Political Developments Since 1978

Political Developments Since 1978

The contemporary political system of the Dominican Republic dates from 1978. That year Balaguer, who had governed the country in an authoritarian, but paternalistic, manner for the preceding twelve years, was forced, because of domestic and international pressures, to yield the presidency to Guzmán, a wealthy rancher and candidate of the PRD, who had clearly won the election. Guzmán governed democratically and with full respect for human rights, but he committed suicide in 1982, apparently because of evidence of corruption reaching into his own family. The vice president, Majluta, took over temporarily until a new government, which actually had been elected before Guzmán's suicide, could be inaugurated.

The 1982 election was fair, honest, and competitive. It was won by Jorge, a lawyer who, like Guzmán, was a member of the PRD. But whereas Guzmán had represented the conservative wing of the party, Jorge represented its centrist, or social-democratic, wing.

President Jorge continued, like Guzmán, to govern in a democratic matter. His government respected civil liberties and honored human rights. Jorge had promised to expand the democratic reforms begun by his predecessor in the areas of agrarian reform, social justice, and modernization. He campaigned on the slogan, and entered office with the intention of bringing, "economic democracy" to the country to go with its now flourishing political democracy.

But 1982, the year of Jorge's inauguration, was the year the bottom dropped out of the Dominican economy. The country began to feel the full impact of the second oil price rise, induced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); recession in the United States and Western Europe dried up the market for Dominican exports; and the international debt crisis also hit home strongly. These conditions forced Jorge to abandon his ambitious reform agenda in favor of severe austerity, belttightening , and a cutback in services. The nation witnessed the wrenching dilemma of a reform democrat, a socialist, who had to give up his entire social-democratic program in order to impose severely restrictive economic policies, the burden of which, as usual, fell most heavily on the shoulders of the poor--precisely those people who had been Jorge's main constituency. Jorge's popularity plummeted, and in 1985 riots broke out in response to his austerity measures, riots that the police put down with considerable loss of civilian life.

To his credit, Jorge succeeded in putting in place a sorely needed budget-balancing program that offered hope of getting the country out of its severe economic troubles. The steep decline in the president's popularity, however, prompted even members of his own party in the Congress and elsewhere to turn against him. In addition, increasing evidence of corruption in the public bureaucracy began to surface; as the austerity measures pinched, there was little extra money in the system, and the low-level patronage that had always existed began to be perceived as blatant, high-level graft. As Jorge's popularity declined, so did that of his entire government and his party.

New elections were held in 1986. President Jorge's deeply divided PRD eventually nominated Majluta, Guzmán's vice president, who four years earlier had served a short stint as interim president. Majluta was of Lebanese background, a longtime PRD stalwart, and a businessman who was tainted with the corruption of the previous administrations. He was opposed by Balaguer, who, though old and legally blind, still enjoyed widespread popularity. Many associated Balaguer with the economic boom of the 1970s; in addition, he was widely admired as a shrewd, resourceful, and skilled politician. In a very closely contested election, Balaguer won with 41 percent of the vote to Majluta's 39 percent. Another former president, Bosch, candidate of the leftist Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana--PLD), garnered 18 percent.

In office, Balaguer proved as adept as before, although now slowed by age and infirmity. He juggled assignments within the armed forces to assure its loyalty and support; followed policies that pleased the economic elites, while at the same time doling out land and patronage to the peasants; and fostered greater contact with Cuba, while simultaneously keeping United States support. He listened to advice from all quarters, but kept his own counsel, kept his subordinates off guard and insecure so they could not develop a base from which to challenge the president himself, and refused to designate a successor while keeping all his own options open. Balaguer delegated some limited power and patronage to subordinates, but he kept most of the reins of power in his own hands; he let cabinet and autonomous agency heads have a bit of responsibility, while he maintained control of the allimportant jobs--patronage, money, and military matters. Whatever one thinks of his policies, Balaguer must be considered one of the cleverest presidents in Dominican history.

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