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OUR RESPONSIBILITIES IN THE DOMINICAN
Not more than two days' sail from the continental territory of the United States, and so close to Porto Rico that small boats pass from one island to another with ease, lies the island of San Domingo. This territory has probably staged more revolutions of the “soldier of fortune” type than any similar area in the world. Its two republics, Haiti in the western third of the island, and the Dominican Republic, popularly known as San Domingo, in the eastern two-thirds, have been ever since the winning of their independence little "republican” cauldrons, in which revolutions were constantly boiling, or little despotisms, in which black Napoleons crushed out all disobedience to their authority with an iron hand.
Potentially, this territory is of exceptional value. The second of the great islands of the Caribbean in size, it ought to hold the same rank in commercial importance. Many times the size of Porto Rico and of Jamaica; equal, in fact, in area to three Marylands with a population almost three times as great, its position in the Caribbean should be second only to that of Cuba. But
after the expulsion of France and Spain, who formerly held control of the territories now included in the two republics, the island, whether under one government or divided between two, has seldom been free from civil disorder.
The population of the larger country, the Dominican Republic, is mulatto. There are few whites in the country except foreigners engaged in business or sugar and cocoa production. Politically, the whites are a negligible fraction. The total population is little more than 725,000 or only about sixty per cent. of that of Porto Rico, or slightly less than one-half that of Haiti.
In climate, the Republic offers great variety. It is cooler than its location would indicate for there is but little low-lying land. It has almost untouched natural resources in both agricultural and mineral wealth. Especially in the last ten years important advance has been made in the development of cotton, cocoa, sugar and tobacco production, but the island is comparatively still unexploited virgin territory.
The recent history of the Dominican Republic may be judged by a brief review of developments there in the period since our Civil War. During the Civil War, in fact, Spain had reëstablished her control, but at its end withdrew. In this same period, the United States first became actively interested in the territory, for the naval difficulties involved in blockading the southern ports had shown the advantage to us of possessing in the Caribbean a port which our ships might use as a base of supplies. In 1869-70, our Federal Government took serious steps toward securing control of at least a portion of the Republic, but the plans fell through, and in the thirty years following 1865 there occurred twenty general revolutions, and twenty-five national administrations held power and fell. The history of the country is a recital of a continuous series of revolutions, bloodshed and anarchy, followed by the peace imposed by lawless dictators. Plundering of property was continual. Natives were terrorized and foreigners gradually driven from the country. Social demoralization and economic degeneracy set in. The Republic gradually slid back towards barbarism. The country was flooded with paper money, metal disappeared from circulation, domestic and foreign loans were contracted with no regard for the possibility of their payment.
1 A Spanish account of this enterprise is José de la Gandára, Anerion y Guerra de Santo Domingo, Madrid, 1884. See also Samuel Hazard, Santo Domingo, Past and Present, With a Glance at Hayti, New York, 1878.
At last, in 1882, there came into control a man, who by his power to dominate the population, seemed at least to assure order. This was Ulises Heureaux. He remained absolute dictator for seventeen years. Part of the time his dummies were in office so that the constitutional forms as to the number of years which a president might hold office might be observed. But Heureaux was always the power behind the government. Peace had come at last, but it was peace under a despotism. It was the peace of exhaustion and terror, brought not by the establishment of order as we understand it, but by the complete breakdown of ability to resist. In 1899, Heureaux finally fell at the hands of an assassin. He had increased the already heavy debt which the country had inherited from his predecessors to $20,000,000.
During his rule there had been a show of prosperity, but it had been brought by selling concessions and by contracting foreign loans which were wasted in purposeless government expenditures. Credit was broken down, and roads had fallen into disuse. It was reported, in fact, that at the end of the nineteenth century there were but ten miles of roadway in the Republic. It had become a proverb with the people that when a traveler came to a bridge he should go around it. Communication with the interior was exclusively by footpaths and mule trails. Industry was practically at a standstill, except in so far as it relied on the gathering of wild products. The only exception to this rule was in the seaports where some semblance of peace was kept by the unpaid troops and revolutionary activity was checked at the range of the guns of warships.
The next five years of the history of the Dominican Republic, 1899-1904, were worse, if that is possible, than the previous period under Heureaux. It has been aptly described as a period of national nightmare. Figuero, Vasquez, Jiminez and Vasquez again controlled the presidency. Then came Wos y Gil and finally Morales, in 1905. By this time the debt had risen to about $32,000,000, and the country could not pay even the interest on its obligations.
Foreign nations, also seeing the possibility of entire extinction of their interests, began to press more insistently for payment of the loans made by their citizens and for the protection of the property of foreigners in the island. The character of the claims upheld was various. Some involved government loans made in good faith, others investments in local enterprises which were of purely business character. The greater proportion, however, no matter what country was involved, were investments of a highly speculative character, often tinged with fraud and corruption. But the character of the claims was not the thing which at the moment demanded the attention of the Government, for the continually increasing pressure which the creditors put upon the Republic threatened to overthrow not only the administration for the moment in power, but the state itself.
The sort of property interests which the countries were called upon to protect may be illustrated by the chief American claim, much better than the average, that of the San Domingan Improvement Company of New York. This company was the successor of the Westendorp Company, a European corporation which had loaned the Dominican Republic £170,000 in 1888. It secured the right to collect all the customs revenues to satisfy this claim, and with some interruptions did so until 1893 when its interests were bought out by the San Domingan Improvement Company. This company collected customs until 1901, when Jiminez, one of the successors of Heureaux, appointed a board of his own, known as the “Committee of Honorables," to do the work. But instead of devoting the receipts to paying off the debts for which they were pledged, this commission, in spite of its name, diverted the payments to cancel the revolutionary debt of their leader. This and