go home ... and take me with you!"] (14)

Ambassador Martin did not see this as irony, but rather as a form of hypocrisy and a mark of the shallowness of anti-Yankee feelings. Likewise, US embassy officials weathering the storm of anti-Yankee protests during the long summer of 1965 found comfort in the lines of applicants outside the visa office. The embassy wrote triumphantly in a cable to Washington that the revolution in April seemed to have no impact on the views of visa applicants: "USA still 'land of promise' here." (15) In a sense, the embassy officials were right; the stream of hopeful migrants reflected Washington's astounding success in tying the ambitions of everyday Dominicans to the attractions of the American system. This admitted goal of US foreign policy had been accomplished as much by political imposition as by shining example. Perhaps it never would have occurred to Dominicans to migrate to the Soviet Union, but the fact that there was no Soviet embassy in Santo Domingo to which Dominicans could turn was the result of the hard-line alliance between Washington and Ciudad Trujillo in the 1950s. Still, given the difficulty of bare survival in Santo Domingo in the early 1960s, and the opportunities for work in the United States, there was nothing hypocritical about feeling both anger at the United States and desperation to get there. One could angrily blame the United States for its contribution to the crisis in the Dominican Republic, and still understand that moving to the United States was an opportunity for salvation. Faced with the reluctance of the United States to provide visas and aware of the power that any threat of anti-Americanism leant to a demand, one could lead a riot against the very nation one wished to join. This tension explains much about Dominican immigrant identities and politics in the United States.

Beyond this fundamental irony, in its simplest terms this story shows how historical contingencies and complex interactions between colonizers and colonized are as important as central planning and economic interest in shaping imperial histories. The history of empire in the Dominican Republic was more than a back-and-forth between coherent and calculated politics in Washington (or among collaborators in Santo Domingo) and a heroic nationalist resistance in the Dominican Republic. The success of the demonstrations outside the visa office show the susceptibility of a United States imperial regime, predicated on the ideology of friendship, to certain kinds of demands. Just as oppressed citizens of the United States have often used the idea of citizenship to demand redress, oppressed subjects of the United States used the theories of United States global leadership to demand other forms of redress. Ironically, the United States, no historic friend of social advancement or political power for the Dominican poor, became a place for unprecedented social mobility and for a measure of democracy. Attempts by Washington to control Dominican politics were fundamental to the origins of a Dominican enclave in New York. But, if anything, this story shows how difficult the prospect of orderly imperial control was in the Dominican Republic.

Understanding Dominicans' own agency in this encounter, and investigating the meanings that Dominicans themselves invested in their mobility, should not lead to any easy conclusion that the United States practiced a beneficent or democratic brand of imperialism. The evidence suggests rather that United States hegemony in the Caribbean, usually taken to mean unchecked domination, actually shared some attributes with the kind of negotiated consent Antonio Gramsci and his followers have posited to explain the political hegemony of the capitalist class in the industrial world (Williams 1977). That the complex regime of international inequality known as empire was not unilateral, rigid, or closed helps to explain not only how Dominicans began to migrate to the United States, but also how international asymmetries persisted and reproduced themselves even as movement from the periphery to the core swelled. The urban world that Dominican peasants imagined in 1968 evolved into something quite new, and quite bleak, as Dominican peasants, workers, and middle classes began arriving there. Dominicans escaped to New York only to be drawn into a broad history of urban neglect, racial segregation, and social inequality since the 1960s. Even as the unifying justifications of the Cold War faded, empire remained; even as migrants to the United States transferred some wealth to the island, migrants inhabited an evolving system of international inequality, now inextricably intertwined with the history of social, racial, and special injustice in the urban centres of the United States. Migration was a response to empire, but despite the claim by some that transnationalism had supplanted imperialism, it merely added fascinating new texture to the resilient transnational fabric of inequality (Atkins and Wilson 1998).

Understanding the origins of migration from the Dominican Republic (and perhaps much of the Third World) in the particulars of Cold War imperialism should serve as a useful corrective to theorists who imagine globalization or transnationalism as uniquely contemporary phenomena. But much research and thinking remains to be done about how exactly the rise of migration relates to the shifting nature of imperialism after the fall of the Soviet Union. More conversation about the evolution of the relationship between empire and migration after the Cold War may prove especially useful in anticipating the consequences of the self-consciously unilateral, developmentalist, and militarized imperialism now practiced in Washington.


(1.) Hernandez claims that that the Dominican government, with an unspecified degree of independence from US backers, secretly planned the expulsion of Dominican workers while expertly covering its tracks. The key, I would argue, is to understand how migrants' choices produced a result that was congenial to capitalism (national and international), without attributing to capitalism a coherence of intention that it does not deserve. See, for instance, Mitchell (2002).

(2.) This overall impression is drawn from my fieldwork in Santo Domingo in 1999 and 2000.

(3.) Department of State. Secret. Report from the Embassy in Santo Domingo. n.d. Declassified Documents Retrieval System-United States (hereafter DDRS-US) Fiche#: 1991-135.

(4.) "Text of a background paper for President John F. Kennedy's 8/28/61 meeting concerning the Dominican Republic and ways in which the US could relieve tension in that country along with improving US-Dominican relations." Cable. Department of State. Secret. 12 October 1961. DDRS-US. "Our Consulate in Ciudad Trujillo would continue to urge that Communists and Pro-Castro elements be deported ... another agency ... has forwarded to Ciudad Trujillo a list of such undesireable persons, which, after local checking, the Consulate is to transmit to the Balaguer Government."

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Department of State. Secret. Report from the Embassy in Santo Domingo. n.d. DDRS-U.S. Fiche#: 1991-135.

(7.) This statistic is an estimate derived from the ratio of Dominican tourist departures from the island, recorded by Dominican authorities, and the number of Dominican non-immigrant admissions recorded by the INS. See annual reports of Infotur (Banco Central de la Republica Dominicana).

(8.) Report. Department of State. Secret. "Program of Action for the Dominican Republic." 30 April 1962. DRSS-US.

(9.) "National Security Action Memorandum to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA, the Director of the USIA. Subject: Policy Statement on Dominican Republic." DDRS-US. See also "Program of Action for the Dominican Republic." Report. Department of State. Secret. 30 April 1962. DDRS-US.

(10.) The Embassy Dispatch, "Dominican Republic: Status of Plan of Action Approved by the President as of July 17, 1962," DDRS-US, noted the opening of the Santiago Consulate on 1 September 1962 and indicated that "Political reporting will begin at the end of October" when a new officer was scheduled to arrive there.

(11.) Department of State. Secret. Report from the Embassy in Santo Domingo. n.d. DDRS-U.S. Fiche#: 1991-135.

(12.) "Dominican Republic: Status of Plan of Action Approved by the President as of July 17, 1962." DDRS-US.

(13.) The refusal rates are combined from January and July 1962, as reported in "Dominican Republic: Status of Plan of Action Approved by the President as of July 17, 1962." DDRS-US.

(14.) The story of this graffiti was told to me by Dr. Frank Moya Pons in a personal communication, Santo Domingo, 1999.

(15.) Cable. Department of State. Secret. 5 June 1965. DDRS-US.

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University of Michigan

Original title: "'Yankee, go home ... and take me with you!' imperialism and international migration in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1961-1966"