The Miami Herald
Mon, Jul. 15, 2002

Dominican ex-president Balaguer dies

Leader's influence spanned decades


  Joaquín Balaguer, who ruled the Dominican Republic for 22 years and helped decide the winners of the past two presidential elections even though he
  was in his 90s, blind and barely able to walk, died Sunday. He was 95.

  The former president died of heart failure about 4:30 a.m. at Abreu Clinic in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, where he had been hospitalized
  since July 4 for a bleeding ulcer, said Rafael Bello Andino, his closest aide and vice president of Balaguer's Reformist Social Christian Party.

  ''Balaguer lives! Balaguer lives!'' hundreds of supporters shouted outside his modest Santo Domingo home, where his body was taken. ''Balaguer,
  without you this island will sink!'' said one mourner, while others wept and waved photos of the former leader.

  President Hipólito Mejía praised Balaguer as ''one of the most distinguished political leaders in all of Dominican history.'' The government declared three
  days of national mourning, and the funeral was scheduled for Wednesday.

  Balaguer was the only topic of conversation Sunday among customers at Merengue Café in Little Havana.

  ''It's a sign of his widespread support that everyone, from all political parties, was watching his health,'' said José Hernández, the pianist at the
  Dominican restaurant.


  ''He represented the people. He represented democracy,'' Hernández said. ``The country progressed much under his command. I think he has left a
  huge void in the Dominican world. The Dominican people need someone like Balaguer.''

  Almost a prototype for Latin America's autocratic and often quirky strongmen, known as caudillos, Balaguer was so cunning that some Dominicans
  whispered he used black magic to stay in power.

  But while his eccentricities recalled those of the aged dictator in Gabriel García Márquez's novel Autumn of the Patriarch, Balaguer ruled through a less
  magical, more real, mix of patronage, corruption and vote fraud.


  His time in power spanned the Trujillo era and the Dominican Republic's bumpy transition toward democracy, and ended when charges of vote fraud
  forced him to leave office in 1996.

  But even as he left the presidential palace, Balaguer maneuvered to decide the 1996 election in favor of Leonel Fernández, then ensured Mejía's victory
  in 2000 by refusing to press for a runoff.

  The conservative, five-foot-three Balaguer never married, did not smoke and seldom drank, and wore black hats, black suits and black ties every day
  after his mother died in 1973 at age 97.

  Even as president he lived in the servants' quarters of his family home, a five-room cottage behind the main house where the rest of the family lived.
  Among his servants was always at least one dwarf who swept his sidewalk every day.

  And every Sunday he went to a Santo Domingo cemetery to visit the graves of his mother and several of his six sisters, sometimes holding news
  conferences on Dominican politics after he had finished praying.

  While personally frugal, he surrounded himself with corrupt aides, known as ''the palace ring,'' who took bribes for everything from lottery sales to the
  massive public works projects he launched.

  ''You must carve your legacy in stone,'' he once wrote of his penchant for government constructions projects, which also provided jobs for supporters of
  his Reformist Social Christian Party.

  Proud of his Spanish and Catholic heritage, Balaguer always admired European intellectuals and rejected the argument that pre-Columbian people had
  also made major contributions to Latin American culture.

  He chose 1992 -- the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to America -- to inaugurate his most ambitious building project: a huge lighthouse in
  Santo Domingo that cast a beam in the shape of a cross thousands of feet into the sky.

  Balaguer, born Sept. 1, 1906, in the central farm town of Navarrete, proved a precocious youngster, writing the first of his more than 20 books when he
  was 14. He went to Spain and France to study law in the 1930s.

  He joined the foreign service when he returned home and was acting foreign minister in 1937, when dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's troops massacred
  at least 10,000 migrants from neighboring Haiti.

  He later wrote a harshly racist tract blaming Haitian poverty on its peoples' African background, and often complained that Haitian migrants were
  ''darkening'' the blood of Dominicans. The two countries share the island of Hispaniola.

  Under international pressure to surrender power, Trujillo appointed Balaguer president in 1960. Trujillo's assassination in 1961 forced Balaguer into exile
  the next year and led to the 1963 election won by leftist Juan Bosch.


  A military coup toppled Bosch after seven months in office and led to a civil war, quelled by U.S. Marines in 1965. But instead of returning Bosch to power,
  U.S. officials backed Balaguer in the 1966 election.

  His first 12 years in power were marked by harsh repression. Human rights activists alleged that soldiers and police killed 3,000 opposition leaders.
  Balaguer called the death squads ''gangs of uncontrolled elements,'' but did little to bring them under control.

  Balaguer lost the presidency in 1978 and went to the opposition for eight years. But he returned to power in 1986 and was given high marks for rescuing
  a stalled economy by cutting public spending and raising taxes.

  He reopened the taps on public construction projects in time to be reelected in 1990, rewarding supporters with government jobs while campaign aides
  handed out bicycles and envelopes with small amounts of cash.

  By the 1980s he was all but blind and by 1994 he could only shuffle his way around with an aide at each elbow. But to the end, he remained an effective
  public speaker, master of flowery declamations salted with references to famous and obscure figures of history.

  Balaguer pulled out all the stops in the 1994 election to defeat his longtime nemesis, José Francisco Peña Gómez, a black Social Democrat believed to be
  the son of Haitians killed in the 1937 massacre. Balaguer won, but allegations of vote fraud were so widespread that he was forced to accept a
  compromise under which he would serve only half the four-year term and not seek reelection in 1996.

  Balaguer maneuvered craftily in 1996 to again deny the presidency to the front-running Peña Gómez by throwing his support behind Fernández and his
  Dominican Liberation Party, or PLD.

  He ran again in the 2000 elections, finishing a distant third while Mejía finished first but just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Balaguer,
  in effect, decided the outcome in Mejía's favor by refusing to join the PLD in a runoff alliance and forcing PLD candidate Danilo Medina to concede defeat
  and avert a second round of balloting.

  Balaguer was the last survivor of three key protagonists of Dominican politics. Peña Gómez died in 1998; Bosch died in November.

  Herald staff writer Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.