Resistance rises in the Dominican Republic
looks at state repression in the Dominican Republic and the spreading resistance.
November 17, 2008
A SERIES of social struggles in the Dominican Republic are challenging the increasingly repressive regime of President Leonel Fernández.
On October 21, a 48-hour strike to protest the high cost of living and lack of electricity, health care facilities and infrastructure investment paralyzed San Francisco de Macorís, the third largest city in the country. The strike, organized by the Alternative Social Forum (FSA), had a huge economic impact and led to street protests in adjacent towns.
Police SWAT teams were dispatched to put down the strike. Officers shot at protesters indiscriminately, wounding 20 people during violent street clashes. More than 50 people were arrested.
The death of two teenagers shot by police shocked the entire country. Then, four people were wounded when police interrupted the funeral of one of the murdered teens.
But this was not the first time innocent people faced the wrath of the local police. In fact, the police in San Francisco de Macorís have a history of carrying out extrajudicial executions against poor youth. In 2004, Rafael Guillermo Guzmán Fermín, was removed from his post as police commander because of protests.
Fermín had led a death squad that hunted for young people at night. Locals nicknamed his gang of uniformed assassins “Los Cirujanos” (the surgeons) because many of those shot became paraplegic.
But Fermín’s career wasn’t ended after his removal from local office. Last year, Fermín was named chief of police by President Fernández, whose government is instrumental in legitimizing repressive measures to fight crime under the guise of the so-called “war on drugs.” In the meantime, new media revelations implicate upper echelons of the military in the drug trade.
Under a “democratic security policy” put in place with the aid of the U.S. and Colombia, police and undercover units are conducting raids in poor neighborhoods, killing Black youth and criminalizing the poor.
In San Francisco de Macorís, complaints about police brutality had reached a crescendo before the strike October 21. The local governor, a member of the ruling party, was forced to ask government authorities to transfer the entire police department. On October 23, however, a massive demonstration in the city sent a loud message to the government in one of the biggest demonstrations against police brutality in recent memory.
For a moment, the strike had the potential of spreading nationwide. But a section of the FSA, the left-wing Broad Front of Popular Struggle (FALPO), opened a dialogue with the government and negotiated a truce. FALPO’s willingness to make a deal with the government has to do with its recent decision to participate in local elections, leading it to set aside its more radical politics.
Moreover, the government has already had some success in co-opting the opposition. A deal signed between the bosses and the main labor unions freezes salaries for two years.
But agreements and negotiations are unlikely to bring an end to the rising social struggle in the Dominican Republic. So far this year, public sector doctors from the Dominican Medical Association (CMD) have struck ten times to demand a salary increase. Their actions are giving confidence to other union workers and the unorganized.
Fernández is trying to divide the union through both co-optation and violence. On every occasion, CMD marches have been dispersed by tear gas and brutal police force. In early October, SWAT teams and police forcefully removed doctors during a hunger strike in the Health Department headquarters. Additionally, displaced hurricane victims join in with those affected by constant blackouts to organize protests regularly.
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THIS CRACKDOWN is part of broader shift to the right by President Fernández. During the recent presidential campaign, he declared himself the political heir of former right-wing strongman Joaquin Balaguer to appeal to conservative voters, and fill the political vacuum left by Balaguer after his death in 2002.
Between 1966 and 1978, Balaguer’s U.S.-backed reign of terror wiped out the left and the labor movement while opening up the economy to foreign multinationals in an employers’ offensive that continues to this day. And like his predecessors, Fernández embraces anti-Haitian racism and social conservatism to push forward the employer’s offensive.
In August, Fernández announced new cuts in food subsidies and a freeze on infrastructure investment including roads, schools and hospitals so as to reduce the deficit and guarantee the payment of the foreign debt.
As the effects of the world financial crisis destroy jobs and wages, ordinary people in many parts of the country demand solutions to their problems in the form of strikes while Fernández escalates repression in manner not seen since the 1970s. However, this is not having its intended effect and instead, is creating a backlash against his government.
A key focal point of the resistance is the scandal over fake milk used in the government’s school breakfast program. A media uproar pressured the government to transfer the Minister of Education to a less visible cabinet position: that of women’s affairs. The fact that an arrogant, corrupt government official was put in charge of this department highlights the government’s low regard for women’s rights.
But the battle was far from over. Lácteos Dominicanos (Ladom), the milk supplier, sued two veteran independent journalists, Huchi Lora and Nuria Piera, for their role in breaking the milk scandal. A court ruling allowed Ladom’s lawyers to enter the journalists’ office to get unedited footage related to the scandal. This infuriated journalists and left activists who denounced it as nothing more than a typical intimidation tactic to silence independent media.
The court ruling was far from the only attack on the media, however. A new wave of violent attacks against independent journalists erupted after a cameraman was shot in August. Many journalists have become more reluctant to cover politics because of fear of reprisals.
But on September 23, some 300 people marched to protest the court ruling on the milk scandal as well as the climate of fear that has made it more difficult for journalists to do their work in recent months. This was the first time in many years that journalists marched against state repression and censorship.
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WHILE CRACKING down on the press and protesters, the government and the far right has ramped up its attacks on the traditional scapegoat in Dominican politics: Haitian immigrants. Between September 2004 and June 2008, more than 65,000 Haitian immigrants have been deported, all this under Fernández’s watch.
On July 14, Gysselle Baret Reyes, a Dominican married to a Haitian immigrant, was kidnapped by two men and a woman for several hours. During her ordeal, her assailants poured acid on her left arm. They also questioned her about her family and her ties with Emildo Bueno Oguis, a Dominico-Haitian who is conducting a legal battle against the government to demand a birth certificate so he can travel to the U.S. and reunite with his American-born wife.
The attack on Reyes was in retaliation for her appearance on public television where she denounced government authorities for denying birth certificates to her children. This is typical: the Dominican government refuses to grant citizenship rights to thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric serves to justify border militarization under the banner of fighting the drug trade, terrorism and human trafficking and national sovereignty.
Under the U.S. Merida Initiative, more military aid is on the way to upgrade the Dominican army, which will be to conduct more raids and deportations against Haitian immigrants. Furthermore, meetings between the Dominican government and the Brazilian-dominated UN military occupation forces in Haiti have fostered closer links with the Brazilian military, which is inflicting a brutal repression against followers of former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide.
This attack on immigrants is part of an employers’ offensive that instills fear in Haitian immigrants and prevents them from organizing in unions. Still, immigrants are fighting back. Early this year, 120 immigrants mutinied while on route to Haiti. And immigrant rights marches in the border provinces have taken place.
If President Fernández gets his way, anti-Haitian measures will be enshrined in a proposed new constitution that would grant him additional powers and allow him to be re-elected indefinitely.
The new constitution contemplates, among other things, defining marriage as “a union between a man and a woman” and strengthening what are already harsh anti-abortion laws.
But perhaps the main target of the constitution is Haitians. According to the new constitution, children of undocumented immigrants would not be granted citizenship. No other immigrant group, other than Haitians, has been subject to these segregationist laws.
Even without the constituional changes, Dominico-Haitians constantly find their legal status threatened. Last year, Sonia Pierre, an immigrant rights activist, came under attack by a small right wing party, part of the governing coalition, which tried to seek a court ruling to annul her citizenship under the grounds that her parents were undocumented Haitian immigrants.
But she scored an important victory against the right and the government when activists launched a campaign to defend her, setting a legal precedent that opened the door to future legal battles.
Yet if the Dominican can’t strip Haitians’ rights through legal means, it’s prepared to use violence to intimidate them. Recently, Haitian immigrants were subjected brutal attacks at the same time strikes and protests were taking place in many parts of the country.
In the city of Neyba, two Haitian immigrants were murdered by Dominicans after a Dominican was supposedly killed by a Haitian immigrant. Other violent attacks followed in the town of Guayubín, where 30 houses belonging to Haitian immigrants were burned by a mob after a Haitian was suspected of murdering a Dominican man.
As usual, racist violence against Haitian immigrants remains unpunished because local authorities are behind the attacks. In fact, the mayor of Guayubín is accused of being one of the organizers of the latest violence.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media spread racist ideas about Haitians, who are portrayed as drug dealers, delinquents and rapists. Both politicians and the Catholic Church whip up racist frenzy by blaming Haitian immigrants for crime, “stealing” jobs from Dominicans and spreading disease.
But contrary to mainstream media propaganda, Haitians and Dominican live side by side in poor neighborhoods, and are more integrated than ever before in their workplaces. Though, many ordinary Dominicans embrace racist ideas about Haitians, they’re not responsible for spreading racism and organizing violence against immigrants. The blame for those atrocities rests with the government and the employers.
The more recent attacks led to the deportation of some 500 Haitian immigrants under the pretext of “protecting their lives.” In any case, the same army and police that are responsible for suppressing labor struggles and murdering Black Dominican youth can’t be expected to protect the lives of Haitian immigrants. As of this writing, the town of Navarrete is under military occupation after street protests exploded in protests.
The resistance to Fernández’s repression provides a new opportunity to challenge the government’s divide-and-conquer tactics. Working-class unity between Haitians and Dominicans will be crucial to rebuild the labor movement and the left in order to challenge racist violence and fight for better working conditions and wages for everyone.