U.S. ally wins in Dominican Republic

June 6, 2008

Emmanuel Santos looks at the background to the re-election victory of Leonel Fernández, the president of the Dominican Republic and one of the few remaining strong U.S. allies in Latin America.

PRESIDENT LEONEL Fernández from the centrist Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) got re-elected for a third term May 16 in a highly polarized presidential vote that lacked a political alternative to his rule.

Fernández won 53 percent of the votes, avoiding a runoff against his main rival, Miguel Vargas Maldonado, from the nominally left-wing Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), who came in second with 40 percent of the votes.

The populist, right-wing Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) came in third with less than 5 percent of the votes, a sign of further deterioration for an organization that that was once an important bastion of the right.

The remaining 1 percent of the votes was distributed among smaller parties such as the Independent Revolutionary Party (PRI), a split from the PRD, as well as new political formations known as partidos emergentes (emerging parties) that seek to challenge the traditional parties.

Among the contenders from the partidos emergentes was Pedro de Jesus Candelier, a former police chief with a history of police brutality. His law-and-order platform combined nationalist rhetoric with praise for Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. By invoking Chavez's progressive reforms, Candelier hoped to confuse independent and left-wing voters who have become disillusioned with both the traditional left in the PRD as well as the ruling PLD.

Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández meets with George Bush in the White House
Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández meets with George Bush in the White House

In reality, Candelier used left-wing rhetoric as a cover for a reactionary platform that would give more power to the police and the military to fight crime. But Candelier got a pitiful 0.15 percent of the vote, indicating people still remember his criminal past as a police executioner responsible for the deaths of many people.

Dominicans' rejection of his reactionary law-and-order stance runs counter to the argument--spread by mainstream media outlets and international think tanks--that people in Latin America and the Caribbean want a return to authoritarian rule.

Another candidate from the partidos emergentes was Guillermo Moreno, who was to the left of all the traditional parties. Moreno is a former PLD member who served as a prosecutor during Fernández's first term from 1996 to 2000 and who got fired for his attempt to prosecute corruption scandals within the government.

Moreno ran as a moderate, hoping to attract middle-class voters who wanted more efficiency and decency in government. His campaign was backed by sections of the traditional left, mainly the Movement for Independence, Unity and Change, an electoral front of the Communist Party of Labor, as well as the organization Force of Revolution, labor unions, grassroots organizations and intellectuals.

The left wanted to achieve 2 percent of the votes in order to build a new political alternative to the traditional party system, but failed to achieve in this initial goal--it received just 0.44 percent, a dismal figure that could throw it into further crisis.

The failure of the left to gain support from ordinary people was due in part to Moreno's lack of a social base that could have rallied to his side. Additionally, Moreno's campaign didn't offer a political alternative to working people, because it didn't raise class issues such as unemployment and the high cost of living.

IN THE meantime, voters rejected the PRD candidate because he brought memories of the catastrophic economic policies implemented in 2003 by the PRD government of Hipólito Mejia in the wake of the biggest economic meltdown the country had seen in more than 100 years.

The collapse of the economy was precipitated by the unveiling of a bank fraud that led to an unprecedented government bailout even as social services were slashed and taxes were raised for ordinary people. The PRD is still regarded as corrupt and inefficient in the eyes of many people. But another important factor in the PRD's defeat is constant factional infighting that has wounded the party's ability to rally its base.

Unlike the PRD, the PLD's access to unprecedented government funds enabled it to rally its base and retain loyal supporters by placing them on the government payroll. The ruling party also ran a centrist platform that promised more jobs as well as an increase of food and gas subsidies amid a world food crisis that has already led to violent protest in neighboring Haiti last April.

The government has provided huge subsidies to basic food staples such as rice, oil, milk and bread. And a few months before the elections, subsidies for students and health care services for pregnant women went into effect. By postponing the crisis, the PLD government was able to shore up its electoral support and assure Dominican business that the social unrest in Haiti wouldn't spread across the border.

Another important factor that secured Fernández's re-election was an alliance with smaller political parties ranging from the extreme right to the center, while spending millions on a propaganda machine that included thousands of journalists and a PR operation. Fernández showcased his public works projects such as the Santo Domingo Metro, painting himself as the candidate of progress and modernity. This helped attract a large layer of new voters too young to remember the ideological wars of the past.

Additionally, Fernández attracted the conservative vote from the ailing PRSC by declaring himself Joaquin Balaguer's heir, a nod to the policies of the former strongman and U.S. ally who crushed the left and the labor movement after the defeat of the revolution of 1965, which U.S. troops helped to suppress.

Balaguer was also a defender of the 1937 Haitian Massacre, and one of the main exponents of anti-haitianismo, the anti-Haitian racist ideology that to this day undermines unity between Dominican and undocumented Haitian workers against the bosses.

In fact, Fernández first became president in 1996 with the aid of Balaguer's PRSC, which concocted an alliance with him against the PRD's presidential candidate, José Francisco Peña Gomez, a Black Dominican of Haitian descent. That alliance was a direct consequence of a 1994 political deal--the Pact for Democracy--signed by the traditional parties, the bosses, and important sectors of the labor movement.

After Balaguer stole the 1994 elections from Peña Gomez, the political compromise allowed the former strongman to stay in power for two more years with the explicit consent of the U.S., which feared a popular revolt as the post-electoral crisis deepened.

The pact mandated new elections in 1996 and established a complex runoff rule that made it difficult for any candidate to win in a second round without a coalition alliance. Thus, in 1996, the PRD's Peña Gomez won the election, but was forced to face a run-off against Fernández because he didn't get a majority of votes in the first round.

During the runoff campaign, the PRSC-PLD alliance, known as the Patriotic Front, unleashed a racist campaign against the PRD candidate, accusing him of promoting a plan in which the Dominican Republic and Haiti would be fused into one country under the tutelage of international powers such as the U.S., France and Canada.

The Patriotic Front used the crudest racist stereotypes about Haitians to attack the charismatic opposition leader, who was popular among working-class Dominicans of all colors. At the end, the racist campaign succeeded in preventing Peña Gomez from becoming president. This was a victory for the right and the racist Dominican ruling class, who welcomed the neoliberal policies put in place during Fernández's first term in office from 1996-2000.

A 2006 Financial Times article by Richard Lapper traced back Fernández's trajectory from his involvement with the old PLD to the present:

In the early 1970s, he [Fernández] had helped [Juan] Bosch form the left-wing pro-Cuban Dominican Liberation Party, the principal aim of which was to campaign against U.S. influence in the country. Any doubts have long since been put to rest, however. After a successful first term in which he embraced the market, selling off loss-making [state] companies and opening up the country to private investment, Mr. Fernández, 52, has become the voice of reason as far as business groups are concerned.

So far, it appears that Fernández will continue to deport undocumented Haitian immigrants; enact harsh anti-abortion laws while deregulating the economy and opening up the country to foreign investment by creating a tax-haven in this side of the island. In addition, the private sugar industry, in partnership with the Dominican state, will soon undertake a major ethanol project.

But to undertake ethanol production will require the use of Haitian immigrants, whose cheap labor is needed by the sugar tycoons. As the food crisis in Haiti intensifies, a new wave of desperate Haitian immigrants will be forced to cross the border in search of jobs. (Desperate Dominicans, for their part, will try to cross the shark-infested Mona Passage in wooden boats to search for jobs in Puerto Rico.)

Because undocumented Haitian immigrants and Dominico-Haitians lack full citizenship rights, the ruling class can further exploit them while using racism to prevent any unity between Dominican and Haitian workers to fight against raids and deportations, and ultimately, fight for better wages. Unfortunately, the leadership of the labor movement and the traditional left remain silent when raids and deportations occur, because they too often embrace racist ideas against Haitian immigrants and black Dominicans.

The fight against anti-Haitian racism and the militarization of the border need be at the forefront of any political alternative to the traditional party system and the system as a whole in order to dismantle the system of oppression and exploitation that exists in the Dominican Republic.

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