Dominican Republic wracked by unrest Power failures, price hikes followed by protests, riots


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- For months, the electrical power grid has been failing and the price of food rising throughout this Caribbean country. Protesters have been taking to the streets to burn tires and cars and throw stones and homemade bombs at the police.

Now the situation appears to have moved into a new and potentially more dangerous phase. Dissatisfied with what they describe as the government's inability to improve living conditions and its unwillingness to negotiate with them, a coalition of union and student groups has called a two-day general strike next week.

President Leonel Fernandez Reyna is treating this as the biggest threat to stability he has faced during his 15 months in office.

At least a dozen people have been reported killed, scores injured, and hundreds arrested as a result of the wave of disturbances that has erupted in more than a dozen towns across the country since the protests began earlier this year. And as blackouts continue and impatience grows, fears that the violence will grow are increasing.

"We are in a state of national crisis which is increasing the desperation of the people," Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez warned late last month. It is up to the government, the Roman Catholic archbishop said, to offer the country's 7.5 million people "a sign of hope."

As Fernandez has repeatedly pointed out, the widespread power cuts are not a new phenomenon, and are largely a result of the lack of planning and corruption of previous administrations. But Fernandez promised a quick improvement, and people are holding him to his word.

"In my neighborhood, there have been various times this year when we have gone several days without any electricity, and we're sick of it," said Danilo Correa, a 55-year-old butcher. "We're soaked in sweat before we go out of the house, the food spoils, and we couldn't even get to see our boy Moises Alou hit those three home runs in the World Series."

The unrest has also been fed by a prolonged drought that has ruined crops. As a result, the prices of such staples of the Dominican diet as bananas, rice and chicken have doubled, far outstripping whatever wage gains workers have been able to achieve.

Fernandez's response has been to announce subsidies for basic foodstuffs. But prices of other goods, gasoline in particular, have also risen, making the buses and collective taxis many Dominicans use to get to and from work and markets more costly and transforming drivers into militant supporters of the general strike call.

Government officials maintain that the strike call is being encouraged and organized by leaders of the two political parties that Fernandez defeated in last year's presidential election.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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