Post-Electoral Crisis in the Dominican Republic (Interview)

An interview with Ana L. Lafontaine, professor of Dominican and Latin American history, to discuss the electoral crisis in the Dominican Republic. 

March 2, 2020

Dominican Republic flag at the Hispanic Day Parade in New York, 2007 (Photo by Paul Stein/Flickr)

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On February 16, the Junta Central Electoral (Central Electoral Board, JCE) suspended the municipal elections. The Junta justified its actions by claiming irregularities due to an electronic glitch, however, everything points to the fear of a massive opposition voter turnout and protest vote against the government of Danilo Medina from the right-wing Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). In its almost two decades of political hegemony, the PLD has followed on the footsteps of former strongman Joaquín Balaguer to stay in power. In fact, Balaguerismo has served as one of the PLD’s guideposts. The recent curtailment of democratic rights by denying the right to vote represents the latest authoritarian turn by the PLD. This anti-democratic move not only reflects the weakness of the PLD and the traditional political class in Santo Domingo but the hypocrisy of the U.S political class and the White House, which claims to defend the “democratic order” by supporting destabilization campaigns against Cuba and Venezuela while staying mum on the Dominican Republic.

The suspension of the elections has provoked an institutional crisis that, without a doubt, marks a before and after. Since the detonation of the crisis, large segments of society fed up with corruption, social repression, and anti-popular economic policies of the PLD and its ultra-right allies have taken the streets by storm to express their frustration with traditional parties. Although the protests are an extension of the new wave of popular revolts in the Hemisphere and around the world, from neighboring Haiti to Chile to Lebanon, the protests in the Dominican Republic share some similarities with the most recent popular uprising in Puerto Rico where youth and artistas urbanos (urban musicians) were at the first line of battle.

I conducted an interview via email with Ana F. Lafontaine, a professor of Dominican and Latin American history at the Higher Institute of Philosophy Pedro Francisco Bono—the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD) and the Higher Institute for Teacher Training. An activist in community organizations and spaces of action such as the Political Action Network, Lafontaine examines the roots of the post-electoral crisis and the development of a new political situation that augurs the end the PLD's reign after 20 years of political hegemony.

Amaury Rodríguez: The suspension of municipal elections has turned into a new political crisis in Dominican society. Why were the elections suspended and what is the significance, in the short and long term, of this unprecedented event?

Ana F. Lafontaine: That’s true [about the crisis]. At the center of the political conflict is the Junta Central Electoral (Central Electoral Board, JCE) whose role as arbitrator has been deeply questioned. Within a few hours of initiating the electronic voting, the accusations [of irregularities] spread throughout social media and the press because: 1) only the faces of candidates of the ruling party [appeared on the ballots] 2) at dawn, officials of electoral colleges confirmed ballots with a total sum of votes on the printed proof without initiating the [voting] process, 3) in many voting sites, problems with voting machines caused delays which led [party] delegates to complain and then to the opposition parties to inform the electoral body. That is how the Dominican Republic arrived to a new post electoral political crisis.

In the years under democratic rule, the Dominican State has failed in making citizens and the population trust in the electoral system. The Junta is a state body dependent on the executive branch. Electoral frauds have been a constant recurrence. Party primaries still resonate in recent memory when the Junta began broadcasting bulletins results while many voting centers were still open.

The current conflict is being presented as a threat to the stability that the country has maintained in the last two decades, but in reality what the conflict threatens is the permanence of a group in power, or better yet, continuismo perpetuo (perpetual continuism): that is, senators, deputies, mayors with more than 12 and 14 years, staying in power. Not even the (party) membership has had the opportunity to alternate within the same party in power. We have many provinces and constituencies with the same people turned into a caudillo imposing loyalties to government post as personal, family property. So the current conflict, rather than being a bad thing, is actually good for the country because it threatens to restructure long-standing entrenched powers.

AR: The separation of local and general elections is a recent phenomenon. What was the political and social context that led to the separation of the elections and which political sectors benefited from it?

AFL: Since 1998, municipal and congressional elections are held separately from the presidential elections. It was precisely a huge electoral fraud in 1994 that encouraged protests and led to reforms through a political pact to disrupt the balaguerista power that controlled the local space as a presidential extension through arrastre electoral (straight-ticket voting) where the citizen voted but did not choose. Even with the reforms, the party’s top leadership secured control through the closed lists where they placed loyalists. To this day, direct election for a deputy, senator or mayor remains far in the distance. The [PLD and Dominican right] Patriotic Front pact created this political balance. What we are seeing are the short and medium term results of it. For example, the same person has occupied a third of the current congress 3 and 4 times. Just to mention a few names: Reinaldo Pared, Cristina Lizardo, Tony Galán, René Canaán and Wilton Guerrero. In fact, since 1990, [senator] Amable Aristy Castro has occupied the same post in Higuey in the Eastern region of the country where his daughter has been in [the] City Hall [government] since 2002. This senator also controlled the Dominican Municipal League for 12 years. In 2011, the media reported that the U.S. has taken away his visa due to association with drug and money laundering businesses.

The country has not had substantive changes in the electoral body; the JCE has remained the puppet organ of the president of the moment. Balaguerismo controlled it for a long time with and without the military. Although 1978 marked the return of [representative] democracy and the country managed to remove from the presidency Joaquin Balaguer through the “Fallo Histórico” (Historical Ruling) when he snatched the majority in Congress and in the judiciary branch. From that time, a leading and archetypal figure is still around: the lawyer Vincho Castillo who participated in the "Historical Ruling " in 1978 and also in the "Patriotic Front" of 1996. The PLD assumed the Balaguerist legacy, reactivated it by "quedarse a la mala” (staying in power by force) tactic through the dependence of the electoral body. The executive power fingerprints on the Junta can be seen in the presidential appointments to it. In 2007, 2010 and 2012 there were accusations and complaints levelled against the Junta’s way of operating. Its former members were participants in a series of scandals; Aura Celeste Fernández, a [former] member and also a judge of the Electoral Court made serious allegations of corruption and mismanagement by previous president (Roberto Rosario) and nothing happened. On top of the distrust and repudiation of the electoral board, there were the scandals of identity cards issuance, double documentation, falsification of identity for people wanted by Interpol who had [pending] judicial files or who were linked to crimes from drug trafficking and money laundering businesses; and this is just a sample of the problems and weaknesses of the civil and electoral registry.

Grievances against the Junta also include its role in civil rights violations. As an aside anecdote, it should be remembered that some citizens expressed their impotence by placing “mierda” (feces) inside the building during the time [Roberto] Rosario was in charge of the Junta. Both Julio César Castaños Guzmán (2006-2010 and 2016-2020) and Roberto Rosario (2010-2016) as heads of the Junta participated in carrying out the política de apátrida (statelessness policy) which is why the government was tried and sentenced by the Inter-American Court and ordered to restore nationality documents in the case of [the Dominico-Haitian] Yean and Bosico girls (2005-2006).

AR: What has been the response from ordinary people, progressive and leftist organizations?

AFL: A nation on the move. The protests originated with young people disconnected from the traditional organizational system of civil society and parties. It was the youth and students who through the social media convened and responded more quickly. Protests have spread in and out of the country for a week. The main demand has been the resignation of the members of the Junta as well as their substitutes.

In contrast, the opposition parties went against the mobilizations. The PRM (Modern Revolutionary Party), the main opposition party, made an international appeal on international organizations like the OAS (Organization of American States) to open up an inquiry. The PRM has expressed support to the Junta and remained aloof to the demands of the youth. Although the PRM and the opposition in general organized a march this Sunday February 23, the opposition have avoided direct confrontation with the government and the Junta. Some small leftist and progressive parties have joined the PRM while others have expressed their support of the youth protest. The political party system as a whole has not demanded the resignation of the electoral body and has responded affirmatively to the call for new municipal elections on March 15, 2020.

Another sector that has participated in the protest is that of TV personalities and radio hosts and journalists who issued a manifesto in support of the youth of the Plaza de las Banderas (Flag Square) and which now has been renamed Plaza de la Democracia (Democracy Square). The current conflict has divided the TV and media community as well as artistas urbanos (urban artists) given the wide clientele network that the government has created in both sectors since 2004 which includes inclusion in the public payroll, commissions, and privileges of the clientelist system that the press and social media have denounced.

AR: What are some of the slogans in the fight that demands the resignation of the members of the Central Electoral Board?

AFL: Phew. The protests are characterized by the great amount of banners with messages alluding to democracy and its defense. I had never seen so much expressiveness in the country in the last 15 years of protests and mobilizations.

  • #TheyareLeaving! It’s about time.
  • We are demanding a democratic change.
  • #Error 404, democracy not found
  •  Your loot, my crisis.
  •  No more impunity
  •  Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently for the same reason.
  • They are not scary, they provoke shame
  •  We demand that our citizen rights be respected.
  • The 99.9 of the JCE is composed of pure: CAlcium (CA) –BRono-oxygen (BRO) -NEon and Sulfur (NES). [This spells out CABRONES or BASTADS]
  •  The people complied, The Junta failed.
  • I am from the generation that was born in debt
  •  It's time to kick out the rats.
  • Sorry, I'm trying to change history

Rally in Washington Heights (Photo by Amaury Rodríguez)

AR: The governing Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) has not yet recovered from the crisis that led to its division in 2019. By suspending the elections, its internal crisis deepens. What do you think is the future of the party and the political class that has dominated the political life of the country for approximately twenty years?

AFL: The last 20 years of hegemony by the PLD as a centralized party with an authoritarian vocation—and total control over the media— have shaped power relations that go beyond its own organization. That party-corporation has woven strong networks of power and therefore can manage to keep a large part of the State under control as this conflict grows. The judicial courts are under its command and direction and that will not change even if they lose positions in the municipalities or the presidency. This factor suggests the possibility of its return to the presidency. It was what allowed Balaguer, among other things, the return [to power] and somehow [allowed] Leonel [Fernández] (with congressmen and part of his state officials), despite his collapse in 2010-2012. If and when both peledeístas sides weaken depends on key actors like the PRM and other non-partisan interlocutors.

The CONEP (National Council of Private Enterprise) which brings together the business sector has supported the Junta and the government; and it has called for a political pact, however, in public opinion this entity generates distrust because of its support for the government in the past. And finally the religious sector, the evangelical leaders haven’t made any statements and the Catholic Church has called for “order” and calm which represents a dubious position since it was precisely the democratic order in its most basic expression, of choosing and being elected, that has been blocked not by the people or the citizens who complied and has run out of responses to this date.

AR: Finally, how can people from abroad express solidarity with the Dominican people’s struggle for democracy and social justice?

AFL: The [Dominican] communities abroad have supported and mobilized in an unprecedented manner against current policy and government excesses. This is echoed in social media. It is good to insist that, in an interconnected world, those abroad have weight as [political] actors. Not only to send "remittances." But by being visible and making that connection felt on this half island with a tendency toward isolation is a step forward. The other is that the electoral system has been extended to the representation of communities abroad, and a politics that facilitates greater democratic pluralism can be articulated. The challenge we have in the not too distant future is to act against bi-partisanship which can consolidate itself and which privileges the monopoly of the party in power, giving way to continuism and the perpetuation of individuals and groups that monopolize politics at any cost.

[We need to] expand the party spectrum, not reduce it, as is usually the case in certain spaces of civil society, which then survive as entities of reaction, and not of action, in an eternal "defensive" way that leads to wear and despair. In addition, a reduced party spectrum in the Dominican context limits new options and relays. We have seen it with the sons, daughters, brothers, husbands and wives [of politicians] who are the ones who inherit public and political-partisan positions as though they were monarchical figures embedded in the State.

Amaury Rodríguez is an independent researcher and co-editor with Raj Chetty of “Dominican Black Studies” (Routledge, 2015), a special issue of The Black Scholar journal.

Translated by Amaury Rodríguez and Nelson Santana

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