Samaná, Dominican Republic—Although elections crop up in the news these days with the regularity of sporting events, the results we bear away from them reveal little of the often seismic nature of their happening, or the political murk that has accompanied them. This is certainly the case in the Dominican Republic, which “celebrated” its elections on May 16. “Celebrate” is the word—from January on, the whole country has been consumed by the electoral campaign, and it has intruded its way into daily conversation. When I returned to Santo Domingo, about a week before the election, the capital was rampant with flag-waving groups on their way to or from party rallies, with caravans of shouting, gesticulating citizens, and with children on street corners dressed entirely in party colors.
This year’s was the third Dominican election in succession that I had observed, and when I made my way across the country to the Samaná peninsula in the northeast, where I live a good part of each year, I found myself fizzing with the same expectations that showed themselves in even the smallest villages, the slogans of four years ago freshly painted over, the groups squatting by the roadside that leapt up to wave their colors at anything that passed. Such overt and spontaneous enthusiasm might seem to signify a healthy, functioning democracy; but for most Dominicans the campaign itself is the extent of their active involvement in the democratic process. Consuelo, a neighbor of mine, refers to it always as “dancing with out hopes.”
By way of background to the dramas of the present, a potted history of the progress of Dominican democracy is in order. It begins with the elections of December of 1962, which followed the assassination of Trujillo the previous year. Trujillo had ruled the country since 1930 with a monomaniacal ruthlessness that still causes those of my neighbors who lived through his era to lower their voices when they talk of him. He ran the country much as a family business, and amassed an enormous personal fortune. As an avowed anti-Communist, he was tolerated by the United States, until his excesses and cruelties made him possibly the most hated figure in the hemisphere. In the constitutional confusion that followed his assassination, elections were set for the end of 1962. They brought back from exile Professor Juan Bosch as head of the Dominican Revolutionary Party, the PRD, that had been formed in exile against such an eventuality. Promising a new constitution, agrarian reform, and an end to corruption in public office, Bosch won that first election handsomely; but his power base was a populist one, and he quickly made enemies of the Church and the military, who accused him of harboring Communists in his administration. He was summarily deposed during a military coup in September of 1963, and sent again into exile, after only seven months in office.
In his place, the military set up a civilian triumvirate that ruled uneasily until early 1965. The people, however, after a taste of promised reform under Bosch’s presidency, showed themselves unwilling to return to the abuses of the past, and in April 1965, a “constitutionalist” revolt broke out in Santo Domingo, backed by a group of younger army officers, with the aim of restoring Bosch to power. With considerable popular support, the constitutionalists had all but taken control of Santo Domingo when, on April 28, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered in the Marines to quench the civil war, under the pretext of protecting the lives of US citizens in the country.
The “intervention,” as it is still euphemistically referred to in the history books, restored the democratic process the following year. In that election, Joaquín Balaguer, who had been serving as Trujillo’s puppet president when the dictator was assassinated, and who had the support of both the Dominican military and the United States, defeated Bosch and became president, a position he has come to regard over the years as his rightful destiny, as did his former master, regardless of what popular opinion had to say in the matter. The improbable residue of this history is that this year, 1994, two of the three possible candidates for the presidency of the Dominican Republic were Juan Bosch, as head of his own Dominican Liberation Party, and the incumbent president, Doctor Joaquín Balaguer, who was seeking a sixth term in office.
After Trujillo, these two men, Bosch and Balaguer, have dominated the political life of the country, household words both. Balaguer is now eighty-seven, blind from glaucoma for the last fifteen years, and, as the BBC put it, “has difficulty walking unaided.” Bosch is eighty-five and, alongside Balaguer, looks relatively spry, although he is still given to unexpected outbursts that cause his supporters to keep a wary eye on him. Both have been writers; but while Bosch enjoys a thoroughly deserved literary reputation, it is doubtful whether Balaguer’s works would have survived but for his persistence in office. Each manages to summon a tone of scorn in talking of the other, but a good many Dominicans believe that they must be great friends in secret, and must meet as retired boxers do, comparing wounds.
With two such ancient boxers, this year’s election might well have had the air of ritual reenactment but for the inescapable presence of the third candidate, Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez, now leader of Bosch’s old party, the PRD. A mere fifty-seven, Peña Gómez has been rising steadily on the political scene over the same thirty years his two opponents have dominated. A man of considerable energy and appeal, and a longtime member of Socialist International, he has spent various periods outside the country and made a strong impression as mayor of Santo Domingo from 1982 until 1986. I have heard him speak on a number of occasions, and each time he has an effect on his listeners that is quite tangible. As his supporters are fond of saying, he speaks for them rather than at them. He has a considerable populist following. His obvious ambition has, however, had one question mark hanging over it from the beginning. Although born in the Dominican Republic, his father was Haitian, and he is black, with Haitian features, an inescapable fact that both of his elderly opponents have consistently emphasized throughout the whole campaign, playing on deep Dominican fears.
It might be assumed that, with such manifest enthusiasm for the electoral process, Dominicans would have achieved, over these thirty-odd years, a fair measure of representative democracy: in fact, the reverse is true. Instead, the mechanics of democracy have been grafted on to a society whose formation and mentality remain obstinately feudal. Power and privilege are concentrated in the hands of an elite in Santo Domingo, the military wait watchfully, and the rural population see prices rise with an alarm that sometimes boils over, but never for long.
Nor do the political parties do much in the way of clarifying for them the country’s problems, or providing plans or platforms for their solution. Balaguer’s campaign has confined itself to a single slogan painted on large surfaces the length and breadth of the country: “Lo Que Balaguer Diga“—“Whatever Balaguer Says.” Only Bosch’s party, the PLD, since it has the support of the professional classes, the universities, and the technocrats in the country, has come up with anything like a program, and has stressed the importance of giving government support to agriculture as the country’s durable resource. A Peña Gómez victory, however, would at least mean a change of personnel in civic offices. But in truth the parties are shrewdly aware that what the voters really want is a savior, a figure who will cause them to cry, “That’s the man!” and whom they will follow in blind faith, believing in his promises, and, of course, voting for him in the hope that he will turn out to be a benevolent Trujillo and will take care of them.
This cult of personality over program has been, and still is, the curse of Dominican politics. Dominicans treat elections very much as a lottery. If they work hard for their chosen party, and it wins, chances are that some benefits will trickle down to them, perhaps even a minor government job, since political power and personal enrichment are, with good reason and abundant example, firmly identified in their minds.
Samaná is the poorest province in the country, and the most remote. The road ends there, and we live at the end of the line, in almost every sense. We are also beyond the reach of urban comforts—running water, electricity, markets, and telephones—and my neighbors survive by fishing, by subsistence farming, by whatever odd jobs come their way. Although not many of them read or write, we have had many eloquent conversations over the years, and I have not only learned much from them, but have become acutely aware of both their plight and their preoccupations. When I left in late March, I promised them that I would return for the elections, and I did so because, like them, I was fervently hoping for change.
Although hardly representative of the country as a whole, Samaná has served me as something of a microcosm during the ten years I have lived there. A peninsula, very nearly an island, it has ample rainfall and a rich soil, and is almost entirely covered in coconut palms, which in the past was its good fortune; for, with coconuts fetching a steady price on world markets, those who live there have in the past been able to count on the sale of a tumbada, a coconut harvest, every three months or so to provide them with a survivor’s income. Some eight years ago, however, coconut prices began to fall, and my last winter’s tumbada brought in only a third of what it had previously sold for. Over the same period, food prices rose steeply, and many people in rural districts were faced with a hardship they had never known before.
The first visitor I had when I arrived this May was a local agronomist who has become a close friend over the years. He is a Dominican of a rare sort in that he bristles with plans and projects, and remains resolutely optimistic. I brought him new seeds, as I always do, and he brought me up to date on the campaign. It had become, in its last few weeks, extremely ugly, he told me. Both Balaguer and Bosch had delivered vicious personal attacks on Peña Gómez, and the campaign had remained a matter of attack and counter-attack. The two scarcely mentioned the issues except to make the usual vague promises. The electoral polls gave Peña Gómez a narrow lead over Balaguer, but noted that 20 percent were still indecisos. What were people talking about, I asked him. “They talk about two things only,” he told me. “They talk about Haiti, and they talk about fraud.”