In a region where leaders' efforts to reform their nations' constitutions dominate the headlines, one political regime is flying under the radar in its efforts to radically overhaul its foundational political charter. On November 16, an assembly in the Dominican Republic overwhelmingly approved the final draft of sweeping reforms for what may become the most reactionary constitution in the Americas. The constitutional reforms are expected to be officially signed into law by President Leonel Fernández in a ceremony in early December.
Fernández has spearheaded the reform campaign with the backing of a powerful coalition of the Catholic Church, the business community, and the hard Dominican right. But while conservative proponents of the new constitution (ironically) defend the changes as "progressive" and "liberal," many observers both inside and outside the country have expressed their grave concerns that these changes will in fact mark a great step backwards for the Dominican Republic.
Accordingly, the effort to implement these reforms has been met with a vigorous campaign of popular resistance as dissident Dominicans have been taking to the streets in protest, expressing outrage at their exclusion from the debates surrounding the reform process, as well as their fears that the reforms will have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable segments of Dominican society.
The most controversial of the new reforms is Article 30, which establishes that the "right to life is inviolable from conception until death." Effectively, this provision will outlaw abortion under all circumstances, including cases of rape and/or situations in which the mother's health is at risk. Critics have complained that this measure is likely to undermine women's access to contraception and reproductive health care in the country.
Women's health advocates and human rights organizations have strongly criticized the measure and the majority of what little international media attention there has been on the constitutional reform process has been focused on this issue.
Noting that the new provision not only undermines women's bodily sovereignty and the right to full access to medical procedures and sexual health care, organizations such as Amnesty International also argue that a total ban on abortions will only lead to an increase in maternal deaths. This fear has been heightened by a recent study on the negative effects of the total abortion ban in Nicaragua. The Guttmacher Institute, a sexual rights and reproductive health organization, recently issued a report documenting the severe harm caused by complications from unsafe abortion procedures upon the health care systems of developing nations, costing these already strained systems hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The Catholic Church, which maintains a very powerful presence in the country, played an instrumental role in lobbying lawmakers to implement Article 30. But despite the fact that an estimated 90% of Dominicans consider themselves Roman Catholic, recent polls also demonstrate that 80% of Dominicans reject a total ban on abortions and only 14% support regulating abortion through constitutional reform.
Also included in the new version of the Carta Magna is language that defines marriage as "the union between a man and a woman," legally institutionalizing discrimination against same-sex couples and further contributing to a social climate in which bigotry towards gays, lesbians, and transgendered people is prevalent. LGBT people in the country have been widely scapegoated for the spread of the AIDS virus and recently, several transgendered people have been brutally murdered.
Another controversial provision that may well inflame already-existing tensions within the country would strip the native-born children of undocumented immigrants of their Dominican citizenship. This "reform" will surely have severe consequences for those children born into a state of legal limbo, and is likely to foster further discord in relations between Dominicans and their Haitian neighbors. About one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many without official documents. They, like other vulnerable minorities, are blamed for the country's social and economic problems, and routinely face harassment, exploitation, systematic prejudice, and direct violence.
Finally, in a move that has significant symbolic effect on the marginalization of ordinary Dominicans, another constitutional reform would establish private property rights on the country's valuable public beaches.
This last measure only further validates the new constitution's antidemocratic credentials. Indeed, one might even say that this provision is a fitting summary for reform process itself. Just as the majority of Dominicans will soon be excluded from their own beaches, they have been excluded from any meaningful role in the drafting of their new constitution, forcing them to take to the streets in order to make their voices heard.
Meanwhile, left-leaning political regimes elsewhere in the region have been instituting constitutional reforms by means of popular referendums, ensuring that the public plays an active role in shaping their political institutions. Yet not only have leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Bolivia's Evo Morales come under intense media scrutiny for their efforts, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a coup this past summer for his mere attempt at a popular referendum to consider a constitutional reform. Where, we might ask, is the same level of scrutiny and criticism from Western media outlets towards this blatantly discriminatory and antidemocratic reform process in the Dominican Republic?
The Dominican reform process, and the resistance it generates, merits our close attention. One way or another, it will have broader, regional consequences in the not too distant future.
Reed M. Kurtz is a NACLA Research Associate.