Urn Burial

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…

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