Dominican Republic's outrageously corrupt election

May 20, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

IT MAY BE that this was not the dirtiest election in Dominican history -- it is also possible that my cat Nikko, placed in an aviary, will embrace the birds.

It may also be that the "old crowd" here really did not steal the elections.

But in these days immediately after the May 16 elections, the mood is suspiciously quiet. The capital has seen no victory celebrations by President Joaquin Balaguer, officially re-elected by 43 percent of the voters to his seventh term even though he is 87 years old and blind. Meanwhile, the candidate of the new generation and of change, 57-year-old Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, with officially 41 percent of the vote, complained bitterly and persuasively that as many as 200,000 of his party's voters were prevented from voting by having their names flagrantly removed from computer lists.

Even in a country of "nobody's perfect" elections, these set a record for computer tampering and destroying reputations through modern technology.

From the moment I arrived here in Santo Domingo just before the elections, calls began to come in from Dominican friends. They ++ were deeply disturbed. On the eve of the election, people were receiving taped telemarketing announcements at 4 in the morning, saying, "Excuse me, this can't continue -- vote for Pena." (This obviously was meant to turn people away from candidate Pena and his social democratic PRD, or Dominican Revolutionary Party.)

Then, with television and radio news silenced by tradition and law for 48 hours during the elections, came the persistent rumors. "Is the U.S. going to invade Haiti today?" person after person asked me. "That's all we hear." (These rumors were deliberately designed to awaken fears of Mr. Pena's Haitian birth.)

Candidate Pena Gomez, you see, is a Dominican with a brilliant academic and political record, having studied at the Sorbonne and served as an excellent mayor of Santa Domingo. But, in a country more color-terrified than was even South Africa, the Balaguer conservatives never for a moment let the public forget that Mr. Pena was born a black Haitian orphan.

The campaign was brutal. Television ads trumpeted Mr. Pena as bringing the Dominican Republic, which historically hates Haitians, and Haiti together in one state ruled by him.

And for weeks, filthy faxes would suddenly appear in embassies and in political centers. One of the worst had a grotesquely caricatured Mr. Pena, with big lips and a devil sign on his arm, unable to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, "perejil." (When the former dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo slaughtered thousands of Haitians in the 1930s, the pronunciation of that one word served as a test of Haitianness.)

Days before the election, PRD officials began getting reports that the computers that controlled the voting lists were being tampered with. Names of known PRD voters or sympathizers simply would not appear on the local voting lists.

These fears and accusations were given added substantiation by at least two suspicious events in the last weeks. First, a computer expert was clandestinely brought from Venezuela by Mr. Balaguer's party, the Reformist Social Christian Party. When the visit became public, a small scandal erupted. Then at one point in the campaign, everyone except a small group of Balaguer followers was locked out of the computer room. The act was so egregious that the U.S. Embassy secretly reported to Washington that fraud was likely.

And so, once again, this land-rich but honor-poor country became a "tight little island" -- tight not on rum but on the seeming impossibility of breaking through its corrupt and brutal history.

The progressive PRD program was outlined to me the night before the elections by Fernando Alvarez Bogaer, Mr. Pena's vice presidential candidate. "We will separate the Justice Department from the government," he said. "We will create a culture of exports, as in Asia. We will establish a vigorous law for foreign investment, which will allow repatriation of all profits."

Now all that forward thinking is again squelched. While he himself is generally respected, President Balaguer barely governs the country anymore; and so the country will continue to be run by a coterie of corrupt colleagues, who have shown how well they understand the phrase "business as usual."

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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