By Emma Rosenberg and Mario Alejandro Ariza
The Dominican Republic is a country that prides itself on “firsts.” Wander through the streets of Old Santo Domingo, and you will find the coral stones of the first Cathedral ever built in the Americas, the steps of the first university, the ruins of the first hospital. It doesn’t matter to Dominicans that these “firsts” were quickly superseded, that the island’s glory as launch pad for Spain’s colonial misadventures in the new world was brief, and that the country’s subsequent history was shaped by the malign neglect of various world powers.
In late June, the Dominican Republic continued their legacy of “firsts;” challenging the nomination of James Brewster, who, if confirmed by the senate, will be the first openly gay U.S. ambassador to the island nation. James Brewster’s assignment coincides with Obama’s nomination of five other gay ambassadors within the last two months, and the Dominican Republic has been, to date, the only nation to complain. This was not a “first” that the Dominican Republic wanted to claim as their own.
LGBT groups in the Dominican Republic and the United States have adamantly defended the nomination, accusing the religious leaders of homophobic, reactionary views.
Dominican religious leaders, claiming to represent lay opinion in a deeply religious country, responded to the nomination with various forms of outrage, even demanding the administration of President Danilo Medina publicly reject Brewster. Reverend Cristobal Cardozo, leader of the Dominican Evangelical Fraternity, contested that sending a gay ambassador was “an insult to good Dominican customs.” Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, archbishop of Santo Domingo, observed, “In the United States anything can happen. But there’s no one in this country who doesn’t know what my position is on the matter.” In perhaps the most vitriolic of the responses, Vicar Pablo Cedano warned “If he arrives, he’ll suffer and will be forced to leave.”
News of the controversy has made its way into U.S. publications in the form of headlines like ”Catholic Cardinal Calls Gays Faggots During Interview About Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador Nominee” and “Dominicans Freak Out Over Gay Ambassador Pick.” LGBT groups in the Dominican Republic and the United States have adamantly defended the nomination, accusing the religious leaders of homophobic, reactionary views.
The judicial consultant to the Dominican president, preferring to adhere to diplomatic protocol, offered only one statement: “It would be in bad taste for the state to comment on this nomination.”
The Dominican Republic’s right-wing reaction could simply be categorized as homophobia; backwards priests in the tropics spreading words of hate. But to truly grasp the significance of the country’s response, beyond derogatory slurs, one must first understand the relationship between the United States and the Dominican Republic.
Serial American interventions have brought infrastructure and economic development, but at the price of self-determination in foreign and domestic affairs.
Over the course of the last century, America has taken only a desultory interest in the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s more developed neighbor has turned heads in the U.S. only as an occasional strategic market or political nuisance. In fact, this month marks the 48th anniversary of Operation Power Pack, the second of four U.S. interventions in the Dominican Republic. At the urging of W. Tapley Bennett Jr., the incumbent U.S. Ambassador at the time, America sent over 20,000 marines to stymie a popular revolutionary uprising against a fascist military junta and “prevent another Cuba.” Serial American interventions have brought infrastructure and economic development, but at the price of self-determination in foreign and domestic affairs.
U.S. Ambassadors maintain irrefutable political power, second only to the republic’s president. The success, or demise, of a regime can depend on the ambassador’s agenda. Free and fair elections have been rigged and marred by violence at the Ambassador’s behest. Steward of over 1.7 billion dollars of direct U.S. investment, and some 11.5 billion dollars in two-way trade, the ambassador is an exceptionally powerful envoy in an exceptionally weak country.
Transparency International listed the Dominican Republic as the second most corrupt country in the hemisphere. Machismo, an ordering societal principal on the island, is an expression of hegemonic masculinity, manifesting itself in a tendency towards clientelistic politics. This exaggerated masculinity also girds a world view that boils homosexuality down to buggery and draws a distinction between the receiving and the penetrating partners, reserving the most scorn for the bugarrón, or receiver.
Though homosexuality is legal within the Dominican Republic, there are few public spaces where openness is tolerated. Yet, if keeping behind closed doors is common on the island, it is not just a symptom of widespread prejudice. Machismo guards the boundary of “straight” very differently than North American heterosexuality does. In the Dominican Republic, men who sleep with other men might not be considered “gay” if they are the penetrating partner. Men who perform their sexuality in a less masculine way, however, often become the targets of discrimination and violence.
The Dominican Republic has historically been the testing ground for projects of modernity, imposed by empires on the populace with often detrimental outcomes.
While the appointment of an openly gay ambassador is a sign of a civil rights victory in the United States, it has other meanings in the Dominican Republic: when the Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez observes that “we can expect anything from the United States,” he is referring not only to the moral license and depravity that he perceives in American culture, but also to the unexpected ways that victories in America’s culture wars become imperial policy. Despite U.S. embassy spokesman Daniel Foote’s clarification that “Brewster arrives as an ambassador, [not] as an activist for the gay community,” he has already become an energizing figure for the Dominican Republics’ fledgling LGBQT community. Are we to give any shrift, then, to the echoes of anti-imperialism in the Cardinal’s statements?
A civil rights victory has become foreign policy, enforced through the same vectors of power and influence that have historically characterized the relationship between the two countries. It matters little if the power disparity that exists between the United States and Dominican Republic dates back to the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the U.S. declared the Caribbean its Mare Nostrum. The embodiment of this power imbalance now is a gay white male, which indicates that either the powers-that-be knew little or nothing of the status and practice of homosexuality in the Dominican Republic, or, more troublingly, knew and did not care.
And yet, if the appointment of James Brewster as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic leads to greater freedom for the country’s gay, lesbian, and transgendered community, why should we protest the means that achieved it?
The Dominican Republic has historically been the testing ground for projects of modernity, imposed by empires on the populace with often detrimental outcomes. The Spaniards came bearing Christianity and agriculture, the Haitians enforced abolition and land reform, and the Americans promised capital and market integration. But the benevolence of empires comes at a price: Spain slaughtered the native Indians, Haiti’s occupation triggered an insurrection, and the United States suzerainty has led to chronic underdevelopment. Though the Dominican religious right’s reaction to Brewster’s nomination is blatantly homophobic, it points to the fact that social equality for the LGBQT community has now been added to the long list of civilizing efforts by outside powers. Only time will tell how this latest addition will complicate or liberate the lives of Dominicans.
Emma Rosenberg is a writer and artist from Boston, MA. Follow her @HomeExperiments.
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a poet and teacher from the Dominican Republic. He holds a master’s degree in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Columbia University.