José Francisco Peña Gómez
José Francisco Peña Gómez; drawing by David Levine


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.”

The Dominican Republic shares a land frontier with Haiti, but that is just about all that it does share. Dominicans harbor a deep suspicion of Haitians, an inherent racism that is not often voiced but pervasively felt. They look uncomfortable when Haiti comes up in conversation, and quickly change the subject. In part, it comes from the violent past. Many Dominicans never forget that in 1844 their country wrested its independence from a twenty-year Haitian occupation, and now that their country is considerably more developed than its threadbare neighbor, with a much higher per capita income, they do not welcome those Haitians who come across the land frontier, except as braceros, cane-cutters, whom they contract to work in atrocious conditions for slave wages, a circumstance that has already brought them the censure of the UN Commission on Human Rights. At least half a million Haitians live legally in the Dominican Republic, out of a total population of 7 million; but what is most significant is that, as the situation has deteriorated in Haiti, Haitians have in the main preferred to chance the open sea rather than look to the Dominican frontier to the east.

Samaná lives largely by rumor—the local people refer to it always as Radio Bemba, word-of-mouth—and this last winter, whenever there was a shortage—of flour, of oil, of gasoline—Radio Bemba assured us that the supplies in question were passing across the Haitian frontier by night, sold for vast profits by the Dominican military to their Haitian counterparts. No one doubts that large shipments have been trucked across the border. At midnight on Saturday, May 21, five days after the election, the total embargo on Haiti was due to come into force, which meant that the Dominican Republic was obliged not only to close the frontier entirely but to keep it sealed. Despite assurances of compliance by Balaguer’s government, a good many people I talked to doubted that it would be enforced by the army. For one thing, although he has met with Father Aristide on occasion, Balaguer has not forgotten Aristide’s campaign in 1990, in which he denounced the Dominican Republic roundly for its treatment of the Haitian braceros, and he is far from eager to see him reinstalled. He has so far tried to characterize the embargo as a foreign intrusion on sovereignty, and on Monday, May 23, his supporters staged a protest demonstration to this effect in Puerto Plata, on the north coast.

During the campaign, Balaguer’s party made much of Peña Gómez’s Haitian parentage and black skin, hinting in fairly scurrilous full-page advertisements that Peña Gómez’s long-range plan was to unite the two countries. This was an attempt to play on the fears of the electorate, fears I heard voiced several times in the market in Samaná. Like his former master Trujillo, Balaguer has always been well aware that, whatever the condition of the country and its faltering economy, the deepest fear that Dominicans harbor is of chaos, of a total breakdown of law and order. Against that eventuality, the Dominican military are ever-present, waiting in the wings.

In the evenings, I often walk up to Consuelo’s house by the road, for her yard serves as a kind of local forum for our neighborhood. Consuelo herself—sharp-witted, outspoken, like many strong Dominican women—provides the spark on these occasions, especially around election time. By Dominican law, all campaigning must come to a stop at midnight two days before the election, and radio and television must refrain from discussing the elections until they are concluded. I sat in her kitchen for a while, catching up.

Consuelo has been a fierce and longtime supporter of Juan Bosch, but she confided to me that this time she was going to vote for Peña Gómez. “I’ve always believed that Bosch is by far the most intelligent politician we have” she told me. “He knows that we really need—some kind of future we can look forward to, some plan, some expectation, some hope—and I really believe he would have tried to clean up corruption in the government. That’s why he has never won—too many people have too much to lose. But he’s eighty-five now, and although he has in his party some very good, capable people, he has never let any of them come to the top. He’s as much a caudillo as Balaguer is. Anyway, I’m sick of having abuelos, grandfathers, as president—we need somebody with energy, somebody who doesn’t treat us as children and isn’t out just to get rich. Peña isn’t perfect, but he’s far more in touch with the people in the campo than the abuelos are. I can’t forgive them for picking on his color, on the Haitian business. Whatever he looks like, he speaks more like one of us than the others do, he’s a good Dominican.”

For Balaguer, she had nothing but scorn. “Whenever anybody tells me they’re going to vote for Balaguer, they get the rough edge of my tongue. Don’t they realize that we’re a lot worse off than we ever were, thanks to him? It was Balaguer who built this road for us, they tell me, when all we had before was a mule track. Well, I remember that. That was a good time—everybody had work on the road, we had money and food—but that was in 1974, and the road doesn’t oblige us to vote for him forever. But look at us now—no work, no hope of work, people leaving the country in droves. More than that, we have the most corrupt local government in Samaná that we’ve ever had, all Balaguer’s people; and if you live here, that’s mainly what you want to see changed.”

Later, sitting outside under a huge mango tree, we began to recall the last election, in 1990. It had been a time of great excitement, for, as the results began to come in, Bosch led Balaguer from the beginning, in bulletin after bulletin. We listened late into the night, and through a good part of the next day, with Bosch still ahead. Then suddenly, without any explanation, the bulletins were suspended. The country was in an uproar, and continued so for a day or two, the word “fraud” on everybody’s lips. The opposition parties demanded a recount, but the Junta Central Electoral, the government body that supervises the elections and issues the electoral bulletins, declared that a recount was out of the question until the first count was complete. Consuelo was beside herself with fury.

Unbelievably, it was not until some two months later that we had an official result, giving Balaguer a narrow victory. Balaguer, knowing well the temper of Dominicans, obviously counted on the fact that if he prolonged electoral indecision, the country would calm down, get caught up in its daily diligencias, and leave him to go on running it. I asked Consuelo if she thought there would be any electoral fraud this time, in view of Peña Gómez’s narrow lead in the polls. She disappeared into her house and returned with a newspaper. “Look at this” she said. It was a copy of the newspaper El Siglo, dated May 10, with a front-page headline and story in which Balaguer solemnly declared in Santiago that the degree of democratic development in the country meant that it would not stand for any suspicion of electoral fraud, and that the Junta Central Electoral was of an unimpeachable morality. This declaration, at a press conference, was made by way of answer to a statement made the previous week by Robert Pastorino, US ambassador to the Dominican Republic, warning the country of the gravity of electoral fraud, clearly with the last elections in mind. “You see?” said Consuelo, a gleam in her eye. “He’s said it himself. But I’m going to keep this paper, just in case.”


I rose at first light on election day, May 16, not out of electoral anxiety, but at the insistence of a sudden spectacular thunderstorm that turned the sea pink for a brief spell. My neighbors take elections with extreme seriousness, dressing in their best clothes, putting bows in their children’s hair, before walking about a kilometer along the road to the nearest school, each carefully carrying his or her official cedula, the small identity card that assures that their names will appear on the list of voters. Voting is always referred to in the newspapers as “going to the urns,” although the urns in our local school are cardboard cartons. I ran through the radio dial, but Dominican stations were broadcasting nothing but merengue, the same on every station, so that when, in the late afternoon, the Junta Central broadcast the first of their series of electoral bulletins, no one could miss it. From Puerto Rico, I heard a report from a correspondent in Santo Domingo. The city was quiet and orderly, and, since the elections were being tallied by computer, results were to be expected that evening, although it was doubtful that there would be anything like a final tally until closer to noon of the following day.

My main electoral preoccupation was that the two parties opposed to Balaguer, the PRD and the PLD, the parties of Peña Gómez and Juan Bosch, would so split the opposition vote, as happened in 1990, that Balaguer and the Reformistas would win narrowly. Bosch, however, was running so far behind in the polls that this seemed unlikely. The chances looked good that Consuelo would have her wish, and that the two abuelos would be retired from the political scene. Even the thought, however, had me knocking on wood.

In mid-morning, I decided to deliver a packet of seeds I had brought with me for another neighbor; and I was curious to see how the day was going. When I passed Consuelo’s house, she called me over, waving her index finger which was stained with red ink. (In Samaná, voters are required to dip their index fingers in a bottle of red ink to prevent them from voting more than once, a fairly anachronistic precaution, it seemed to me, in a computerized election.) “Well, it’s done,” she said. “I have a message for you from Alquímedes. He’d like to come to see you, either late tonight or tomorrow morning.” Alquímedes, who has land adjoining mine, always sits at the supervising electoral table, which is made up of three local representatives designated by the Junta Central Electoral, along with one member delegated by each of the principal parties. Along the road, those who had already voted waved their red fingers jubilantly. The children, dressed to the hilt, were having the time of their lives.

I knocked on my neighbor Tito’s door to deliver my packet, got no answer, and was just about to leave when I saw him in the distance, waving. “Don’t go,” he said as he came up to his terrace. “I have to tell you—I’ve just been to vote, and something has happened, I don’t know what. I have my cedula, it’s valid and everything, but when they looked me up on the official list, they told me my name doesn’t appear. How can that be? They have no idea, they say. Come back in the afternoon. What do you make of that?”

“Were you the only one?” I asked him.

“No, there were four of us,” he said. “They say it’s just a mistake, and that if we come back about five, they’ll put it right. What worries me is that we were all PRD. Anyway,” he said, “let’s see what happens. Thank you for the seeds.”

I left the radio on in the late afternoon, with the merengue turned down, ready to catch anything that might come from the Junta Central. Sure enough, just before five, a spokesman for the Junta Central read an official announcement. Since it had come to their attention, from various parts of the country, that certain voters’ names were missing from the official lists, the polls would not close at 6 PM but would remain open for three more hours, so that those voters could inscribe their names and add their votes. It was beginning to look like something more than clerical error.

An army of observers was attending the elections, to make sure they were conducted peaceably and fairly. I remembered, however, that in 1990 Jimmy Carter had arrived with members of his staff, as official supervisors. His presence was made much of in the press—surely, in such an august presence, no deceptions were possible. The elections had taken place without incident and the following day he had congratulated each of the candidates in turn and departed the country, leaving his blessing behind him. Since we had to wait a further two months for the results, his departure, in retrospect, looked premature.

The extension of voting time meant that no results were likely that night, so I waited until the following morning, and before noon, a Puerto Rican station broadcast the first figures. With some 25 percent of the votes counted, Balaguer was leading Peña Gómez by three percentage points, with Bosch trailing surprisingly far behind. What I needed at that moment was a calculator. Just then, I heard my name called from the path, and Alquímedes appeared. He is a grave man, un hombre serio, as we say, and he looked unusually preoccupied. We sat down together on the terrace.

“I meant to come last night,” he told me, “but it was well past midnight before we left the school. Something’s happening. Let me tell you about it. As you know, everybody who has a valid cedula appears on the list of voters; and, just before the elections, we receive from the Junta Central, for our electoral table, a list of all those eligible to vote, so that when they appear, we can check them against the master list. Well, it started quite early. Several people turned up, always with their cedulas in order, but when we looked, their names were not on the master list. We began to wonder. At the end of the day, we had found 140 people who were in that position, out of a total list of 800-odd names. Now, I know everybody around here, and I can tell you that these 140 people were all supporters of the PLD or the PRD, but mostly PRD.”

“Did they come back to vote, after six?” I asked him.

“Oh yes, all but about two. They wrote in their votes, according to the official instructions; but what concerns me is that their votes ended up on a separate list of votos observados, which we then attached, as instructed, to the official list. We stayed around talking about it for about an hour after we had closed and signed all the documents. We were extra-careful not to utter the word ‘fraud,’ but I can tell you, the word was hanging in the air. I have an uneasy feeling that these names are not going to be included in the final count.”

This is far from the first time that serious irregularities have arisen in Dominican elections. In 1978, Balaguer had completed three consecutive terms as president, and was confidently running for a fourth against Antonio Guzmán, the PRD candidate, who had a strong following among the campesinos. The first returns showed Guzmán well ahead, and when it looked inevitable that he would win, the military moved in swiftly and seized the ballot boxes. At this point, President Carter intervened, making clear that US relations with the Dominican Republic depended emphatically on the integrity of the electoral process. After an anxious interval, Balaguer was forced to order the military to withdraw and to allow free elections, which Guzmán won handsomely. There was a similar delay eight years later, some nine days of wait without news between the vote and the result, which returned Balaguer to the presidency. On all of these occasions, the losers cried fraud, but could prove nothing. The Junta Central Electoral has complete control over the electoral process, and it is appointed by the government in power.

Although the suspicion that has regularly arisen over electoral irregularities is very far from proof of fraud, it is just as demoralizing. As Alquímedes says, if you know of even one small instance of electoral deception in your own locality, it is enough to erode your faith in the whole process. That erosion is also cumulative: it accounts for the cynicism that many Dominicans voice as elections loom, for the disillusion that causes them to leave the country in droves, many of them in the open boats I sometimes see slipping past the beach on moonless nights, carrying the desperate across the perilous Mona Channel to Puerto Rico. I heard a Puerto Rican commentator claim, as the first results came in, that a Balaguer victory would very likely multiply the number of Dominicans trying to enter Puerto Rico illegally in the next few weeks.

This time, however, the affair of the voter lists looks not at all like a last-minute maneuver but like a strategy planned well ahead, and one that must have involved a fair number of people. As president, Balaguer takes the brunt of abuse—Dominicans are savagely outspoken, and make good use of the freedom to complain that they are allowed, in the press and in everyday conversation. It is obvious, however, that a great number of people have much to gain by keeping him in power. Even he may no longer be entirely aware of some of the sins that are committed in his name.

I spent most of the rest of the day with my ear to the radio, and Alquímedes’s suspicions were more than substantiated by mid-afternoon. From various parts of the country, similar reports were coming in, of voters discovering that their names were absent from official lists, and left out of the computer count. They were all, according to the reports, supporters of Peña Gómez; and Peña Gómez himself was claiming that between 150,000 and 200,000 votes in his favor had received this treatment. The electoral bulletins by this time were reporting on the results, with some 75 percent of the returns. Balaguer was still leading Peña Gómez, by 39 percent to 37 percent, a difference of about 35,000 votes. More important, a Costa Rican observer, a member of the delegation sent by the Organization of American States, declared that he had seen enough “irregularities” in the voting procedures to prevent him from saying the elections were legitimate. A recount was already being demanded.

The twenty-second bulletin issued by the Junta Central Electoral on May 19, and the last to date, is still not complete—with almost 97 percent of the vote counted, Balaguer was given 1,238,859 votes, 42.4 percent of the total, Peña Gómez 1,209,305 votes, 41.39 percent, and Bosch 384,817 votes, 13.17 percent. This is still not an official result; nor does the Junta Central look likely to deliver one with any dispatch, given the uproar that has broken out. Steve Griner, the official spokesman for the delegation of OAS observers, declared that in view of an apparent “massive disenfranchisement,” particularly in the north of the country, the observers were not yet able to evaluate the validity of the electoral process.

Dominicans were, however. I listened to an early-morning phone-in, and the callers were unanimous and eloquent in their expressions of outrage.

Balaguer, in an interview he gave on May 19, claimed that the misgivings expressed by the international observers, and the support they apparently gave to the “allegations” of fraud, were all part of an international conspiracy to integrate the Dominican Republic with Haiti. He would have been better advised to say nothing at all, for his remarks have been greeted with almost universal derision, and have already been dismissed by some of his own supporters. On May 20, when I went into the small town of Samaná, the capital of Samaná province, to telephone, a detachment of soldiers in combat uniform carrying machine guns was combing its few streets in pairs, removing the PRD banners with Peña Gómez’s face on them from the lamp posts with long poles, followed by a jeering crowd of small boys, ready to run. Their elders looked on from a more prudent distance.

Balaguer’s habitual strategy of letting enough time pass for indignation to subside into shrugging acceptance may not work on this occasion. The difference lies in the fact that Dominicans feel this time they have not just a baffled suspicion of having been cheated but a pervasive proof of a fraud prepared in advance, and witnessed by observers from the outside who, they hope fervently, will not let it die down. After considerable consultation the parties agreed to a recount, vote by vote, conducted by the Junta Central Electoral and monitored by the Catholic Church, which began on Wednesday, May 25. Going by past experience this is not likely to be concluded swiftly; and since a scrupulous recount would reveal the discrepancies in the voting lists for all to see, the general feeling here is that the Junta Central Electoral will resort to new obfuscatory tactics.

An old friend of mine in town who served in local government under Guzmán stopped me. “I have to tell you,” he said. “We have, as you know well, not always welcomed the shadow that the US casts over our country, or its meddling in our affairs. But this time, we are all giving thanks for a foreign presence. Nobody’s talking this time about burning the post office or taking to the streets. Nor are they talking party any more. They’re talking about justice. Don’t ask me how, for none of us have any clear idea yet; but this time, I think it’s going to have the right ending.”

May 26, 1994

This Issue

June 23, 1994