The following article 2004 originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 71 (Summer 2004).
The devastating floods on the island of Hispaniola highlighted the hardship of existence in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Over three thousand have already died and over fifteen thousand are reported homeless. But the bulk of suffering on the island is not a natural disaster but a man-made one. This article focuses on the political scene in the Dominican Republic, where on May 17 the press celebrated the victory of Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) in the presidential election.
Fernández had been in office before and did nothing to improve the lot of the masses. This time he has vowed to implement “tight fiscal policies,” meaning further attacks on most peoples’ standard of living. There is nothing to celebrate in Fernández’s triumph, any more than there was with his predecessor, Hipólito Mejía of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). And a look back also shows that the disaster of the Dominican economic crisis, like the even greater sufferings of its neighbor Haiti, has been largely “made in the U.S.A.”
The U.S. first occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1930 a military coup initiated the thirty-one year dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who had been part of the new military apparatus put together and trained by the U.S. marines during the occupation.
Trujillo’s greatest atrocity (among many) was the racist, genocidal massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians. Trujillo hoped to displace Dominican workers’ and peasants’ frustrations onto these super-exploited immigrants. Almost all Dominicans have some African ancestry. Haitians, however, are on average darker in skin color. Many have fled over the border to escape devastating poverty and social decomposition in Haiti. But in the Dominican Republic they face vicious racist discrimination and hatred. Like immigrants everywhere, they fulfill a key role as super low wage labor for the capitalists, while getting the blame for the unemployment caused by capitalism itself.
“Anti-Haitianismo” is a key part of Dominican capitalist rule for other reasons; it forms part of the broader racist ideology of the “white” ruling-class elite. After all, the Dominican capitalists also rule over masses categorized as racially mixed and black. Racism divides Dominicans from each other as well as Haitian immigrants, keeping the whole working class and poor down.
Trujillo was assassinated after 31 years. The long-standing opposition, the PRD, then led by Dr. Juan Bosch, won the election in 1962. Romanticized by much of the left, the PRD even under Bosch was never more than a radical-talking bourgeois party with a social-democratic program. A coup against him in 1963 imposed a new military dictatorship with U.S. backing. But in April 1965, the working class rose up against the junta. In this “Guerra de Abril” (April War), the junta fell. And again the U.S. marines invaded to suppress the uprising.
The imperialists and Dominican capitalists imposed their own version of a “constitutional” government, but the veneer was thin indeed. Trujillo’s long-time top aide and partner-in-crime, Joaquín Balaguer, won rigged presidential elections in 1966, building the Partido Reformista which later became the conservative Partido Reformista Social-Cristiano (PRSC). The PRD accepted the new regime; its left wing, led by Bosch, later split to form the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), the party of Leonel Fernández today.
The 1966 farce established modern Dominican “democracy.” Bourgeois parties alternate in power through “free” elections, resting on large, very repressive police and armed forces which often operate outside constitutional limits. The PRSC’s base was in the military and in the capitalist and petty bourgeois classes, while the PRD had significant trade union support. The PLD built a base among middle-class elements.
In the mid-1980’s, following the international trend imposed by imperialism, the Dominican bourgeoisie adopted so-called “free market” privatizing policies. Falling world sugar prices had created a crisis. By 1985 the Republic was one of the poorest countries in the Americas. A new economic strategy was launched, based on tourism and assembly plants. To attract investments, mainly from the U.S., they set up “Zonas Francas” (Free Trade Zones) in Santo Domingo and other ports. There foreign investors could set up factories to process half-finished garments and other products. The investors pay no taxes or tariffs and can hire workers at minimal wages. Private security guards and the Dominican police strongly discourage unionization and work stoppages in the zones.
In 1996 Fernández, a lawyer and academic who had grown up in New York City, won the presidency for the first time. (New York is the city with the world’s second-largest Dominican population after Santo Domingo; there are 8.8 million Dominicans in the Republic, an additional one million in the U.S. mainland and a good number in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.) Fernández won the elections on the second round, by means of an historic deal that gained him the support of the openly reactionary Balaguer and the PRSC. In office, Fernández abandoned all the party’s socialist rhetoric and carried out massive privatizations, particularly of the electric generating industry.
At first many Dominican middle-class people and even workers welcomed the privatization. The state-owned utility had been notoriously inefficient and subject to frequent blackouts. The new private owners provided more reliable service for a while, and the government used the proceeds of the sale to improve municipal services and fund education. But the apparent gains were short-lived: you can only sell off the same government property once. By the end of Fernández’s term in 2000, the money was gone.
Strikes and protests against unemployment, price hikes and electricity blackouts had begun as early as 1997. The unequal effects of the “boom” were painfully clear. The total of social spending under Fernández was 7 percent of the country’s GDP, about half of the Latin American average. In any case, election rules kept Fernández from running again in 2000, when the PRD candidate, Hipólito Mejía, won. After September 11, 2001, however, the bottom dropped out: tourism dried up, exports and foreign investment dropped and multiple debt repayments were due. Inflation skyrocketed, fuel became scarce and electric blackouts became longer and more frequent than in the worst days of state ownership. Working-class struggle again went into gear, this time against Mejía.
From late 2001 to the fall of 2003, the Dominican peso lost at least half its value relative to the U.S. dollar. Fuel shortages and lack of investment and maintenance made electric blackouts more frequent, longer and more extensive. The price of gasoline and diesel fuel doubled, so that taxi drivers couldn’t afford to work. Food prices at least doubled. University tuition costs increased, forcing thousands of students to drop out of college. Unemployment increased dramatically. To make things worse, the IMF tightened the screws, forcing the government to raise sales taxes and increase inflation even more. All in all the miseries of capitalism worsened under Mejía.
The last straw was the failure in April 2003 of Banco Internacional (Baninter), the second largest commercial bank in the country, apparently because of massive fraud. Contrary to Dominican law, Mejía bailed Baninter out to the tune of $2.2 billion, or about two-thirds of the government’s entire annual budget and 15 percent of the gross domestic product. Bailout expenditures reached about 20 percent of the GDP with the failure of two more banks.
Meanwhile, the government cut budgets and raised prices on everything workers need. So it was no surprise that on July 1, 2003, angry workers and others marched in Santo Domingo in protest. They were led by Ramon Almánzar, President of the New Alternative Party and Ramon Pérez Figuereo, General Secretary of the National Center of Unified Transport Workers (CNTU). The powerful CNTU was one of the few established unions to play an important role in the general strikes, since the bulk of the unions opposed the strike and collaborated with Mejía against it.
The demonstrators were protesting a new agreement with the IMF. The National Police attacked and broke up the march with a tear-gas attack and arrested 40 demonstrators. Shortly afterwards, President Mejía sent thousands of police and soldiers to raid the homes of working-class, student and other activists, allegedly to look for illegal weapons. These raids resulted in hundreds more arrests.
Only months later was a general strike called. Leaders of many of the left parties played important roles, but the most prominent leaders were Almánzar and Pérez Figuereo of the CNTU transport union. The government’s July raids had not deterred the workers and other oppressed from wanting to move forward with their struggle. There was a long list of demands, including: reduce the cost of the family market basket; reduce fuel prices; stop the blackouts: 100 percent wage increase; reduce transport fares and charges; renationalization of privatized energy enterprises; stop agreements with the IMF; no more increases in the foreign debt; no to the free trade agreement with the U.S.
Certainly these demands and others were vital. But in our view the question of the imperialist debt had to be taken up more strongly. Even to begin to meet other economic and social demands, never mind to build a livable economy, it is not enough to simply demand the end of debt increases. Any payment at all only starves the workers – literally. The demand that the Dominican government repudiate the debt completely is necessary. Dominican workers, with those across the Caribbean and Latin America, are all in the same boat and would certainly approve and identify with such a struggle.
The first strike, on April 7, 2003, lasted 24 hours as planned, and it effectively paralyzed the country. Organizers claimed 95 to 97 percent compliance. Most reports indicated it was the most solidly backed working-class action in years. Every city was shut down.
The government responded with massive repression. Six workers were shot dead and over 100 wounded. There were several hundred arrested, including Almánzar. The net result was that the government did not back down – as could have been expected, because of the limited one-day strike. Rather than extending the struggle beyond the one day, another general strike, this time for 48 hours, was decided on for late January 2004.
The second general strike, on January 28 and 29, had an additional demand: the resignation of Mejía and his entire government. For their own electoral reasons, the PLD and PRSC declared that they supported it. Even the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP – High Council of Private Enterprise, a major business organization) stated its support.
Yet this strike had slightly less participation than the first one. Organizers estimated compliance at 90 percent. The Zonas Francas workers almost all observed the strike, but their bosses in anticipation had made them work the previous Saturday and Sunday. Hospitals and clinics were shut down. Many shopkeepers opened up the first day, but few customers or workers appeared. The shops shut before noon, and the owners didn’t bother opening the next day. There was almost no passenger or freight transport. Participation was down somewhat in Santo Domingo but rose in Santiago de los Caballeros, a traditional center of worker militancy, San Pedro de Macorís, another major city, and other large towns.
The same government repression prevailed. The strikers this time had better-organized self-defense. In poor neighborhoods in the north of Santo Domingo, and elsewhere, columns of workers, some wearing hoods, held off cops and soldiers with rocks and home-made bombs. Seven strikers died from police bullets. One cop also died of gunshot wounds. Again over 100 strikers were wounded and hundreds more were arrested. Again the cops arrested Almánzar as well as Pérez Figuereo and some leaders of left parties, holding most of them briefly.
Many strikers wanted to stay out until they won their demands, but again the leaders sent them back to work on schedule, citing government repression as the reason. Yet as before, the government didn’t give an inch; it had to wait it out for only two days, after all.
In February another 48-hour strike was announced for March 16 and 17, with the same demands. But in fact there was no third general strike. And it is clear that a third “general strike,” conducted in the same way as the last two, could not have achieved different results.
In the events of 2003-2004 so far, strikers showed their resolve and militancy and started organizing effective self-defense. However, from what we have seen, no left party advocated a necessary plan for workers’ mass armed self-defense, demanded that strike leaders organize defense, or even discussed the need for it in their propaganda. That lack alone guaranteed defeat. This in a country where huge numbers of guns are floating around, on the one hand, and the cops are a constant threat, on the other!
The left also failed to arm the workers politically. Above all what was the purpose of the “general strike” calls? Under certain circumstances, a one-or two-day protest strike can be an effective step. This was not the case here. In order to shift the balance of forces, the struggle needed to escalate greatly. But the workers’ leaders never fought for this.
A general strike can be a vital means of achieving working-class unity by using the power of the working class to shut down the economy and win actual gains. Any serious general strike, beyond a one-or two-day protest exercise, also has a dramatic effect on workers’ political consciousness; workers themselves begin to organize their own struggle and in fact their own way of running society. Assemblies and workers’ councils inevitably crop up to make the decisions of the struggle. These in turn become forums where left parties can argue for their proposals and views and try to convince their fellow workers. New leaders and in fact an authentic revolutionary party for the working class can develop in struggle.
As Trotsky often commented, any serious general strike poses the question of state power. Regardless of what is immediately achieved, in a general strike the working class begins to create its own institutions and becomes aware that the only real choices are the continuation of capitalist state power or revolution for the establishment of workers’ state power.
For these reasons, the LRP advocates the general strike weapon as the best tactic for fighting against capitalist attacks in many circumstances in today’s world. But this also means consistently explaining that only workers’ revolution, the overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement by a revolutionary workers’ state, can win and hold the workers’ demands. No Dominican left organizations that we know of did this essential Leninist propaganda work.
Workers who are happy to follow the left parties in mass strikes and overwhelmingly elect them to union positions have never given them over 10 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Disconnected from the (so far) limited experience of class independence they have exercised in struggle, the workers have usually voted for the PRD or, more recently, the PLD. What accounts for this? The reason is the program and practice of the “communist” parties themselves.
From what we have seen, all of them believe that the Dominican revolution must take place in two stages. The first, anti-imperialist stage, requires the united participation of almost all classes, including many capitalists. Foreign, mostly U.S., imperialism has held the latter back from developing as a national bourgeoisie based on an evenly developed economy. Only after first liberating the dependent capitalist economy from U.S. imperialism and its most overt Dominican lackeys can the working class then confront the national bourgeoisie; only then, the theory says, is it time to advocate workers’ socialist revolution. Until then, all Dominican poor and exploited, from workers and peasants through the middle class and up to small and even pretty big capitalists, must maintain a strategic alliance. Under such a theory, the stage where workers get to fight for themselves, for socialist revolution, never actually comes. Such a perspective puts forward no reason of principle to not vote for the lesser evil bourgeois candidate – even where left parties are running campaigns alongside them.
The biggest Stalinist group of the 1970’s, the Dominican Popular Movement (MPD), held this middle-class populist ideology. Under the pressure of mass workers’ struggles, it fragmented at the end of the 70’s. The various splinters almost all called themselves “workers” or “communist” parties but maintained the populist program. The workers have seen many of these left parties take this ideology to its logical conclusion – electoral coalitions or outright mergers with bourgeois parties.
As of now the Dominican workers have not seen an authentic revolutionary alternative. A good number of working-class people voted for Fernández, hoping against hope for the return of slightly better times while really knowing on another level that he is far from a hero. They simply saw no other alternative.
“Lesser evilism,” of course, suits the imperialists and native capitalists just fine. It means that the exploited and super-exploited basically accept their miserable existence. The rulers are happy that the working class doesn’t yet see the possibility of a whole new socialist society, where every single human being would be guaranteed a decent life – and all forms of racism, national chauvinism and other mistreatment could be eradicated. The rulers do know that once large numbers of workers understand that our class has the power to bring about socialism, imperialism is doomed.
Authentic Trotskyists reject the two-stage theory, which historically became a cover for Stalinist betrayals of workers’ revolutions in favor of alliances with supposedly progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie. Trotsky came to understand that in the imperialist epoch all sectors of the national bourgeoisie, including the rulers of oppressed nations, have class interests completely tied to capitalist property and therefore hostile to the needs of the working class. Trotsky’s strategy of permanent revolution calls for the independent struggle of the working class in alliance with the peasantry and all the oppressed.
The theory of permanent revolution also countered the Stalinist myth that socialism could be built in one country alone. Socialism requires a higher level of production and resources than can be achieved under capitalism. It requires the building of a cooperative economy internationally, which is possible only with the overthrow of capitalism in a number of countries and a socialist federation of the resulting workers’ states. Revolutionary internationalism, not nationalism, is central to the strategy for achieving socialism. As a step in this direction, Trotskyists emphasize the re-creation of the Fourth International based on an authentic revolutionary program for workers’ unity and revolution across the globe.
Some phony socialists falsely claim that permanent revolution means simultaneous revolutions in various nations – as if such a thing could be decreed. Nevertheless, today’s highly “globalized” environment allows instant communications and forces many workers and oppressed around the world to face the same imperialist enemy, the same basic conditions of life, and even the same multinational companies. Our theory and program recognize that a revolution in one country could easily inspire and spread to another. Indeed, the spreading of revolution is an essential part of the strategy.
This necessity for working-class unity and international revolution stands in contrast to the enmity against Haitians that has been purposefully and continually propagated by the Dominican ruling class. An authentic revolutionary party would make the fight against anti-Haitianismo central to working-class struggle in the Dominican Republic.
All this requires the building of a new working class leadership, a truly revolutionary workers’ party. The Dominican working class has shown in practice, both recently and historically, that it is ready for such a party. The most politically conscious workers have to start building it.