The Dominican Republic’s Political Scene and the road to 2020

By: Ariel Fornari – HaitiAnalysis

The ruling PLD’s internal struggles and the 2020 elections

Over recent weeks and months the possible re-election of President Danilo Medina has sparked a plethora of internal conflicts within the ruling PLD (Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana) in the Dominican Republic.  President Medina’s appointed officials belonging to the “sector externo”, insist that he run for a second re-election, but the majority of these “sector externo” officials, are not even members or heirs of the party’s founding nucleus, which Professor Juan Bosch founded in 1973 as an ideologically progressive collective, after leaving the historical PRD (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano) earlier that year.[1]
     It’s noteworthy that in Santiago, D. R.’s second most important city with a population of over one million, officials holding high positions such as the municipal water company’s director are not even from Santiago, also belong to the “sector externo” of Medina. This in turn is generating the current tug-of-war, with Santiago’s mayor Abel Martinez, who happens to belong to (ex-President) Leonel Fernandez’s faction within the PLD.
Ex-President Leonel Fernandez aiming for a political comeback
      Santiago’s mayor Abel Martinez is an avowed “nationalist” with anti-Haitian leanings, when as president of the D. R.’s lower house he stubbornly confronted in 2013 the visiting Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which was on a fact finding mission regarding D. R.’s Constitutional Tribunal’s Ruling 168-13. The ruling had denationalized over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, causing much international backlash over the racist policies. As proof of his unwavering loyalty towards Fernandez, Martinez held a large and extravagant rally for Fernandez’s presidential candidacy, at a Santiago sports stadium on December 9, 2018. Some Dominican media are speculating that Martinez aspires to be Vice-President on the 2020 electoral ticket with Fernandez.
      Regarding the Medina re-election issue, if no agreement is reached between Medina and Fernandez, the re-election issue becomes moot, opening the door to other PLD leaders via a national winner-take-all convention. In this scenario, the winner is anointed at the convention and Fernandez would be a major contender, while Medina as sitting president couldn’t throw his hat in the ring, due to the obvious re-election constitutional issue, currently limiting a sitting president to a second consecutive term. Medina’s re-election ambitions could only materialize, under another constitutional amendment by the legislative branch, obviating the PLD’s convention scenario, and like President Balaguer remarked many times: “The Dominican Constitution is a mere piece of paper”. What has been done to the D. R.’s Constitution in recent times resembles more of a Saturday Night Live skit than the high level proceedings of a law abiding nation-state.
       We must bear in mind, Medina presently holds in his pocket the majority of the PLD’s lower house deputies, key players in constitutional amendments. Furthermore, there are some  PRSC (Partido Reformista Social Cristiano-a smaller right-wing party currently allied with the PLD) deputies, whose position would support a constitutional amendment, contingent on a mutual agreement with Medina. In this case, the Dominican folksy character of “the man with the briefcase”, would make his colorful entrance into this skit. To the unenlightened on Dominican rough and tumble politics, this translates to a designated courier, carrying a “maletin” or briefcase stuffed with sufficient wads of hard currency, to bribe enough deputies, adding to this Mafiosi-like script, mutual agreements between Medina and complicit deputies, so the latter could also be re-elected with attending perks as applicable.

       In the aforementioned scenario, Fernandez would be between a rock and a hard place, since it preempts his presidential ambitions. Fernandez’s electoral slogan is “Leonel 2020”, and since Fernandez in his younger years was a journalism professor at the state university-the UASD (Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo), there is considerable social media activity in favor of his campaign.
       The styles between Fernandez and Medina differ in that the former is more Machiavellian, intellectually prone, media savvy and cosmopolitan, while the latter is wiser in the folksy Dominican sense of “tigueraje”-(Idiomatically-a “tigre” or tiger in Dominican streetwise lore, is the “barrio” dude who easily tangles with like or lesser slimy characters, and still comes out on the winning side). On top of this, Medina is wiser in the sense, that he has more “tigueraje” strategies and is more astute. Proof of this, has been his seemingly successful and very visible tactics of “visitas sorpresas”, or surprise visits throughout the length and breadth of the country, particularly with the agricultural and rural sectors, promoting direct funding for economic development projects, which are later quantified and measured into palpable progress and goals achieved by his presidency.
       According to history however, it was actually Medina who first approached President Balaguer in 1995, confiding to him at the time, that the presidential candidate who was most like him was Fernandez, since Balaguer was also often portrayed as an enlightened elite statesman, a poet, writer, historian, etc. and Fernandez possessed similar qualities. In fact, an anecdote goes that President Colom of Guatemala years ago, when Central-American and Caribbean heads of state were meeting, mentioned once that ….”Here comes the teacher of the presidents”. This was in obvious reference to Fernandez’s masterful didactic abilities with other heads of state, when President of Dominican Republic.
       Going into 2019 then, we must sit on the edge of our seats, anticipating if the PLD will hold a convention to select their presidential candidate, or there will be a re-election scenario with another constitutional amendment (wherein we could then reinterpret President Balaguer’s famous quote, with the caveat that the D. R.’s constitution is written on recycled paper!). In which case, the script fusions into the ensuing folksy skit of the “man with the briefcase”, chock full of hard currency like Greenbacks, Euros, etc., since obviously at the current exchange rate of the Dominican Peso to the Dollar, it would take several such briefcases with their corresponding couriers, and perhaps even a Wells Fargo leased armored car, in order to carry out such lofty endeavor, so as to “persuade” enough deputies including a core group from the opposition, garnering enough votes for a constitutional amendment, making Medina eligible for a second re-election. All this remains to be seen however, since looming over the horizon, are the always active opposition parties led by the PRM (which also split from the PRD a few years back).[2]
2020’s elections will be unlike 2016’s
       The Dominican Republic for some years now has lacked a strong opposition that could challenge the PLD. The traditional main opposition party, the PRD, split into two factions prior to the 2016 elections, one led by Miguel Vargas Maldonado (now holding the Foreign Minister’s portfolio under President Medina), keeping the original PRD name but just a vestige of its original namesake, and the other by Luis Abinader, the main opposition presidential contender in the 2016 elections under the new PRM (Partido Revolucionario Moderno) banner.
       During those elections, the opposition led by the PRM attempted a coalition front, however conditions had not ripened then, for a strong opposition coalition front, to seriously challenge the PLD’s powerful machinery in electoral events.[3] As new political winds are blowing in the D. R., though it might be premature as to the 2020 elections, the PRM which is a centrist liberal party, has already begun talks with some more progressive and left parties, envisioning a stronger opposition front than they attempted in 2016.
       Within this framework, the possibility exists as usual, of some progressive or leftist social movements to join this coalition, further broadening its social base, similar to experiences in other Latin American countries, though the Dominican Republic doesn’t have a history of strong coalition electoral fronts, say like Chile in the 1930s and late 1960s, or even like the powerful voting bloc front of the GPP-PSUV coalition of Venezuela, which can boast upwards of 1,000 social movements incorporated into its electoral events.
       There is however one particular nuance, in the recent attempts at electoral coalitions in the D.R., which began its genesis in 2016, there was the formation of a new centrist party known as “Dominicanos por el Cambio” or “DXC”. DXC is led by civil engineer Eduardo Estrella. Mr. Estrella has an extensive and impeccable political resume in the D. R., beginning his political career under President Balaguer’s second term of 1991-94, also serving as Senator of the province of Santiago, in the 1994-98 term. Mr. Estrella stands out politically among peers, coming directly from President Balaguer’s line of thinking, who used to say that ”Corruption stops at the entrance to my office”. Estrella is a severe critic, of the current PLD government’s trail of corruption and impunity, as he’s not afraid to openly point the finger at the various governmental corruption schemes, whenever he’s interviewed in TV.
Opposition leaders of an emerging anti-PLD coalition. In the middle grey suit is Luis Abinader, immediately to his right is Guillermo Moreno of the Alianza Pais leftist party, and all the way to the right is Minou Tavarez of Opcion Democratica progressive party (daugher of Dominican patriot Manolo Tavarez Justo, killed in 1963 by the ruling junta that deposed democratically-elected president Juan Bosch)
       Another characteristic of Estrella’s new and dynamic DXC party, is not merely its avowedly centrist ideology, but its implied ability to draw from the historical center-right spectrum of voters, being that Estrella is considered a political “pupil” of President Balaguer, whose PRSC voting appeal covered the center-right spectrum of voters in D. R., a naturally conservative country with a strong Catholic church and with the longtime promotion of xenophobia and socially constructed racism against Haitians, which always has an imprint in the nation’s social life.
       Additionally, DXC’s innovative political program, entails grassroots activism within the poorer neighborhoods of the country, including free preventive health clinics for the disenfranchised masses. An added trait of DXC in its short political life, is its inter-generational appeal, as we witness in their base committees’ neighborhood meetings, many young people who identify with DXC’s cleaner approach to political life, in comparison to the PLD’s notorious corruption history, when for example PLD officials are colloquially referred by Dominicans as the “come solos”, or those that “eat by themselves”, not wanting to share from their overflowing plates of rice and beans, fried plantains, and plump chicken breasts, with their less fortunate compatriots. This rubs people the wrong way, in a country where solidarity with the have-nots, is still a noble trait throughout many social classes. Even so the resource wealth of the PLD and its backers cannot be underestimated, and its ability to essentially flood the airwaves during election time.   Thus as we’re witnessing, the Dominican Republic’s political panorama of 2020 is shaping up in contradictory ways, and this is especially buttressed by our next and final element in this trilogy.
“Marcha Verde” – The elephant in the living room of the corrupt, ruling PLD party
       “Marcha Verde” is the Dominican Republic’s flagship anti-corruption social movement, and since its inception in early 2017, it has proven to be unique, authentic, and very “Dominican” if you will, in its ability to especially discomfit its main target, the ruling and corrupt PLD party, which owns lock, stock and barrel, all three branches of the D. R.’s government. “Marcha Verde” has effectively rattled the cage of the institutionally corrupt PLD, through massive protests, effective public education workshops, social media use, and support from key public figures, such as prominent journalist Marino Zapete.
       The PLD occasionally assigns one of its media pit bulls, such as former interior minister Amarante Baret, to tongue lash and lecture “Marcha Verde” in some newspapers, accusing it without foundation of being a politically ambitious movement, something that couldn’t be farther from the truth, since “Marcha Verde” consistently defines itself, as purely an anti-corruption social movement which is part of civil society, and bears no electoral or political aspirations whatsoever.
       As though confessing before a priest, this writer admits I was at first confused by the mere name of “Marcha Verde”, as it smacked of another “color revolution”, that dot the landscape with socially-engineered protest movements across the globe, by the obvious use of the color green (“verde”) in its name. “Marcha Verde” is much unlike the Orange Revolution of Ukraine, or the Rose Revolution in Georgia.
       It is arguably, the most articulate, effective, long lasting, and cross-sectional anti-corruption social movement in D. R. in recent memory. It also bears some schematic resemblance, to the original Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and the various movements that spawned worldwide, after that unique social phenomenon. Those of us that lived those days online and in real time, remember well that OWS was decentralized, horizontal and non-hierarchical. “Marcha Verde” is similar to OWS, except that it’s privileged to have key leaders, with proven expertise in their areas such as journalists, seasoned activists, community leaders, and even the occasional elected official, such as PRM deputy Faride Raful, a trained attorney who in 2018 gave an in-depth presentation in Santiago, unraveling the intricacies of the internationally notorious corruption scheme, of the Brazilian Odebrecht corporation. Ms. Raful could easily be described, as a one-woman anti-corruption oversight committee, in the detail-oriented whistleblowing method she employs denouncing Odebrecht’s shenanigans in the D. R., specifically in the case of the overvalued Punta Catalina coal-fired power plant, which is scheduled to go online in 2019.
       Another visible activist of “Marcha Verde” is Jhonathan Liriano, who is a new generation Dominican journalist of great appeal to the younger masses. Mr. Liriano hosts an early morning radio show, commenting on headlines with a couple of young colleagues. Liriano is a charismatic speaker, who easily persuades audiences with oratorical ease, as I personally witnessed during a late 2018 activity, alongside stalwart “Marcha Verde” supporter, journalist Marino Zapete. He easily articulates, the merits of the movement’s just causes and methods, widening its appeal to the greatest possible social and generational spectrum.
       Not to be outdone within this movement, is seasoned journalist Marino Zapete. His enviable resume, boasts of persecution and incarceration during the nefarious 12-year rule of President Balaguer, when extra-judicial killings of progressive and leftist leaders in the Dominican Republic was commonplace, at the height of the Cold War. Zapete’s audacious and fearless style in his daily TV show, constantly blowing the whistle on the corrupt PLD government, has earned him in 2018, credible death threats from a rightwing ultra-nationalist paramilitary group, which is suspected of being financed by the PLD.
       It’s this fearless whistleblowing by key activists, and its periodic massive protests, plus grassroots support from a broad social spectrum, that has made the institutionally corrupt PLD government of D. R. so nervous, triggering reactions such as former interior minister Amarante Baret’s baseless accusations, that “Marcha Verde” has political and electoral aspirations, which as it’s openly known is absolutely untrue.
       This new and very effective “Marcha Verde” anti-corruption movement, is the icing on the cake for the Dominican Republic’s updated scenario facing 2019, a year that should determine not just the outcome of its 2020 elections, but also could decide the foreseeable future of this country, definitely a key player in the geopolitics of the sometimes volatile Central-American Caribbean Basin, at a crucial historical juncture with developing global multipolar politics, seemingly also affecting what’s happening in the “Colossus of the North”, in the Trump era.
       [1] “Sector externo” literally means the external sector of the party, composed of professional, middle class and working class groups which although not party militants, still support the platform of a given candidate, and will actively participate in campaigning for and electing such candidate.
       [2] Partido Revolucionario Dominicano is a political party founded in 1939 in Havana, Cuba, by Professor Juan Bosch and other Dominican exiles. This party went through an organizational, development and militant phase, through decades of opposition to the bloody Trujillo dictatorship in D. R., later being known as part of the “democratic left” in Latin America, after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
       [3] For more on the historical context of the political scene during the 2016 elections see this article: Jeb Sprague. (2016). “Polyarchy in the Dominican Republic: The Elite versus the Elite” NACLA.