A constitution to impose injustice

August 26, 2009

Emmanuel Santos explains how the Dominican Republic's president is trying to carry out his right-wing agenda through the passage of a new constitution.

THE DOMINICAN Republic is set to adopt a new constitution that will erode important democratic gains and negatively impact poor women and undocumented Haitian immigrants, who are among the most exploited sectors of the Dominican working class.

The center-right government of President Leonel Fernández is behind what many legal experts call one of the most conservative constitutions in the region.

The constitution has caused international uproar and provoked condemnation from human rights groups because it violates a number of treaties to which the Dominican Republic is a signatory. These treaties extend legal protections to women, children and immigrants, among others.

At the center of the controversy is a draconian law that criminalizes abortion. In April, legislators voted to make a harsh abortion ban part of the constitution. That vote came on the first reading of the legislation; Congress now has to consider the bill in a second reading and pass it again for it become part of the constitution.

Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández meets with George Bush in the White House
Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández meets with George Bush in the White House

The new legislation, known as Article 30, adds more restrictions to an abortion ban already in place in the Penal Code by making therapeutic abortions illegal under any circumstance, including rape, incest and if the health of the mother is at risk.

According to Inter Press Service news agency, some 80,000 to 100,000 illegal abortions are performed in the Dominican Republic every year. That number will grow under the new restrictions--putting even more women's lives at risk, as Sergia Galván from the Women and Health Collective pointed out.

During the congressional debate earlier this year, the public sector doctors' union criticized Article 30 and urged legislators to vote against it. This prompted an angry response from the Catholic Church's Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, who called the doctors "butchers" for making their stance public.

The Church launched a well-funded campaign to intimidate politicians who said they would cast their votes against Article 30, staging rallies in support of the ban in an attempt to polarize public opinion. As in other right-wing campaigns of the past, the church and the far right accused pro-abortion activists of being part of an international conspiracy to undermine "family values."

But the Church's attempt to silence pro-abortion politicians led to a backlash from thousands of women and men who describe themselves as Catholics, and who oppose the Church's intrusion into their lives and want abortion to be legalized. The Committee Against the Constitutional Setback, a coalition representing the social movements, was formed.

In May, there was a popular mobilization against the ban that was successful in forcing legislators to consider changing their votes on Article 30. Ever since, women's organizations, unions, and LGBT, student and immigrant rights groups have poured out into the streets in large numbers to demand legal abortions and the separation of church and state. For the first time in years, left organizations have expressed full support for the cause. Further, a number of progressive artists are organizing a media campaign to mobilize people and counter the right-wing attack. A second vote on Article 30 is expected soon.

THE NEW constitution also legitimizes sexual and racial discrimination.

Under the new constitution, the institution of marriage is defined as "the union between a man and a woman." By excluding same-sex relationships and institutionalizing legal discrimination against sexual minorities, the Dominican state will legitimize discrimination and violence against LGBT people.

The homophobic campaigns by the mainstream media, government and the Church that blame LGBT people for the spread of the AIDS virus have created a dangerous climate for anyone to be open about their sexuality. Several transsexuals have been brutally murdered, creating panic and fear in a community that is under constant police watch.

But while stigma and bigotry towards LGBT people is prevalent in this society, straight and LGBT people in poor neighborhoods interact with one another and celebrate sexual diversity, with popular drag queen shows hosted in bodegas (local corner stones) that sometimes turn into huge block parties.

The constitution also targets the Haitian population in the country, which numbers approximately 1 million and is mainly comprised of undocumented immigrants and their descendents. Article 16 institutionalizes anti-Haitian racism by stripping the children of undocumented Haitian immigrants born in Dominican soil of Dominican citizenship.

Under a 2004 immigration law, the children of Haitian immigrants are denied birth certificates, which prevents them from enrolling in school, traveling abroad and voting. However, there have been a number of important legal challenges to this racist law in recent years that have won and created a legal precedent to follow. This breakthrough has been possible in part due to the struggle of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians and their international supporters.

It is important to point out that discrimination and racism against Haitians is a legacy of the once powerful sugar industry, which is no longer the central sector of the economy. Nevertheless, Haitians continue to be discriminated against and exploited, and their second-class status benefits the bosses in the construction, agricultural and tourist sectors of the economy, which in turn brings down the wages of all workers. If Article 16 becomes part of the constitution, it it will be much difficult to challenge racist laws.

Unfortunately, there is no major mobilization planned to defend Haitian immigrants as of this writing, as sections of the broad left and the unions have remained silent on the question. However, immigrant rights and some left groups, as well as several prominent leftist and progressive intellectuals, expressed principled opposition from the start.

The revolutionary left is calling for a united bloc between women and immigrant rights organizations to defeat the new constitution. The Socialist Workers League (LST-for its Spanish initials), for instance, released a statement in support of Haitian immigrants, women's reproductive rights and LGBT rights. The LST explains the meaning of Article 16 in a recent statement:

This constitutional article deepens the divisions of the country's working class under the ideological hubris that Haitian immigrants take jobs away from Dominicans. It also encourages xenophobia, which has led to violent aggression against Haitians in some poor neighborhoods and communities [a reference to the recent decapitation of a Haitian immigrant by a racist mob].

In fact, Haitians have been subject of a number of violent attacks such as persecution and murder; house burning; and repression and deportation by immigration authorities in agreement with the bosses in the construction sector in order to appropriate the wages earned by their labor.

FOR DECADES, political scientists, mainstream politicians and international institutions have tried to implement a set of constitutional reforms with the supposed aim of modernizing the Dominican state.

This latest move, however, is part of a new assault on working people by President Fernández in alliance with the employers, the Catholic Church and the far right (known as the Nazionalistas).

Fernández first came to power in 1996 in alliance with the right, defeating José Francisco Peña Gomez, a Black Dominican of Haitian descent and the former leader of the center-left Dominican Revolutionary Party.

After being reelected for a third term in 2008, Fernández submitted a constitutional proposal that would allow for his indefinite reelection, but he has since backed down due to popular discontent with his economic policies and rampant government corruption.

In fact, Fernández is facing a wave of popular and labor struggles due in part to the lack of basic services and the high cost of living. In the meantime, growing discontent over corruption within the government and military is pushing the middle class to join in the protest movement.

To combat criticism and silence dissent, Fernández increased police and military repression while extending the government's control of the airwaves. Another move to clamp down on political activism is the new and rare constitutional provision that prohibits foreigners from engaging in politics, a throwback to the 1900s.

According to local human rights organizations, police executions, arbitrary arrest and torture of prisoners take place on a more regular basis. One factor contributing to the use of these repressive tactics is the growing military and economic alliance between Fernández and Colombia's right-wing President Álvaro Uribe. Fernández's recent trip to Israel augurs closer ties with the Israeli military that could have further consequences for the region. Both the Colombian and U.S. militaries provide training and military aid to the Dominican armed forces and police.

In drafting the constitution, the government and traditional parties made sure there was as little public scrutiny and debate as possible.

In typically undemocratic fashion, Fernández set up a constitutional assembly by decree and signed a backroom deal with the opposition PRD to gain support for his proposal. The PRD set aside its liberal credentials and backed both Article 30 and Article 16.

Unlike countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, where constitutional assemblies were voted in by referendum, Fernández didn't set out to implement reforms that could benefit the poor, but instead sought to enact a set of laws to preserve the status quo. The Dominican government's shift to the right is going against the trend of more and more countries electing left-wing leaders.

This latest move by a weak and unpopular government will hurt the working people of the country, who will be forced to pay for the economic crisis. But struggle from below can tur things around. The unity of all the sectors affected by this attack will be crucial to defeat a constitution that can only deepen the country's inequality and oppression.

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