By A. Rodríguez
April 17, 2010
Struggles are heating up in the Dominican Republic.
Social conflicts in the Dominican Republic have become more acute due to the world economic crisis which puts into question the optimistic forecast made by President Leonel Fernandez who a few months ago said that the Dominican economy would not be affected because the country was “shielded.”
But contrary to this lie put forward by the Dominican president and his economic team, the crisis is already here: it arrived to the country long ago with the collapse of remittances from the U.S. and a drop in the tourist sector, one of the most important sources of revenues for the economy.
Most recent social conflicts can be traced back to the intransigent attitude of the government which refuses to address the crisis by increasing the minimum wage on par with inflation while food prices are on the rise. In addition, many people in the textile industry (zonas francas) in the Cibao region have lost their jobs, affecting the local economy in the process. There have also been mass layoffs in the state-owned Dominican Electricity Corporation as well as in public schools.
Meanwhile, the government does not invest enough in public education and the health care system. The aim of this policy is to dismantle the public sector and privatize both health services and public schools.
So far, the Dominican government has not bothered to undertake an overreaching social plan that could benefit the poor, working people and sectors of the middle class affected by the financial crisis. In that sense, the government has only distributed subsidies to families with children and low income single women through a government-issued card known as Solidarity. (As a matter of fact, the program is modeled after a similar system launched in Brazil by President Lula).
In the Dominican Republic, this paternalistic system has not translated into substantial results in terms of raising the living standards of the poor majority but rather, it is forging a dependency relationship between Solidarity card beneficiaries and the government. This will benefit the government in the upcoming elections.
In addition, state resources are being used for the construction of megaprojects such as the Santo Domingo Metro which ultimately, benefits construction companies. Meanwhile, the theft of public funds by government officials is more prevalent these days. At the end, embezzlement drains the state of needed funds needed to implement social projects.
The President’s Luck
The economic crisis in the Dominican Republic has as a backdrop the inability of the main opposition party, the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party-PRD), to put forward a serious opposition against the government. In fact, the PRD does not make coherent political pronouncements that present alternatives to current government policies. But while it is true that some political statements have been made, these have been sporadic or worse yet, based on personal attacks as was the recent case of former President Hipolito Mejia who, from time to time, comes out of hibernation to defend his reputation against accusations of corruption during his administration. In one of those informal quarrels between government officials and Mejia, the former president turned to the aid of the "Hipolitadas" or his trademark clownish language that made him the laughingstock of Dominican politics. He did this by reminding government officials such as Vincho Castillo, of their connections with the Trujillo dictatorship while at the same time, accusing other officials of being gay. However, the latter accusation hurt him badly because homosexuality is accepted in this Caribbean country.
On top of all this, there is the secret pact signed between former PRD presidential candidate Vargas Maldonado and President Fernández with the aim of approving the new constitution in the legislative branch.
After all, the fact that there is a clear absence of a coherent opposition serves as a gift to President Fernandez, who is proving to have more luck than a cat with seven lives.
Among some of the working sectors who have revived their demands are teachers in the public education system as well as nurses. For example, in the Santo Domingo Autonomous University (UASD), professors from the Federation of Associations of the Santo Domingo Autonomous University (FAPROUASD) were preparing actions in order to go on strike to demand wage increases and better working conditions. However, university authorities aborted the strike at a meeting that lasted four hours. Afterwards, the professors were granted a salary increase.
Prior to Easter Week, unionized nurses threatened to go on strike after the end of the Catholic holidays if health care officials did not include their union in the negotiations over a salary increase between public sector doctors from the Colegio Medico Dominicano (Medical Dominican Association-CMD) and the government.
The doctors have been waging a two years old struggle over a salary increase. In the Dominican Republic, public sector doctors are not well paid. This forces many health professionals to work in the informal sector of the economy as street vendors. And other doctors leave the country to work oversees in places like Spain among others.
Public school teachers are also organizing to confront the crisis. In March, teachers picketed the premises of the National Teachers Insurance (ARS-SEMMA) to demand a wage increase. Doctors also demanded that the government allocate payments to the teacher’s health insurance plan. As a result, members of the Dominican Association of Teachers (ADP) staged protests in different parts of the country.
At the end, their militant actions were successful in that it forced the government to start making payments to their health insurance coverage.
But teachers who were laid off have not been reinstated as of this writing.
In fact, the situation for teachers is further aggravated because the government lacks both the physical infrastructure and the workforce that is crucial in order to impart a high quality education. The reality is that the public educational system in the island reveals serious needs that range from lack of seats and didactic materials; to the poor quality of school breakfast. As a matter of fact, the school breakfast is facing a crisis as recent cases of poisoning with school milk revealed.
In that order, the lack of investment in education and health services are affecting the living standards of the poor and the working class.
Furthermore, the previous president of the teacher’s union demanded that the government allocates 4% of the national budget to public education. The newly elected president of the ADP has not pressed for more investment in education.
The recent labor protests augur further struggles in response to the economic crisis that is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean nation.
This is a revised version of an article originally published in Spanish. It was translated by the author.