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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004

Dominican Republic

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The Dominican presidential election of May 2004 marked the first time that Dominican citizens living in the United States were allowed to vote from abroad.
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Among developing countries, the Dominican Republic is the sixth-largest receiver of remittances from expats.
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The Dominican Republic supplies more players to Major League Baseball than any other country outside the United States.
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Untitled Document

Dispatches From a Small Planet: Election 2004

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Dominican Republic: Dual Citizens
Yahaira Castro

FRONTLINE/World correspondent Yahaira Castro, in Washington Heights, N.Y.
By Yahaira Castro
October 26, 2004

My father, Pedro Castro, will have voted in two presidential elections in 2004.

In May 2004, from his home in New Jersey, he cast his ballot in the race for president of the Dominican Republic, his native country.

On November 2, 2004, he will vote for president of the United States.

This is possible thanks to a 1997 Dominican law, which took effect this year, allowing Dominicans living abroad to retain their Dominican citizenship and voting rights, even if they become citizens of another country, like my father, who is a U.S. citizen.

Sometimes it's confusing, even to me. I remember the time my father complained in a booming voice, "It's the administration's fault." With long, dark brown fingers, he enumerated his points in Spanish: The economy was the worst it had been in years, energy costs were soaring and small businesses were disappearing. Years ago, I would've jumped to the conclusion that he was talking about the U.S. economy under President Bush. Today, I know his tirade was directed at the Dominican Republic's then-president Hipolito Mejia, the incumbent who subsequently lost the May 2004 election.

Pedro Castro

Pedro Castro, the father of FRONTLINE/World correspondent Yahaira Castro, holds up photographs of family members, which he saves in a briefcase.
Born in the Dominican Republic in 1947, my father developed a passion for island politics as a child -- a passion undiminished by his immigration to the United States. This year was the first time he and other Dominicans living abroad -- mainly in the United States and Spain -- were able to vote by absentee ballot in the Caribbean island's presidential election. My father relished the opportunity, joining 52,000 Dominicans who registered to vote in cities that included New York, Miami, Madrid and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

An estimated two-thirds of the votes from abroad went to challenger Leonel Fernandez, a former president who had lived in New York as a young man. Fernandez won the election with 57 percent of the overall vote, defeating Mejia, who had presided over an economic downturn.

Mejia, my father said, had surrounded himself with corrupt people who weren't interested in improving the country; they only wanted to get rich. Traditionally, Dominicans living in the United States are passionately involved in politics "back home," but unlike other Spanish-speaking ethnic groups in the United States, such as Cuban Americans and Mexican Americans, Dominicans are not inclined to take an active part in U.S. politics. But that may be changing. In the excruciatingly tight, hard-fought 2004 U.S. presidential race, in which every vote counts, Republicans and Democrats are both courting Hispanic voters, including Dominicans. According to official U.S. Census figures from 2000, there are 765,000 Dominicans living in the United States, and other studies have estimated that the number could actually be more than a million. More than half of the Dominicans in the United States are concentrated in the New York area.

Person filling out a ballot

A member of Partido Revolucionario Dominica (PRD) gets ready to select Hipolito Mejia, the incumbent, as president.
"I am voting for Kerry," says Constancia Garcia, who divides her time between the Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, the Dominican enclave on Manhattan's far upper west side. "There's too much unemployment, and they're using all that money to go to the war in Iraq."

Historically, the Dominican vote in the United States is overwhelmingly Democrat. But in 2004, New York City's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is leading a concerted effort to woo Dominicans to vote for Bush.

To hear Garcia tell it, the mayor has a tough sell. "The United States never should've gotten involved in this war," she says. "Everyone knows no weapons of mass destruction have been found. So then what was Bush's motive?"

All Politics Are Local

New York City councilwoman Diana Reyna is pleased that Dominicans seem more likely to participate in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, but she still bemoans the fact that Dominicans in New York are obsessed with island politics to the exclusion of local and U.S. politics.

People in front of political poster

Two men, waiting for a bus, are standing under a political banner endorsing presidential candidate Ramón Almanzar in the Dominican Republic.
A Democrat, Reyna is the first Dominican American woman to be elected to office in the United States. Her Brooklyn constituents include a smorgasbord of immigrants and "born in the U.S.A." natives. She says Dominicans point to her with pride, telling their children, "Work hard and you, too, can be someone." Still, their interest wavers, even disintegrates, when she starts talking with them about local politics.

"They don't want to stay in Brooklyn," she says. "They go to [Manhattan's] Washington Heights because [exile] politics there is more exciting to them."

I know what she means. Imagine a soccer fan angry over a loss and you're close to picturing how strongly Dominicans feel about politics back home on the island. It runs in your blood, one woman tells me. Now a waitress in a Washington Heights restaurant, she once held an administrative post in former president Joaquin Balaguer's government, and she longs for the life she once had. She says Balaguer comes to her in her dreams and comforts her.

Woman waving a flag

A member of the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD) waves a party flag at a political gathering in the Dominican Republic.
But a new generation of Dominicans in the United States is posing a question: What costs do we bear here if the community's attention is focused abroad? In neighborhoods like Washington Heights, Dominicans face daunting problems: a disturbing number of high school dropouts, unemployment, poverty, crime. With such problems, why are Dominicans in the United States more inclined to take part in island politics nearly 1,500 miles away?

Councilwoman Reyna is all too familiar with Dominicans' reasons for not involving themselves in local politics. Many Dominicans dream of returning to the island. They regard their stay in the United States as provisional -- a place to come to temporarily where they can work hard and earn money. They don't invest in the United States, preferring to send their savings to the island to finance an anticipated lifestyle, a lifestyle they can't have in New York even if they weren't sending their money to the Dominican Republic. With the Dominican immigrants among her constituency holding on to such dreams, how can Reyna convince them to engage in civic life in the United States?

Reyna's immigrant parents followed a different dream -- they knew they were going to stay put in New York. They bought a house and planned their retirement in the States, and thanks to them, she says, she and her three sisters went to college. "We weren't going back. We were going to stay."

My experience was the opposite of Reyna's. When I was growing up, my father always talked about going back. My parents even tried it once. My mother, brother and I lived there for two years. My father stayed behind to drive a truck in New Jersey because he couldn't figure out how to support his family if he moved to the island. But before I started high school, we came back. The time on the island proved to me that I would always feel split between two countries; even so, I knew I didn't belong in the Dominican Republic. Like Reyna, I am a Dominican American who is content to call the United States, and only the United States, home.

Street market

A bustling street-market in the town of Andres, Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.
Turning to point outside her window, Reyna tells me about the neighborhood she represents. "This used to be a manufacturing center, and now those jobs are gone."

She has plans to encourage access to education in order to increase people's basic skills and to implement training programs for service-sector jobs. At a senior citizens center she visits regularly, she encourages her constituents to tell her and her staff about their concerns. She also asks them to get involved.

"You've got to come out when we need you at City Hall to rally and give testimony about what's affecting you," she tells them.

This crowd pays rapt attention, but Dominicans distracted by day-to-day obligations and dreams of returning to the island are harder to reach. Reyna says many Dominicans can't get excited about local politics.

Reyna and her supporters hope they'll find a way to engage Dominicans, especially as they are caught up in the excitement of the U.S. presidential race. The Dominican American National Roundtable, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington, D.C., is trying to encourage civic engagement in the States. In New Jersey, the Annual Conference on Dominican Affairs holds forums to foster local political participation and develop local leaders. The goal is to add to the small, yet growing number of Dominicans in government. In New York, for instance, about a half-dozen Dominicans now hold important offices in city government.

But unless the new generation can get their community excited about local politics, their upward mobility will remain stalled. Reyna has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Congress, but it's going to be hard for her to grab the attention of Dominicans if they are tuned in only to politics on the island.

My Father's Life

To understand why Dominicans are so engaged in island politics, it helps to know my father's story.

My dad has always been a political aficionado. As a child, he developed a passion for politics from his father, who had never lived under a free democratic system. In 1961, when my father was 14, Dominicans got their chance for political freedom when the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who had ruled for 30 years, was assassinated. The next year, Dominican citizens participated in the island's first free election, and Juan Bosch, a socialist, became president.

"When you've waited for something for so long," my father says, recalling the first time his people voted freely, "it's just incredible."

But in the 1960s, socialism in America's backyard made President Lyndon Johnson nervous, especially with Fidel Castro in power in Cuba. Taking advantage of a coup attempt in 1965, Johnson persuaded the Organization of American States to intervene in the Dominican Republic. About 42,000 troops, mostly from the United States, descended on the island and eventually installed Balaguer.

Suddenly my father was in trouble. Voices of opposition, supporting the cause of socialism, became enemies of the state. Two revolutionary teenagers in my father's town disappeared. My father was 17 and raising money for the cause. Fearing for his life, my grandmother helped him get a 30-day tourist visa to Puerto Rico. Eventually he made his way to the New York area, and after finding other like-minded Dominicans, he joined a socialist group that eventually melded into a branch of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano, or PRD, which became the largest Dominican political party.

As time passed, he grew accustomed to living in the States. He raised a family in New Jersey, becoming a citizen to help two sisters migrate to the States. But his dream of going back never quite died.

Many political dissidents share the same story. They established active party branches in hopes of changing their country from abroad and someday going back home. Over time, these branches -- specifically, their fund-raising capabilities -- have become integral to the island's political parties. Island candidates regularly make trips to Dominican neighborhoods in the United States to make speeches at $100-a-plate dinners. I thought I could use my insider status as the daughter of Dominican parents, one a PRD member, to investigate these fund-raising activities. But I ran into a brick wall because the law says the parties do not have to disclose the amount of money they raise at these events. But Dominican newspapers say that millions of dollars flow into the island's presidential races from Dominicans living in the United States.

Voting for a Dominican President ... in New York

In 2004, with the first-ever chance to vote from the United States in a Dominican Republic presidential election, Dominican activists went into high gear, turning out voters both in the winter primary and in the May general election. Party members made telephone calls to other immigrant Dominicans asking them to register to vote and offering transportation to locations where they could cast ballots destined for the Dominican Republic. They plastered posters all over neighborhoods that have a Dominican population, like Washington Heights. In effect, island parties vied for presidential power on foreign soil in the midst of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Ducasse fills out a form

Luis Ducasse writes down information on voter registration forms during a Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) primary in Washington Heights, N.Y.
"Just imagine it," enthused Jose Morel, a New York member of the PRD. "We could influence an election on the island."

But in this election, voters on and off the island agreed -- they'd had enough of Hipolito Mejia. Under his administration, unemployment rose to 16 percent, inflation soared and the Dominican peso lost half its value against the U.S. dollar.

The new president, Leonel Fernandez, carries a huge burden. During his previous term as president, 1996 to 2000, Fernandez presided over the fastest-growing economy in Latin America. Last year, however, a banking scandal crippled the Dominican economy, costing the treasury US$2.2 billion. In addition, Fernandez inherits a US$6 billion foreign debt. Plus, the country is plagued by severe blackouts -- sometimes lasting for days -- because of ongoing disputes in which private, foreign-owned energy companies say the government owes them US$300 million.

Fernandez has called for patience while he and his administration try to figure out how to handle this mess, but many Dominicans have decided they can't wait. Some people are climbing into overcrowded yolas, or boats, to try to make it across the sea to Puerto Rico. The number of Dominicans detained by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2004 breaks the all-time record of 5,430 in 1996.

Islanders who decide to stay and wait for better times look for help from family and friends who left. Last year, Dominicans in the United States sent more than US$2 billion home in remittances.

Vista of a low income neighborhood

A low-income neighborhood in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic.
Going Home

"I'm tired of the cold here," my father says. "I long to be with my brother-in-law and talk for hours in his yard."

My father plans on retiring to his homeland soon. He'll finish renovating his home in New Jersey, then sell it, and with the profits, he hopes to establish the life on the island that he and many other Dominicans dream of.

And he also could then throw himself into local politics even more. But lately my father isn't as adamant about participation in politics being the answer to everything. These days, the Dominican Republic is "too politicized," he says, wasting money on political campaigns that the country can ill afford.

At the same time, he is anxious to give his vote to John Kerry. And he's aware that his state, New Jersey, is up for grabs in this election. So instead of mailing his voter registration card, he hand-delivered it to make certain he can vote on November 2, 2004.

Several days before the May election in the Dominican Republic, my father flew out to California to see me graduate with a master's degree in journalism. That same night, he boarded a red-eye taking him back to New Jersey so he could cast his vote the next morning in the Dominican presidential race. His somewhat revised ideas about the political process notwithstanding, he still believes in the importance of voting.

"I had to be there," he tells me later. "I had to see it through."

Yahaira Castro is a graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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