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Seeds of future struggles in Dominican Republic

November 16, 2007 | Page 5

EMMANUEL SANTOS reports on the Dominican Republic's general strike and its aftermath.

THE CLASS struggle in the Dominican Republic is intensifying after a series of recent strikes and protests that were followed by the start of a ruling class attack that has put the left and the popular movement on the defensive.

On October 2, the country was partially paralyzed by a 24-hour general strike to protest the lack of social services and economic policies of the government.

This was the second general strike in less than three months organized by the Alternative Social Forum (FSA) to demand lower food and medicine prices; a salary increase for all workers, including police and soldiers; a new hydrocarbon law to control rising gas prices; and a moratorium on housing evictions for a year, among others calls.

Among the grassroots and mainstream organizations that expressed support for the strike were the Dominican Student Federation; the Popular Assembly of Neighborhood Organizations; the Santo Domingo Autonomous University Professors Association; the nominally left-wing, Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), and the Independent Revolutionary Party (PRI), a split from the PRD.

In preparation for the general strike, the FSA organized vigils, activist gatherings and protests throughout the country. Beginning in September, protesters blocked bridges and highways. On more than one occasion, women played the leading role in these protests.

By late September, classes at the Santo Domingo Autonomous University (UASD) were suspended because of a strike by professors who demanded that their salaries be restored when thousands of course sections were shut down by the president of the school.

Support for the general strike at this working-class school was galvanized when hundreds of students marched to the National Congress to demand transportation subsidies.

On October 1, a group of students clashed with police at the UASD campus in the capital of Santo Domingo. Students blocked traffic and threw rocks at the police, who timidly fired tear gas at them. No one was injured during the shortlived confrontation.

The FSA also organized a protest in front of the Supreme Court to demand severe punishment for those involved in a massive bank fraud uncovered in 2003, which resulted in one of the worse economic crises in recent years.

Pressure from local and international financial institutions led to an unprecedented government bailout at the expense of ordinary people--who saw their living standards drop as taxes were increased and basic social services slashed. The three main defendants in the case recently received 10-year prison sentences, but vowed to appeal. Many people, however, see the sentences as too lenient considering the damage done to the Dominican economy.

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ON OCTOBER 2, a section of the Transport Union and Business Council (CONSETRAN), which had earlier expressed support for the general strike, publicly denounced it and told its members to go to work.

This decision came after attending a meeting with President Leonel Fernández, who offered political favors in return for CONSETRAN leaders pulling their support for the strike.

The union leaders who broke ranks with the FSA were Antonio Marte, Ramon Perez Figuereo and Alfredo Linares. Only Juan Hubieres refused to cave in to the government's efforts to divide the movement.

Since last March, CONSETRAN leaders have been the target of a government and media campaign portraying them as terrorists--a clear effort to discredit and criminalize labor and the popular movement. When a bomb was thrown at a bus during an action by workers last March, the government tried to prosecute unionists on terrorism charges.

The government failed to find any evidence that linking workers with the attack on the bus, yet union leaders were banned from traveling abroad and currently face a civil trial.

But after the meeting with Fernández, the government lifted the travel ban for the union leaders who attended the meeting.

The government wants to divide the union and isolate a section led by Hubieres, who has been the main target of the anti-labor campaign because of his stance against the construction of the Santo Domingo Metro; his role in leading the stoppages that disrupted traffic for hours; and his involvement in the newly created left-wing Rebel Movement, which can unite transport workers and other labor organizations against Fernández.

Since July, the FSA has been subjected to a disinformation and intimidation campaign led by the Catholic Church, the bosses and the government. Church officials denounced FSA leaders as lazy for their role in leading the two recent general strikes. The church has been engaged in a smear campaign against NGOs for some time, as well as abortion rights and immigrant rights activists.

Every time the Dominican apartheid system is challenged, the government and its right wing allies use nationalist and racist rhetoric to pit Dominicans against undocumented Haitians who are blamed for the lack of jobs. Because the organized left is still recuperating from defeats in the mid-1980s, grassroots Roman Catholic and European Jesuits priests have taken up the fight against exploitation and racism against Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent in recent years.

But high-ranking church officials along with the government accuse these activists of being part of an "international campaign to discredit the Dominican Republic."

When the 2008 PRD presidential candidate claimed that the general strike was justified, both the governing Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) and state officials accused him of instigating the strike to win votes.

With this attack, the PLD was hoping to confuse a large layer of people who distrust the PRD, as well as to give the impression that the general strike was part of a plan to destabilize the government.

By doing so, the PLD sought to rally the government's base, which at this point includes dissident fractions from the right-wing populist Social Christian Reformist Party and other smaller rightist parties. But the attack on the main opposition party also sought to deflect attention from the social and economic demands put forward by the FSA.

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WHEN THE government realized that the FSA wasn't backing down, it mobilized its media allies to spread rumors saying that the strike was called off, while at the same time providing free gas to state employees to give the impression of business as usual.

But prior to the strike, the government had put into motion a campaign of repression against FSA activists and the left.

This comes at a time when there is growing discontent with the economic policies of the government, coupled with a newfound confidence within the organized left, which is working toward the formation of a political convergence of parties and organizations to unite around a single presidential candidate for the 2008 elections.

This is worrying Fernández, who is seeking a second term in the coming elections.

On August 17, Fernández named a new chief of police who has a history of brutality and who, until recently, was assigned to administrative duties after a local and international outcry led to his removal as a police commander in San Francisco de Macoris in 2004. By making this former head of a death squad the chief of police, Fernández hoped to instill fear in the left and the population at large.

Further, the police announced that water canons would be used to spray protesters with "chemicals" that will make it easier for officers to go disperse them.

But another component of the repression plan involves the militarization of poor neighborhoods, as well as the border that divides the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

According to a Prensa Latina report, "The Dominican Republic deployed 500 soldiers at the border with Haiti [September 17], following orders by President Leonel Fernández. The border troops have been reinforced by the Army, state security and Customs, said reports from the president's office. The announcement followed a meeting with national farmers and businessmen that complained of increasing arms and people trafficking, plus rice and beans from Haiti that are sold below the official price rate."

A newly created border police force is supposed to control the flow of undocumented Haitians immigrants, whose low wages are used to drive down the living standards of the Dominican working class.

Meanwhile, the police and the military have joined forces by stationing themselves in poor neighborhoods where they have begun to abuse and attack many Dominican youth, the majority of whom are Black.

This law enforcement approach is modeled after techniques employed by police in the U.S.--in particular, the use of racial profiling against African Americans and immigrants of color. Police are also adopting the heavy-handed tactics used by both Brazilian police and military in neighboring Haiti, where they are stationed as part of the UN occupation.

On September 30, the FSA exposed how members of the left-wing Broad Front for Popular Struggle in the Moca and Villa Altagracia municipalities were being harassed by a gang of armed thugs led by a member of the PLD.

Despite all this repression, however, the general strike received enormous support from the population. The FSA estimates that 85 percent of the country was affected.

The strike's biggest impact was felt in interior regions where commerce, schools and public transportation were shut down. Commercial activitities and transportation in Santo Domingo province and the capital were partially stopped.

Nationwide, 50 people were arrested during house searches conducted by the police, 10 people were wounded during demonstrations.

A march in the populous Capotillo neighborhood in the capital was canceled when police told organizers that safety could not be guaranteed. People were afraid to come out of their houses as the overwhelming military and police presence was reminiscent of the feel of a battlefield.

Sounding triumphant, government officials claimed the general strike was a failure. But it did push the political debate to the left on some of the most pressing economic issues, as other government officials hinted at raising salaries and discussing the possibility of a new hydrocarbon law.

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IN THE past few years, the FSA has been the key factor in leading the collective resistance against the destructive economic model known as neoliberalism. One of its strengths is the democratic nature of the popular assemblies, where delegates from the more than 200 grassroots, labor and left-wing organizations gather to discuss and decide the way forward.

In many ways, the FSA is contributing to the revival of the concept of democracy within the popular movement and some sections of the organized left. This might well serve as a model for rebuilding the left and the labor movement in the future. Currently, a long-awaited attempt to unify the left behind one presidential candidate in the upcoming elections is taking shape.

Like other Latin American and Caribbean countries, the traditional left in the Dominican Republic has embraced the Bolivarian process of self-emancipation and regional integration. This presents new challenges for the FSA and the rest of the social movements, which should welcome any efforts by the Dominican left to challenge neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism like Hugo Chávez is doing in Venezuela.

But the left must also build a stronger popular movement that can sustain itself and be in a better position to relate to important struggles, such as immigrants rights and women's reproductive rights.

As always, it is good to remember that before Chávez came to power and enacted radical reforms, an organized labor movement from below planted the seeds that led to the organized resistance following social explosions in 1989.

Thus, it is an illusion to think that a radical model challenging the Washington consensus can be easily implemented from above without a mass organizations that can lead ordinary people in struggle.

Any gains the Dominican working class has made were the result of struggle from below: from the 1946 Sugar Strike in the midst of the Trujillo dictatorship, to the general strikes of the early 1960s that culminated in a popular revolt in 1965, put down by a U.S. occupation; and the widespread land occupations and strikes that took place throughout the 1970s under a repressive right-wing regime.

Keeping this in mind will make a huge difference for working people in the Dominican Republic.

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