Island of Hispaniola: Coalitions and cross-border solidarity
2013-08-07, Issue 642
Political dysfunction on the Island of Hispaniola is rife, mired in clientelist networks (as in the Dominican Republic) and the blatant manipulation of elections (as in Haiti). Whereas the populations are interlocked in many ways, historical divisions remain and are readily exploited by dominant national and transnational groups. Most notable are the racist and xenophobic tendencies aimed at the Haitian migrant underclass, which is so clearly present in Dominican society. This serves to pit poor people against one another based upon arbitrary national boundaries, racial myths and historical rivalries in an island smaller than the U.S. state of Maine.
What are the prospects for the left and popular grassroots movements in Hispaniola under such conditions? With the successes in recent years of many leftist movements and governments in the region, what potentials exist and what is holding back the formation of similar political projects in Haiti and the Dominican Republic?
In mid-2012, press reports indicated that some on the left in the Dominican Republic were attempting to form an electoral coalition prior to the country’s recent elections, but this failed to materialize. The various left groups that remain and, importantly, the non-electoral social movements as well, have an opportunity to reenergize this process and carry it out on a deeper level, to form a coalition that is not only limited to electoral politics. This could include groups such as Alianza Pais, Max Puig’s Alianza por la Democracia, Frente amplio, Dominicano por el cambio, the country’s communists in the Fuerza de la Revolución, and the numerous grassroots movements, non-co-opted labour, university groups and the grouping of non-electoral leftwing groups (that in recent years have called for a constitutional assembly). Most importantly, a true coalition of the left would need to embrace the Haitian migrant community. A left-popular class coalition could mobilize the excluded, even possibly gaining support from some in the middle class and diaspora. It remains to be seen if these groups (or at least a sizeable number of them) can coalesce, as longtime divisions and rivalries persist. Many also differ in their agenda towards Haiti, and some on the Dominican left shamefully failed to denounce the 2004 coup in Haiti.
The mainstream Dominican party with populist rhetoric, the PRD (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano), in its recent political campaign had painted slogans on electricity poles around the country - the catchy: “Llego Papa” (“Here comes Papa”, as Papa is the nickname of the perennial PRD candidate and former president, Hipólito Mejía). The PRD, and its more conservative nemesis, (the PLD, which currently holds the presidency) appear to have somewhat of a headlock on the political process (but nowhere near as secure as the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S.). Cracks in the two party edifices abound though; such as the widespread acknowledgment of the extreme corruption of both parties (as well as those small parties that always ride their coattails). The last PRD government in office, under Hipólito Mejía, (2001-2004), was so deceitful and moribund that for years it allowed rightwing paramilitaries to run violent raids into Haiti against the Lavalas government that was in power at the time. Mejía’s administration even took part in the illegal U.S. occupation of Iraq.
At present the PRD is plagued by an internecine power struggle, with its different factions verbally and occasionally physically assaulting one another. At first glance the situation appears rooted in a personal fight, a manifestation of a personality conflict between businessman Miguel Vargas Maldonado and the old veteran warhorse of Dominican politics, Mejía. The fight is over power, rather than over ideological reasons or concern for the welfare of the country, even as the population exhibits a high poverty rate of 44%, with 26% in extreme poverty, while 63% of workers are in the informal sector and 17% unemployed.
Meanwhile, the bathed in cash corporatist PLD (the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana), albeit more unified than the PRD, has been rocked by corruption scandals, some making their way into Dominican courts. A den of mafia bosses, former President Leonel Fernandez remains the boss of all the PLD bosses, the “capo di tutti cappi”. Fernandez backed numerous ultra rightwing policies during his most recent period in office (2004-2012), including the outlawing of abortion, the deepening of racist discrimination against Haitians, all the while further moving government policies in line with the needs of transnational corporations. The onetime third force of Dominican politics, the old quasi-fascist Balaguerist party, the Partido Reformista Social Cristiano (PRSC), has dwindled in numbers but continues to serve interests and actions that work against “the welfare of the nation”, selling itself to the highest bidder.
In this atmosphere a successful and energized popular leftwing and anti-corruption coalition has space to grow, and it could even gain in defections from those segments of the PRD who still honour the inspirational memory of deceased PRD leaders like José Francisco Peña Gómez (a far cry from the PRD's current heads, Gómez, who died in 1998, spoke out against the 1991 coup in Haiti and in support of Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s).
In Haiti, by contrast, the left and popular forces have historically been stronger but also have faced different conditions. The Lavalas movement has had a long history of bringing together numerous popular movements and grassroots organizations - but it has also suffered from a lack of infrastructure and has come under repeated assaults by the right and faced other difficulties. Fanmi Lavalas (FL) is the formal political party that grew out of the pro-democracy Lavalas movement. Its popular strength provoked elite destabilization and the US perpetrated coup of 2004 and the intense repression that followed under the Latortue dictatorship of 2004-2006. Ever since the 2004 coup the Fanmi Lavalas party has been kept out of participating in elections, yet as a movement its base of support has mobilized on a number of occasions. In recent years, following the 2010 earthquake, the country has seen though a revival of the neo-Duvalierist right, as symbolized by the government of Michel Martelly that came to office through controversial poorly attended elections. After natural disasters, manmade disasters and the formation of an unaccountable system of NGOs across the country, Haiti’s sovereignty has been deeply undermined.
Various possibilities exist though for Haiti’s popular movement to rebuild itself, for example aided by its veteran activists as well as leftist groups that are close with the grassroots (such as the Koodinasyon Dessalines). Forward strides are being made by the University of the Aristide Fondayson, with its medical school, as well as the recreation of Lavalas’s Radyo Timoun. Some other political groups often based in the country’s small middle class or university, and not always on good terms with the Lavalas baz, might be willing to join in an anti-macoute alliance but this will be difficult to achieve.* Some of the smaller intelligentsia groups, who claim to be on the left in the country, were complicit with the 2004 coup and its bloody aftermath.
In Haiti, when (or if) free and fair elections are held, Lavalas and its allies are more than likely to achieve electoral successes. The challenge, though, will be if this can be reflected in grassroots organizing and sustained participation from below without being hampered by various illegitimate powerbrokers.
A LOCAL, INTRA-ISLAND, REGIONAL AND TRANSNATIONAL PROJECT
In both countries, coalition building faces numerous difficulties, from infighting and competition to the exploits of opportunists, and destabilization from the right and foreign powers. With sizeable informal economies and so many just struggling to get by, in addition to the apathy of consumerist-individualist culture as a major depoliticizing factor, many difficulties exist. Challenging such conditions are of course tasks easier said than done. The island is also located on the imperial frontier, a region with such a long history of U.S. intervention. Some elites also have at their disposal paramilitary groups—a reoccurring threat because of impunity and their ties to the narcotics trade. At the same time the security forces in Hispaniola, as in some other parts of the region, are heavily penetrated by U.S. agencies such as the DEA and CIA. The difficulties and challenges faced by Hispaniola’s left political and social movements are many.
Another difficulty that continues to confront political organizing on the island is the tendency for numerous smaller political parties and groups to appear, based around one individual and easy prey for networks of patronage—an engrained “caudillismo”. Not only does it undermine the liberatory potential of the left, it also can discourage many and youth especially.
On a deeper social level, overcoming the tremendous racism that exists in the Dominican Republic toward Haitian migrants is vital. As they did in 1965, dispensing with their anti-Haitian reflexes and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder for an island-wide project, the Dominican left flourished, though was crushed by U.S. cold war militarism backed by its local rightist allies. It should be emphasized here the involvement of Haitian fighters among the ranks of the Dominican constitutionalists who faced invading U.S. forces in 1965, some of whom even gave their lives for the Quisqueyana motherland (“Quisqueyana” was a word used by pre-conquest indigenous peoples to describe the island). Remembering the past and honouring the labour of migrant communities, immigrant rights are at the forefront of struggle for progressives and leftists. Successful media-savvy immigrant rights activism is taking place in the Dominican Republic, such as with Grupo Sacerdotal Don Hélder Cámara, a liberation theology group.
In conclusion, the ideas here should not just be seen as distant dreams, or discarded in the face of the constant day to day political fights that take place. The popular classes need to think big. We need to stand back and look at the future horizon, not just in Hispaniola, but also around the world. We live in conditions rife for social change. The right has no answers to the deepening ecological and inequality crises of capitalist globalization. In such deplorable circumstances the right can only divide people and exploit the various weaknesses and divisions present (or their historical residue), in order to retain power and of course call on powerful allies.
Unity of the left must take place in Hispaniola if any meaningful change to the nature of the island’s highly unequal socio-economic and corrupt political systems are to take place, and part of this must involve breaking down racism and xenophobia, and building stronger local and transnational alliances and coordination from below. In the short-term, a shift to the left, though with many intermediate steps, appears more achievable in Haiti, especially with a rift in the ruling groups widening--between the macoute and liberal bourgeoisie sectors. Continued mobilization and organizing, and, at times, compromises, will need to be made for the popular classes on the island of Hispaniola to improve their conditions. To stop the right from recuperating power, they will need a concerted and coherent political project locally and with strong bonds of solidarity across the island, and expanded ties with the new regional alternatives.
*Note: the “tonton macoutes” were the paramilitary forces of the old Duvalier dictatorship and by extension the word “macoute” is often used to describe right-wingers who supported this regime and those who promote its newer political manifestations.
* Jeb Sprague is a PhD candidate in Sociology at UCSB and the author of Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (Monthly Review Press, 2012). His university website is locatedhere.
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