Mubarak is going or gone and the Western World worries, what next? But dictatorships don’t have to end badly. If the Arabs generally, and Egypt most urgently, would only follow the Latin experience, the continuing turmoil on the streets of Cairo need not deteriorate into catastrophe at the cradle of civilization. Despite wide-spread fear and incendiary commentary, the radical Moslem Brotherhood is not a slam dunk to take over from the departing Egyptian autocrat.
Democracy can prevail, if Egypt studies Latin American history from about 1930 until 1980.
What weak civilian government existed in South and Central America during that sorry era was routinely overthrown and elected officials deposed in coups engineered by strutting, self-serving military officers acting to “save and protect” their respective countries.
They were macho men much like Mubarak, and for most of the 20th century, U.S.-supported dictatorships ruled the southern continent from Uruguay to Brazil, Chile to Argentina, and Nicaragua to the Dominican Republic. The gold-braided, medal-festooned, fake-shouldered El Supremo became a Latino stereotype, a comic punch line: El Comandante, el Jefe, el Generalissimo. Tropical Mussolini’s: Think Woody Allen’s “Bananas.”
But no joke—as in Egypt under Mubarak, tens of thousands of Latino dissidents were tortured, exiled, murdered or desaparecidos (disappeared) by successive generations of Hispanic fascists. And until the defeat of the real Nazis in 1945 and the later breakup of the Soviet Union, Washington and our mainstream media generally tolerated or more often ignored the repression of civil and human rights in Latin America, as in Egypt, because from the all-important perspective of our national security, the alternative was scarier.
None of our allies of that self-serving era was worse than sadistic Rafael Leónidas Trujillo who made the Dominican Republic his private torture chamber, piggy bank and whorehouse. Tens of thousands died, many millions in cash was robbed, and hundreds of virgins kidnapped and deflowered. Ruling from 1930 to 1961, Trujillo was as well-known for his cruelty as for his ties to both organized crime and Washington, D.C.
He was in many ways our creation. After the previous Dominican government threatened to default on loans made by U.S. banks, in 1916 we sent in the Marines, who led an eight-year U.S. military occupation of the Dominican Republic. When we pulled out in 1924 we left Generalissimo Trujillo in charge. When the strongman ran for president a few years later he won a Mubarak-like 95% of the vote. Statues of Trujillo were everywhere; “Dios and Trujillo” became the nation’s slogan; even the name of the capital city was changed from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo. Order prevailed. The Nazis and Commies were kept off the island of Hispaniola, and everyone was happy, except those troublemakers yearning to breathe free.
In 1961, Trujillo stopped breathing altogether when he was ambushed in a plot many claim was engineered by the CIA. He had outlived his geo-political usefulness, gotten too greedy, and perverse. And that brings me to the point of this salsa-flavored history lesson: democracy, not anti-American radicalism eventually followed Trujillo’s regime.
It didn’t happen overnight. Fragile at first, it was threatened for decades afterward by anarchy and an authentic, Castro-inspired left-wing threat that required a naval blockade and a second U.S.-led invasion in 1965. But finally, elected representative government has risen from the ashes of repression.
These days, the D.R. is no economic paradise for its people, but there has been explosive growth in the middle-class. Poverty has been mitigated and enterprise encouraged. Participation in the political process is widespread, and Dominicans have made a huge and positive impact on industries as far flung as tourism, fashion, film and béisbol; think designer Oscar de la Renta, “Avatar’s” Zoe Saldana and Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriquez.
With political and economic freedoms, along with fair trade and free travel to and from the United States and elsewhere, the Dominican Republic is transformed.
The Dominican Diaspora following the end of the dictatorship has also had a huge impact here. It has demographically transformed the New York City area where about 10% of the entire borough of the Bronx claims island ancestry, and Dominican shopkeepers now seem to own the entire Washington Heights neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Twenty-twenty hindsight makes it easy to second-guess and be embarrassed by the ruthless international pragmatism of that period. Don’t go there. Whether in the D.R. or Egypt, our national leadership saw a threat to America’s interests at the time and acted accordingly. History will judge us, but it will also note that by the 21st century our better angels prevail.
So to our friends along the Nile en Egipto, Si se puede, it can be done.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.