Polyarchy in the Dominican Republic: The Elite versus the Elite

The two leading candidates in the upcoming Dominican Republic presidential election differ little when it comes to economic policy and the targeting of migrant and migrant-descendant communities.

Jeb Sprague-Silgado
05/06/2016

President incumbent Danilo Medina of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) addresses the national assembly

In the Dominican Republic, as in many other countries around the Caribbean, the political strategy of leading dominant groups in recent decades has been one of polyarchy – that is to say, the options in democratic elections have been limited to voters selecting between different factions of elites. Since the 1970s, U.S. foreign policymakers, along with an increasingly wide array of UN, EU and other international agency officials have come to promote this approach. If ideological differences can be minimized, with parties differing little on core issues like economic development, then electoral competition is not only unthreatening to dominant interests, but also legitimating to notions of democracy.

This scenario is on clear display in the Dominican Republic, where the country’s mainstream political establishment, while squabbling amongst themselves, has sought to further facilitate and benefit from this “new normal.” The upcoming May 15th general election pits the country’s two mainstream parties, the Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana, PLD) and the Modern Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Moderno or PRM), amidst a variety of other parties. 

The incumbent candidate and leader in the polls is Danilo Medina, of the PLD, and his main opponent is Luis Abinader of the PRM. Medina’s tenure in office has been marked by a deepening of the country’s integration with the global economy and a controversial “denationalization” program targeting Haitian migrant families and laborers and the descendants of Haitian migrants.

Abinader’s major campaign platform has been centered on criticizing the Medina administration for its corruption. But the policies of these candidates, which actually differ very little, are reflective of the processes of polyarchy that have taken hold in this country through recent decades. Both candidates are backed by major business interests (such as CONEP—the National Council for Private Enterprise) and are calling to intensify the repression of Haitian migrant labor. Electoral politics have become shackled to the interests of leading dominant groups, who look to use elections in order to maintain the country as a spigot for global capitalist accumulation.

The Making of Polyarchy in the DR

The Dominican Republic has been challenged by decades of dictatorship, outside intervention, and neoliberal cronyism. Exploring this context can help us better understand these changing political dynamics. After over thirty years of dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961), Juan Bosch became the Dominican Republic’s first democratically elected president in 1963. Just seven months later, however, right wing putschists promptly overthrew him.  Faced with a revolt from below, the putschists were kept in power through a U.S. military intervention in 1965, which in turn held up the regime of President Joaquin Balaguer, a political protégée of the former dictator Trujillo.

Ultimately, a democratic opening occurred in the late 1970s when the Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano, PRD), originally founded in part by Bosch in 1939, came to office.  Since then, the PRD has traded positions with the PLD, and briefly, the Social Christian Reform Party (Partido Reformista Social Cristiano, PRSC) – the party associated with Balaguer. Over the last decade the PLD has become largely dominant, while the PRD (or at least amalgamations of it) has come to represent the Dominican Republic’s main official opposition.  

Up until the late 1990s some progressive figures like José Peña Gómez remained within the PRD even as it became increasingly neoliberal, but during the early 2000s the PRD abandoned its shrinking progressive wing. Dominican President Hipólito Mejía of the PRD (2000- 2004) supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, even sending a military contingent of several hundred troops, under the command of Spanish foreign legion officers. (Mejia briskly withdrew the Dominican military contingent when it started incurring casualties.) Under pressure from Haitian industrialists, Mejía also allowed factions of his military and foreign ministry to shelter and provide safe passage to neo-Duvalierist and ex-Haitian army groups running cross-border hit and run attacks on Haiti aimed at ousting then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s second popularly elected administration in Port-au-Prince. The OAS failed to even investigate the bloody assaults, which are now well documented through declassified U.S. Embassy cables.

The PLD returned to office in 2006 and the country continued to deepen its insertion into the global economy, so much that in recent years, the Dominican economy has become inseparable from transnational capitalist networks. The institutionally corrupt PLD, first under President Leonel Fernández (1996-2000, 2004-2012) and then under current President Danilo Medina (2012-present), has now cemented itself as the Dominican Republic’s ruling political force through a well-oiled electoral machine backed by large swaths of the country’s top business community. Leaders of the PLD have positioned themselves to become part of what some Dominican radicals describe as a “partidocracia” (Partocracy)— a form of highly factionalized government where one or a few parties control the political landscape.  Both leading parties have codified their relationships with transnational capital through the DR-CAFTA supranational economic forum.

The DR is currently the largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the history of the Caribbean basin. Most important for this growth in FDI has been the transnational mining corporation Barrick Gold, which currently operates the second largest open pit gold mine in the world in the country, which had $8 billion in gross revenue between 2012 and 2016. The Dominican state, meanwhile, has received just $377 million over these years as a part of a recently renegotiated contract.

The country has also been a leader in the region, along with Puerto Rico, for its promotion of the export processing zone (EPZ) model. As demarcated zones of production for the global economy where low wage regimented labor forces are promoted as a “comparative advantage,” transnationally oriented state elites and capitalists have used EPZs as a mechanism to greatly profit off the restructuring of productive relations. The Dominican Republic now has the region’s second largest industrial sector. The Dominican government now promotes resort and cruise ship tourism at record levels with new walled off ports, golf courses, and private beaches.  In 2011, tourism in the country generated $4.3 billion in revenues, while 3.7 million foreign visitors traveled through the country’s airports and 430,000 visited the island onboard cruise vessels. By the following year the country had become the region’s most highly visited tourist destination.

Cheap generic drugs sold at subsidized prices, and charismatic campaigns, have also helped the ruling PLD party maintain its political longevity. Billboards and T-shirts sporting the ruling parties’ candidates are everywhere.  Yet as de facto social apartheid enclaves of the global economy take root, the propaganda of “trickle down economics” is unmasked by grim statistics: 53.8% of the Dominican population in poverty or extreme poverty, 700,000 youths with neither work nor study. Education is also under threat, with officials of the two mainstream political parties promoting school privatization.

Meanwhile, the government continues to repress implicit criticisms of the new transnational crony capitalism. Recently, the Medina administration facilitated the arbitrarily firing of one of the Dominican Republic’s most credible television journalists, Marino Zapete when he refused to air a paid political function of Medina in Panama. Zapete had worked for Noticias SIN (Servicios Informativos Nacionales), which is controlled by powerful wealthy families in the country, and contributes to the PLD’s hegemonic grip on power. Only a few non-corporate alternative media outlets now exist in the country.

The Current Political Configuration

After failed presidential campaigns in 2004, 2008, and 2012 the “old guard” of the PRD (known as los “Los Viejos Robles,” or the old oak trees) have largely been pushed aside. While the PRD was originally part of the old Caribbean democratic left that surged in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, the party’s ideological commitment to a progressive or left-leaning agenda has long since faded. And new leaders are now seeking to mount a more modern electoral campaign. After a contentious convention in 2015, the PRD, has replaced its “D” with an “M”, morphing into the so-called PRM.  Initially this new party took shape through a broader coalition, which included many leftists in the country, known as La Convergencia. Many observers— including this author— hoped the new coalition would spark an electoral force geared toward the popular classes in the country.

But these hopes have been dashed.  The country’s leadership, like that of many other important political parties and factions in the country, have become part of the elite and state managerial networks that serve transnational capital and enriches itself in the process. This structural relationship can be seen not only in how state officials move into corporate positions when out of office, but also by looking at the business interests who finance their campaigns and most benefit from the policies they enact.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, PRM candidate Luis Abinader, considered less corrupt then many other leading politicians, launched a salvo campaign against the current Medina government over its widely recognized accusations of corruption.  The anti-corruption campaigning has further been strengthened in recent years, by the activism of groups such as “Cadena Humana OISOE.” It has likely been bolstered by anti-corruption crusades in other parts of Latin America, as well as growing local concern over the issue.

Meanwhile, USAID, the NED (National Endowment for Democracy), and a number of other foreign government and supranational agencies have backed programs over the years sponsoring Dominican party leaders and cadre for “democratic training,” with the aim of promoting political agendas that align with the interests of dominant groups. The Dominican military and border forces meanwhile (sponsored by U.S. agencies such as the DEA and Department of Homeland Security) are mainly used as a force for labor discipline and patrolling Haitian migrant communities.

As the fog has cleared, it has become clear that Abinader and his group offer little if any change from the current forces in office. Tacking to the right (or perhaps simply showing his true colors), in mid-2015, Abinader allied the PRM with the PRSC, the ultra-right political party founded by the late Balaguer.  Shortly after, things only got worse when Abinader, who attended Harvard and Dartmouth, announced that former New York City mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, had been brought on board as “security consultant” to his campaign.

On one of the most sensitive issues in Dominican political life, the status of persons of Haitian descent, Abinadar’s evolution highlights his sharp right turn. In 2013, a Dominican Supreme Constitutional Tribunal stripped over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, which, just a few years ago, Abinader publicly denounced. Decried by human rights groups and social movements, it has only served to intensify the vulnerability of super-exploited migrants, their descendants, and among them many lower-income families, who are targeted often as both undocumented and as a negatively racialized social group. But in recent months Abinader has reversed course completely.  He now describes how if he were to become president there would be no more “illegals” in the country. Hoping to appeal to the DR’s ultra-nationalistic and rightist sectors, he has jumped on the bandwagon with frenzied xenophobic rhetoric.  

Today, neither the PLD, nor the PRM, resemble their original political formations.  As a recent study, published by an elite-oriented “democracy promotion” group, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, observed that both parties have shifted from their disparate roots towards an economic model emphasizing exports and tourism. “The result is a shift in the ideological content of the parties,” the study concludes.

Meanwhile, on the political margins of Dominican politics even more reactionary forces loom and have received significant airtime in the country’s media.  The most retrograde of these far-right movements is the National Progressive Force (Fuerza Nacional Progresista, FNP), headed by the elderly Mario Vinicio Castillo, whose career dates back to the late Trujillo era.  The FNP is a group that can only be described as fascist, in the mold of the racist party’s of the European right, such as the French National Front.

Alternatives on the Left?

Even under the repressive practices of the Dominican national police, movements from below continue to percolate in the country – everything ranging from student activism against the privatization of education at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD) to border communities who have worked in solidarity to protect the rights of their Haitian compatriots. On March 8, seventy organizations fighting for the rights of women marched in Santo Domingo for the defense of sex workers and LGBTI collectives, as well as for Dominican women of Haitian descent. They also protested the country’s total ban on abortion in response to moves by the major parties as well as further right-wing Dominican politicians, such as those affiliated with the PRSC, who have taken a leading voice in promoting the criminalization of sexual and reproductive health.

Within the electoral arena, there have also emerged in recent years several smaller third parties in the country, which are pressing for change. Guillermo Moreno of the Nation Alliance (Alianza Pais), a former militant of the DR’s Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento por el socialism, MPS) in the 1980s, has become one of the most respected voices against corruption in the country. His presidential candidacy often polls between three and five percent. His Alianza Pais party is rooted most strongly among middle-class and student groups and ahead of the 2016 elections has formed a coalition with two other small parties, Nation for All (Patria Para Todos, PPT) and Force of the Revolution (Fuerza de la Revolución, FR). Together they look to move toward a “refounding” of the nation along the lines of leftist and center-left projects of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).  The PPT, in particular, has a strong working-class base and one of its members, Jesús Núñez, is the leader of the Dominico-Haitian and Haitian sugar workers, who have been fighting for pensions.  Núñez is running for congress for Haina district, a municipality in the capital.

While the coalition headed by Alianza Pais appears the best alternative for left and progressive forces, some of its leadership is surprisingly socially conservative in many respects. Guillermo Moreno himself, for instance, opposes gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights, except in cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk. He has made few attempts to reach out to the DR’s large and persecuted Haitian community. And in dedicating himself to the fight against corruption, he has missed opportunities to be more vocal about class-based issues, for instance offering his support to labor campaigns ongoing in the country.

Other smaller groups on the left exist, but are often seen as extensions of the NGO community. The electoral coalition of two leading figures Minou Tavarez and Max Puig, the Alliance for Democracy (Alianza por la Democracia, APD) is one such example. Former members of the PLD, they are now major critics of the government, but lack much of a political following. Unlike the other left parties, however, they have invited activists to run under their party and have organized community assemblies allowing ordinary people to register as candidates.  Another well-known feminist activist from NGO circles, Selgia Galvan, is also running under the APD banner (for deputy in Distrito Nacional, the subdivision enclosing the capital Santo Domingo). Pushing back against entrenched xenophobia and gender discrimination on the island, a handful of younger activists of Haitian descent, like Yesibon Reynoso from Colectivo Isleño, and one openly gay man, Deivis Ventura, are running for city council positions and other local offices.   

While many positive and forward-thinking groups and individuals can be pointed out, the dynamics set in by years of polyarchy are clear:  the dominant parties will win the elections handily, as recent polls for the presidential contest indicate. Whereas Medina polls at a mid-to-high 50 percentage of likely voters, Abinader polls in the low-to-mid thirties.

Historical myth and socially constructed ideas of race have played into the ruling class logic of the Dominican political establishment, which touts itself as a "Hispanic" state, divinely inspired to oppose Haiti's “Africanness.” Political campaign ads in Santiago (the country’s second largest city) proclaim, “Somos Dominicanos” (We Are Dominicans) implying that the others, the Haitians in their midst, are outsiders. It is a script that plays perfectly into the hands of elites seeking to divide and rule. It will be up to the Left and progressive forces to forge new transnational and cross-border forms of solidarity and coordination, to break down and recognize racialized divisions, patriarchy, chauvinism, and the nature of class and state power. Whoever between the two major parties obtains victory on May 15th, little will change in the near future with polyarchy well intact.


Jeb Sprague-Silgado is the author of Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (Monthly Review, 2012) and the forthcoming book The Caribbean and Global Capitalism. He was recently interviewed on Latin Pulse on topics covered in this article. To read an extended version of this article in Spanish, click here.

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