Dominicans Wary of U.S. Military Presence
Anyone casting a glance across the acres of armored vehicles, aircraft and olive-drab shelters arrayed around an abandoned airstrip here might be forgiven for assuming the U.S. armed forces have come to stay.
The seaside territory is abuzz with Black Hawk helicopter sorties and successive waves of arriving soldiers, all part of a four-month humanitarian and training mission under a Pentagon program known as Operation New Horizons. The U.S. military aims to build four prefabricated medical clinics and train 3,500 troops, mostly reservists, shuttling into this remote western port in two-week rotations.
But the scale of the operation and a U.S. aircraft carrier group’s deployment to the Caribbean for two months of maneuvers have raised eyebrows and protests among those who see the American military presence as a threat to their sovereignty, or a show of force against leftist Latin American leaders.
When the first miles-long convoys arrived in late March, hundreds demonstrated in the capital, Santo Domingo, chanting, “Yankees out!” As equipment and troops amassed over the following weeks with little explanation in the local media, suspicions deepened that the Americans were engaged in something more than a humanitarian mission.
And with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hinting that the operations are a prelude to invasion of his oil-rich country just south of here, nationalist alarm and skepticism have swelled to fill the information vacuum.
Radio broadcasts, the main news source for most Dominicans, have said that 11,000 U.S. troops are headed here with even more equipment, taxi driver Dario Padiana said.
“People are seeing all this stuff arrive and wondering how it can be for just a couple of clinics,” Padiana said. “People say the soldiers are here to build another base like the one they have at Guantanamo” Bay, Cuba.
Lt. Col. Angelica Reyes, commander of the operation here, downplayed the initial local resistance to her Puerto Rican Army National Guard unit’s presence, saying, “There was a minority that thought we would be staying here and establishing a base.”
The tensions flared into open hostility in early April when Reyes dispatched a Black Hawk to help recover the remains of civilians killed in a small-plane crash in a mountain area inaccessible to Dominican aircraft. The U.S. troops were fired on while retrieving the bodies.
New Horizons officers appealed to local officials to inform the community about the aims of the mission here, Reyes said. She notes that relations have improved in recent days as the clinics take shape, military medics conduct free checkups, and soldiers distribute donated school supplies and clothing.
The troops are prohibited from leaving the compound except on mission-related tasks and are confined to the massive tent camp after 6 p.m., said Spc. Pedro Alcazar, a combat engineer among the 90 soldiers here for the duration of the mission.
New Horizons missions, which have been training reservists for more than a decade and last year treated 236,000 people in 70 locations in Latin America, have at times coincided with Cuban medical brigades conducting relief work. But a project official declined to characterize them as a U.S. counter-campaign to win the hearts and minds of the needy.
“The Cubans are extremely good at getting their message out,” said William Knightly, an architect of the New Horizons projects at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami. He acknowledged that the Communist healthcare volunteers deployed throughout Latin America “get better press” than the U.S. forces, whose relief works he contends involve more significant investment of time and resources.
Dominicans expecting to benefit from the U.S. project in their homeland marvel at the staggering quantities of goods, troops and equipment brought in to put up four small buildings and carry out a few days of cursory examinations.
“We know we’re not being occupied, even though some people think that,” said Wallington Agramonte, observing that the modest building going up across the dirt road from his cinderblock home should offer his two young children their first real access to healthcare.
Those removed from the immediate dividends are more skeptical.
“I like the United States very much, but their military presence here is not acceptable,” said Jose B. Gautier, a foreign affairs analyst and self-described nationalist who studied at Cornell University. “The United States wouldn’t permit any foreign military presence on its soil, so why should we?”
The Dominican Republic has had a “bad experience” with U.S. troops propping up dictatorships in the region, and people here look askance at Washington’s current foreign policy, he added. “The United States is intervening in everything, but they have no right to run the entire world,” he said.
New Horizons planners dismiss the rumors of deeper involvement as the work of leftist agitators.
“In any country, you have a hard core of people who are involved in these conspiracy theories, and no amount of education or information is going to turn them around,” Knightly said.
The mission’s main purpose, he said, is to prepare reservists during annual active duty for noncombat tasks they might be assigned should their units be called up for service. Typical projects include well-drilling, civil engineering or aid to schools and hospitals, he said. Because it is funded under a special budget for humanitarian actions, New Horizons is barred from building any military facilities such as barracks or airfields, Knightly said.
Most of the projects on the operation’s open-ended agenda are planned for countries with good relations with Washington, Knightly said, adding that the only no-go zone he was aware of was Cuba. “Things are a little icy with Venezuela at the moment, but we still invite them to exercises,” he said.
The Bush administration and Chavez have been engaged in an escalating war of words since a short-lived 2002 coup against the fiery populist that Washington in effect endorsed by recognizing the putsch leaders during their two-day reign.
Tradewinds, the annual training and readiness exercises the U.S. Navy conducts with Caribbean allies, this month brought an aircraft carrier to the region for the first time in several years. The presence of the George Washington and three support warships sends a signal of U.S. commitment to security in the region, Southern Command officials say.
“This is not focused on Venezuela. The whole invasion idea is so ludicrous and ridiculous that it doesn’t even merit comment,” said Navy Capt. Mark Adrick, liaison officer for the Southern Command. The joint exercises and port calls are intended to enhance the “interoperability” of U.S. and regional forces in tackling such common threats as trafficking of drugs, weapons and people, he said.
The exercises included a drill in Jamaica in early April in which troops from the U.S. and 17 allied countries practiced containment of massive civil unrest, which military officials said was in preparation for the 2007 Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean. Leftist bloggers in the region, however, have cast it as training for a strike against Cuba or Venezuela.
Adrick said he wouldn’t speculate whether the carrier strike force’s deployment was meant to send a message to anti-U.S. figures such as Chavez or to newly influential players in the region, such as China.
“A carrier is the most visible warship on the planet. It always draws attention. If people want to draw inferences on why it’s there,” they’re free to do so, Adrick indicated with a wave of his hand.