New face in the Caribbean Dominican vote: Fernandez challenged to end Balaguer's long dominance.

July 11, 1996

IN APRIL 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Marines to the Dominican Republic to protect American lives, prevent a Castroite takeover, end anarchy and install, if possible, democracy. In a fair election the next year, a moderate rightist, Joaquin Balaguer, defeated the leftist Juan Bosch (who had won in 1962 but been deposed). Controversial at the time, the U.S. intervention was one of the most successful ever. The U.S. went in, put things right, got out -- and it worked.

Thirty years after his first election, Mr. Balaguer was 89, blind, deaf, infirm and totally in charge of his country as it chose his successor. It has been more decently run and prosperous for the bulk of its people than Haiti, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola.

Now the Dominican Republican has come through an undeniably honest election. Even the loser, Jose Francisco Pena Gomez (who probably beat Mr. Balaguer in 1994 only to have it stolen) conceded. The winner was Leonel Fernandez, a 42-year-old lawyer with no government experience, who spent his childhood in New York and still has a green card should he be deposed. He is a well-meaning politician and the brightest new face in the Caribbean.

Mr. Fernandez has crusaded for real democracy. He won as the candidate of Mr. Bosch. The catch is that he also had Mr. Balaguer's backing. Mr. Balaguer's own vice president had been a dismal third in the first round of voting. Mr. Balaguer backed Mr. Fernandez to keep out Mr. Pena Gomez, whom Mr. Balaguer despises for troubling motives that run deep in the Dominican psyche, basically for having Haitian ancestry.

Mr. Fernandez insists he made no deal for a Balaguer endorsement. But he is president of a country where the legislature and judiciary were all essentially picked by Mr. Balaguer. To make democracy genuine, Mr. Fernandez must get control of his own government, away from the blind and deaf old man who has given up office but still means to be the power behind the throne. In this, Mr. Fernandez deserves the cooperation, good will and influence of both Mr. Pena Gomez and the U.S. government.

Pub date: 7/11/96

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