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Joaquin Balaguer, 95; Dominican President Served Seven Terms

July 15, 2002|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joaquin Balaguer, the diminutive poet, president and patriarch who towered over the Dominican Republic through nearly a half-century of turmoil, U.S. occupation and enduring poverty, died Sunday. He was 95.

A father figure and kingmaker to the end for his Caribbean nation of 8 million, Balaguer died from heart failure after days on a respirator in a Santo Domingo hospital.

"The doctors tried to save him until 4:30 [a.m.], when he died fighting," Rafael Bello Andino, Balaguer's closest aide, told reporters.

It was an apt epitaph for the seven-term president, who was last seen in public a year ago. His final presidential term ended early in 1996 under a cloud of election fraud. But the blind and frail Balaguer continued to manipulate Dominican politics as counselor, peacemaker and benefactor.

Despite his array of infirmities, Balaguer again ran in the most recent presidential election two years ago, his grandfatherly face and ever-present black fedora plastering the streets on posters under the slogans: "President through two centuries" and "No one needs while Balaguer breathes."

He and his Social Christian Reform Party came in third in that election--only the second time in his long political career that he lost.

Balaguer was one of Latin America's last great "caudillos," the strongmen rulers who blended paternal beneficence with an authoritarian omnipresence to build a rock-solid power base, largely with the poor.

Balaguer was born Sept. 1, 1906, in the northern Dominican town of Navarette. His father was a merchant who had emigrated from Puerto Rico.

Balaguer wrote his first book at 14, a collection of poetry called "Pagan Psalms." He graduated from law school in Santo Domingo and earned his doctorate of laws at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Beginning in the '30s, Balaguer served in several Cabinet and diplomatic posts through three decades under the country's brutal dictator Rafael Leonides Trujillo, who installed Balaguer as vice president and then as president during the final years before Trujillo's assassination in 1961.

Balaguer fled to exile in New York City after Trujillo's death, which unleashed a bloody, years-long battle between loyalist Dominican generals and leftists inspired by Fidel Castro's Cuba. He returned only after President Johnson sent some 20,000 U.S. Marines to the island nation to put down a leftist mutiny within the army in April 1965.

The following year, in U.S.-controlled elections, Balaguer was elected president--at a time when 60% of the nation was unemployed, two-thirds of its population was illiterate and its streets and towns were in ruin.

Author Mario Vargas Llosa, in his recent fact-based but fictional account of Trujillo's life, "The Feast of the Goat," describes Balaguer as a man who "transformed himself from a puppet president into a nonentity into an authentic head of state."

Balaguer did so through massive public works projects and frequent trips to the impoverished countryside. He doled out dolls for girls, bikes for boys and jobs for entire villages and towns. He micro-managed the economy, getting nightly briefings on the exact balance in the government's accounts. And, to the end, he was a faithful U.S. ally.

At the same time, the police and army brutally purged the ranks of the nation's political left. Balaguer called the oppressors "uncontrollable elements." Leftist leaders described Balaguer's first reign as "Trujilloismo without Trujillo" and "a democracy of the gallows."

But over the next three decades, Balaguer's loyalists returned him to power five more times. Through the years, his politics and policies mellowed with his ascending age and declining health.

During the May 16, 1986, elections that made the already frail Balaguer Latin America's oldest sitting president at the time, an aide had to guide his hand to the ballot box.

Balaguer's last victory came in 1994, when, already blinded by glaucoma and crippled by phlebitis, he began a final term that ultimately was halved to two years to appease opposition leaders who had alleged election fraud.

Still, so ubiquitous and powerful was Balaguer while in office that his most strident opponent, the long-exiled leftist leader Juan Bosch, declared after Balaguer defeated him in 1990, "We don't have a democracy here, we have a Balaguerocracy."

Even after he left office, Balaguer often cast a deciding vote through his party, a crucial coalition partner in opposition-controlled parliaments. Until Balaguer left for the hospital this month with a bleeding ulcer, Dominican President Hipolito Mejia was often seen at Balaguer's house for private consultations.

Throughout his career, Balaguer's private life belied his public image of power. A lifelong bachelor, he surrounded himself mostly with his seven sisters, one of whom survives him. He never moved from his austere, two-story home in a middle-class Santo Domingo neighborhood. He often said he loved his solitude.

Nicknamed "The Doctor" by his followers, Balaguer spent his spare time writing dozens of books of poetry and prose. He would enmesh himself in debates with diplomats over minor 15th century Spanish playwrights. And his lifestyle was so spartan that the Wall Street Journal once concluded Balaguer had "created a cult of personality from his lack of personality."

Even in death, the cult endured for some. Hundreds of his loyalists crowded his home on Avenida Maximo Gomez, where his body lay Sunday, chanting, "Balaguer lives!"

President Mejia declared that the nation will officially mourn Balaguer for three days; the funeral is scheduled for Wednesday for the man Mejia declared to be "one of the most distinguished political leaders in all of Dominican history ... the keeper of our democracy."

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