On January 22, tens of thousands of Dominicans wearing green clothes as a symbol of hope marched through the streets of Santo Domingo, in one of the nation’s largest mobilizations since the 1990s. Fed up with rampant corruption, wasted public funds, and the destructive impact of right wing policies, popular and middle class sectors are making their voices heard as part of the Movimiento Marcha Verde, or Green March Movement.
As of this writing, half a million people have marched for the cause. Unified around ending impunity, the mobilization of the so-called Greens has, in just a few months, put the government of President Danilo Medina (2012—), from the center-right Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party, PLD), on the defensive. The Green March protests seek to fight an entrenched system of privilege established by politicians and elites in the aftermath of the thirty-year dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (1930-1961).
Since Medina’s reelection in 2016, which was mired by a number of fraud allegations, anti-government sentiment has spread like wildfire on social media, exposing daily grievances stemming from neglect, nepotism, corruption, and police brutality.
Marcha Verde is a heterogeneous movement that brings together students, working class people, children of all ages, people with disabilities, chiriperos (informal workers), feminists, peasants, LGBTQ communities, artists, intellectuals, left-wing activists, environmentalists, religious groups, Dominicans of Haitian descent, healthcare workers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers. At the same time, large sections of the middle class, impoverished by the crisis and finding political affinity with the anti-corruption message, participate in the movement. In addition to an end to impunity, the movement demands the prosecution and imprisonment of all corrupt politicians and their allies and a return of stolen funds to be invested in government spending on basic needs such as healthcare and education.
Within a short time, the Green March has reached new heights. Jhonatan Liriano, an independent journalist, activist and editor of the volunteer-run web site El Grillo, reported to me that “the Green March has become the most important social movement in the Dominican Republic in the 21st century. There has been no other kind of movement with so much capacity for mobilization and impact on the country’s public agenda.”
In a YouTube video of the massive March 26th mobilization in Santiago, the Dominican Republic’s second city, the comedian and social critic Trompo Loco, said that the Marcha Verde movement was like an “open dam.”
The mobilization’s force is already reverberating internationally as Dominican immigrants in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights mobilize, speak out, contribute funds, and even travel back home to participate in the mobilizations. In a recent Facebook post, U.S.-based Dominican writer and poet Raquel Virginia Cabrera offered an interpretation of the mobilizations: “The emergence of critical thinking and its expansion into the social sectors that had previously remained silent or indifferent is one of the most significant victories that came out of the citizen mobilizations […] The so-called Marea Verde (Green Wave) can be the first step towards the formation of a new social contract that reflects the active participation of the different social and political actors of the nation.”
In typically undemocratic fashion, the state has unleashed a repression campaign on the Greens. For instance, police framed activist Juan Comprés, by planting illegal drugs in his vehicle— a video posted on social media showed the police officers setting him up. During his time in prison, he was beaten up. But thanks to a solidarity campaign, he walked free from prison six days later.
Comprés’s detention and subsequent release created more momentum to the fight against impunity and repression. Despite loud denunciations against state repression, the government escalated its crackdown regardless of the political cost. This was in full display on May 9th when a group of nine students who occupied the general attorney’s headquarters were pepper sprayed. Afterwards, the students released a manifesto calling for prosecution and imprisonment of all corrupt politicians, including President Medina.
These repressive tactics are part of a long history of the use of force as an essential mechanism of the functioning, reproduction, and consolidation of the Dominican state. Alongside an assault on labor rights, this repression is reminiscent of that of the U.S.-backed right-wing Doce Años or Twelve Years regime (1966-1978) under strongman Joaquin Balaguer. This crackdown occurred after the defeat of the April of 1965 popular revolt by U.S. occupying forces and their local collaborators. During the Balaguer regime, paramilitary units organized by the state carried out a targeted war against the political Left and labor unions.
Since 1966, state violence has constituted part of a containment policy against political dissent. This is, in fact, the modus operandi of a political and economic elite terrified at the thought of reliving the violent class confrontations that ensued during the 1965 revolt and the 1984 popular uprising against a loan agreement imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditioning economic austerity.
With each administration under the PLD – who have held power for 16 of the past 20 years— its leadership has become more sophisticated at instilling fear and criminalizing protesters, a sign of further decline and degeneration of a party that in the 1980s was considered the furthest left of all the mainstream political parties.
In the 1990s, the PLD tilted to the right as a result of political alliances with some of the most recalcitrant leaders of the Dominican right. One of the outcomes of that alliance was the 1996 racist and xenophobic campaign orchestrated by Joaquín Balaguer, the far right politician Vincho Castillo, and the leadership of the PLD, which propelled Leonel Fernández to the presidency after defeating José Francisco Peña Gómez, a Dominican of Haitian descent.
The targets of the anti-corruption protests, in addition to Medina himself, have denounced other corrupt politicians across the political party system, from former PLD President Leonel Fernández (1996-2000, 2004-2012) and his personal “piggy bank” senator Félix Bautista to former president Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004), from the neoliberal Partido Revolucionario Moderno (Modern Revolutionary Party, PRM) as well as Medina’s own allies. Popular ire has also targeted the right wing Partido Reformista Social Cristiano (Social Christian Reformist Party, PRSC), the Catholic Church, and bocinas, a term used to describe journalists under government payroll who spread propaganda.
In the wake of the leaks implicating the entire Dominican political class in the Odebrecht scandals, denunciation and indignation have continued to build. According to Banktrack, from 2001 to 2014, Odebrecht “admits to having paid $92 million in bribes to intermediaries and Dominican officials for contracts.”
Medina’s ties to the Odebrecht scandal surfaced last February when his campaign strategist, João Santana, was arrested in Brazil in connection with the Lava Jato money laundering scandal that has discredited Brazil’s political class. His arrest raised suspicion about Medina’s own involvement, as Santana, who worked for Medina’s re-election campaign, had been in charge of funneling money to political campaigns in several countries on behalf of Odebrecht, according to Veja magazine.
Odebrecht’s fortunes in the Dominican Republic have grown amidst a construction boom in the country, despite the aftershocks of the 2008 international crisis. Further, ties between Dominican and Brazilian politicians solidified during the presidency of Lula da Silva, the former center-left president, who for close to a decade provided the highest number of military personnel in neighboring Haiti as part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), with brutal consequences.
But Lula’s relationship with the PLD leadership was established decades ago as both the PLD and Lula’s party, the Workers’ Party (PT), belong to the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL), an umbrella organization of Latin America and Caribbean parties. In April, Alejandrino de Alencar, a former Odebrecht executive testified in court that Lula had lobbied the Dominican government on behalf of the Brazilian construction giant.
From the launch of their campaign on January 22nd through early June, Green activists demanded that the government release the names of Dominicans listed on court documents in Brazil for their involvement in the bribery scheme. They also demanded an independent committee to investigate Odebrecht contracts suspected of overvaluation such as the planned construction of a coal power plant southwest of Santo Domingo to be funded by Deutsche Bank and other banks which environmentalists oppose due to the toxic clouds the obsolete technology will release in the air, killing nearby animal populations in the process.
On May 29th, the Medina government finally gave in to mounting pressure from the demonstrators by announcing the detention of leading members of the opposition party, PRM, as well as its own Economic Minister, Temístocles Montás, one of Medina’s political rivals within the PLD. Another detainee is Ángel Rondón, an influential businessman and lobbyist who recently claimed to have made donations to every political party since 1974.
At the end, this was a partial victory for Green March because the government did not reveal the names of those linked to the Odebrecht scandal. It soon became clear that these arrests were a show mediatico (smoke screen), as high-ranking officials and politicians – including President Medina and former Presidents Leonel Fernández and Hipólito Mejía— remain untouched to this day.
Yet a larger picture of in-party infighting is at play: The PLD, which social scientist Jacqueline Jiménez Polanco has called a “party cartel” and a “corporation,” is currently facing its worst internal crisis since its founding in 1973. The two main contending factions within the PLD-one led by Medina and one led by former president Leonel Fernández— are each trying to control the party machine in order to clinch presidential nominations in 2020. No one in the PLD leadership apparatus wants to face consequences for the corrupt means they have employed to enrich themselves. Therefore it is in the interest of the Medina faction in control of the government to create the illusion that it is willing to put an end to impunity. But in reality, Medina appears to be buying time in order to demobilize the movement and flex its muscles, so it can dedicate its political resources to stamping out the challenge presented by both internal and external political rivals.
Meanwhile, both moderate and conservative civil society and political actors around Green March are moving to derail the movement and impose their own agenda. For instance, the PRM, the pro free-market opposition party, is trying to co-opt the movement and capitalize in the public discontent ahead of the 2020 elections. Participación Ciudadana (Citizen Participation, PC), a NGO funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), supports the movement but fails to oppose the system as a whole. PC also shied away from acknowledging the U.S.’s role in creating economic dependency and preserving the status quo by training the Dominican police and the military.
In the short term, it is imperative that the more radical sectors within Green March organize the grassroots while exerting their independence from mainstream parties and others, and at the same time, support more concrete demands like the fight to lower food prices and labor struggles. Equally important is the fight against state repression and oppression by unifying all the sectors affected by the PLD’s 2010 constitution, which banned abortion, created a second class status for Dominicans of Haitian descent, and prohibited same sex-marriage.
Like other recent mass international movements from the Indignados in Spain to the Arab Spring to anti-corruption protests in Guatemala to women’s strikes in Poland and Argentina, the movement—despite its weaknesses and contradictions— seems to have awoken a sleeping giant.
Amaury Rodriguez is an independent researcher and translator. He is the co-editor with Raj Chetty of “Dominican Black Studies” (Routledge, 2015), a special issue of The Black Scholar journal.
Lorena Espinoza Peña is a graphic designer and feminist activist. Since 1999, she has participated in individual and collective photographic exhibits in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico and Paraguay. She has also participated in various photographic group projects. In recent years, she has been dedicated to photograph Dominican social movements that focus on women's rights. You can find her on twitter at @lorespe2002