Former Dominican leader mourned
At 95, Joaquín Balaguer still retained his political sway
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - (AP) -- Hundreds of mourners walked hours under a glaring sun Wednesday to follow the flag-draped coffin of Joaquín Balaguer, the longtime leader whom many consider the father of modern Dominican politics.
Revered by some and reviled by others, Balaguer retained enormous sway until his death Sunday, long after stepping down from the presidency in 1996. He was 95.
''There has never existed in Dominican history a person with so much influence as this exceptional man,'' President Hipólito Mejía said in his eulogy.
''In this palace where he exercised his power for 22 years, at times with a strong hand and at times with gloves of silk, Joaquín Balaguer has no substitute in Dominican politics,'' he said.
Mejía's audience included officials from the United States, Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Balaguer's body was buried at Santo Domingo's Christ the Redeemer Cemetery.
Outside the palace, hundreds of people waved flags and posters with images of Balaguer, and followed his coffin to a requiem Mass at Our Lady of Peace church.
The coffin was covered in flowers and raised on a platform towed by a military green Humvee.
Mourners -- some barefoot -- grew angry that the coffin was passing by too quickly and forced the driver to slow down by banging on the vehicle and shouting ``Go slower!''
At the church, about 50 people barged through a police barricade.
Mourners threw red and yellow carnations and a choir sang as the coffin was carried down the aisle.
More than 1,000 people filled the church, and many more crowded outside.
''I have Balaguer inside my soul. . . . He is the protector of the poor like me,'' said 78-year-old Enedina Martes, who had followed the body for two hours and planned to walk to the cemetery.
The procession moved on to the headquarters of Balaguer's Reformist Social Christian Party, where about 2,000 people waited, some standing in trees and atop buses and cars.
Officials, concerned by delays and security, tried to order the cortege to move on but changed their minds when mourners scuffled with police and yelled ``This corpse is ours.''
The conservative leader held the presidency from 1966-1978 and 1986-1996, and was a staunch anti-communist ally of the United States.
He largely escaped blame for atrocities committed early in his rule and under his mentor, military dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was assassinated in 1961.
After Balaguer assumed power, hundreds of people were kidnapped or disappeared. Later, his human rights record improved.
One of Latin America's last caudillos, or strongmen, Balaguer presented more the image of a kindly country doctor than a stern ruler. He was little more than five feet tall, lame and squinted from behind thick-framed glasses.
After winning 1994 elections marred by fraud charges, Balaguer reluctantly stepped down under domestic and U.S. pressure in 1996.