Dominican Republic

The opposition party official showed up, unexpected and obviously without sleep, at 7 a.m. A few hours earlier, confident of Victory, he had strode jubilantly through electoral headquarters promising embassadorships and ministry jobs.

In the early morning light, he appeared to be on the verge of tears."

Something terrible has happened," he said. "They're stopped the vote counting, and there's been a coup d'etat."

He pointed from the 10th floor hotel window out to the Caribbean, where two rushed cargo ships bobbed at anchor a few hundred yards offshore.

"Those are the U.S. Marines out there. It's all finished. They've come to take over."

THERE ARE several things that most Dominicans who have read some history profess to believe about their country. One is that elections are rarely fair. Another is that the country's U.S.-equipped armed forces will rarely hesitate to impose their will, or the will of whatever civilian they feel best protects their interests.

And finally, should something somehow to awry with the first two, experience has shown that the U.S. Marines will be waiting, just offshore, to set things straight.

So, despite initial indications and government promises that this year's presidential elections May 16 would be clean and calm, few Dominicans seemed surprised at what happened. Outraged and frightened maybe, but not surprised.

As it turned out, the marines didn't come and, so far at least, there has been no coup. But what began in the early hours of May 17 - when soldiers entered electoral headquarters as initial results showed a big opposition win, turned off the computers and told everybody to go home - was all too predictable.

As events unfolded, it began to seem to some outside observers, and more than a few cynical Dominicans, like an overacted Woody Allen screenplay.

FIRST CAME the actual military intervention, totally without explanation, shortly after most Dominicans had turned off broadcast returns and gone to bed thinking that, for the first time in anybody's memory, they were about to see a peaceful change in government.

By sunrise, although the muzzled radio and television avoided the subject of elections or soldiers, word had spread and Santo Domingo went into a well-drilled crisis alert.

Shops remained closed and cars off the streets. Shutters went up, door bolts were thrown, and the children stayed home from school.

U.S. Ambassador Robert L. Yost, a soft-spoken career diplomat who had arrived at his new post barely three weeks earlier, made an early morning call on President Joaquin Balaguer. The president's residence was surrounded by his supporters, many wearing red baseball caps, the government Reformist Party's official color, who chanted Balaguer's praises.

After waiting two hours in his limousine, while the chanters made up a new verse equating Yankee imperialism with the Spanish word for manure, Yost was turned away without having seen Balaguer.

U.S. INFLUENCE over the Dominican Republic has been a hot political topic here ever since president Buenaventura Baez, in hock to foreign banks, offered to annex the country to the United States in 1868. President Ulysses S. Grant went along with the idea, which was eventually turned down by the Senate.

Throughout this year's presidential campaign, the opposition criticized Balaguer for this close relations with the United States. Yet, the opposition quickly sensed where its own best interests lay.

"We have been in constant contact with the United States government," a spokesman for the Dominican Revolutionary Party said during those first tense days after the election.

BY THURSDAY morning, although the Balaguer government maintained its official silence, the vote counting resumed at the two places where the soldiers had originally intervened.

Throughout the day, however, armed soldiers remained outside both buildings, occasionally entering and inexplicably ordering the count halted.

At around noon, an election observer team from the Organization of American States, composed of three former Latin American presidents, hurried in black limousines to the Electoral Commission, where they successfully bullied a group of beligerent soldiers into holstering their guns and leaving the premises.

As the three observers walked back down the building's broad stairway, a reporter asked if they knew what was going on across town at the Congress building where troops had stopped the vote counting.

THe elderly ex-presidents raced down the stairs, jumped into their limousines, and sped through the empty streets toward the Congress building.

By the middle of last week, the counting had resumed uninterrupted and opposition candidate Antonio Guzman was eventually declared the winner. While the government party threatened to have the entire election annulled before Guzman's August inauguration, and the military barracks still buzzed with possible plots, at least the children went back to school.