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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ The Dominican Republic closed the curtain on an era with the death of Joaquin Balaguer, one of Latin America's last strongmen, who ruled this Caribbean nation for 22 years.

Even out of office, Balaguer continued to influence the country's politics until his death Sunday of heart failure at age 95.

After he stepped down reluctantly in 1996 _ under pressure from the United States _ Balaguer engineered the election of his successor and, two years ago, the country's current president.

``Balaguer lives!'' mourners chanted Sunday night outside his modest home, where his body will remain until a state burial Wednesday. He had been taken to Santo Domingo's Abreu Clinic for a bleeding ulcer on July 4.

He was revered by many and reviled by others but largely escaped blame for atrocities committed under his mentor, military dictator Rafael Trujillo, and under his own stewardship.

He took a philosophical approach: ``Is there a valid morality for actions in political life and another very different one for private life? I don't know,'' he wrote in ``A Courtier's Memories During the Trujillo Era.'' ``But what is certain is that politics puts blinders on men and converts them into docile instruments of causes which we intimately reject.''

He was an unlikely strongman, standing little more than 5 feet tall, lame and blind but with amazing lucidity and a champion's will to win. ``He died fighting,'' said his party vice president, Rafael Bello Andino.

The government declared three days of mourning.

Balaguer was the last of a trio of Dominican leaders who vied for power for 40 years.

``Since 1961 until today, we have lived a democratic transition built upon three leaders'' said Balaguer's successor, former President Leonel Fernandez. ``Our great challenge is to consolidate our democracy through our institutions.''

All three built political parties anchored around themselves.

Juan Bosch, who died last year, created the Dominican Liberation Party, to which Fernandez belonged. Jose Francisco Pena Gomez led the Dominican Revolutionary Party to prominence, but died in 1998 before current President Hipolito Mejia won power.

Balaguer, as lifelong president of the Reformist Social Christian Party, kept a remarkable hold on power even after he stepped down in 1996.

Opponents and supporters agreed Balaguer was the equilibrium holding the country together, despite his early persecution of opponents and accusations of election frauds to perpetuate his power.

Balaguer helped engineer the election of Fernandez. In 2000, at the age of 92, he ran again for the presidency, coming third. He refused to support Fernandez, giving the victory to Mejia.

He last appeared in public a year ago. But his party has held the presidency of the House of Representatives for the last three years and in May became the second largest in the Senate.

``Balaguer, without you this island will sink!'' a crowd outside his home yelled.

A Dominican flag flew at half-staff there while police officers struggled to keep supporters from pushing down the gates or climbing the fence.

Mourners inside, some clasping rosaries, quietly filed past the bed where his body lay, dressed in a dark suit with a presidential sash.

Women wailed, men wept, some yelled hysterically, calling Balaguer ``the father of the poor.''

Yet more than half the country's 8 million people live in poverty and thousands fled hardship for the United States while Balaguer treated the national treasury as a private bank, administering the patronage that kept him popular.

Brought to power after a U.S. invasion put down a leftist revolt, Balaguer held the presidency from 1966-1978 and 1986-1996.

Few people had access to him. He never married or had children, confining his passions to politics, collies and antique cars.

In 1956, Trujillo named Balaguer vice president, then four years later president.

Balaguer was ousted by the army after Trujillo's assassination in 1961 and fled to New York City.

His successor, Juan Bosch, worried the United States with his fiery support for land reform and nationalizing businesses and he, too, was ousted in a coup.

Army leftists tried to restore Bosch in 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent 20,000 U.S. Marines to stifle the revolt.

Balaguer returned and was elected president, becoming a staunch anti-communist ally of the United States.

Early in his rule, hundreds of people were kidnapped or disappeared and many went into exile.