New President in the Dominican Republic: Change or More of the Same?

Danilo Medina of the incumbent Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) beat former president Hipólito Mejía yesterday to become the new president of the Dominican Republic.

The vote was marred by some irregularities such as the use of state resources in favor of Medina, which have been confirmed by the electoral observers of the Organization of American States (OAS). However, former Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez, head of the OAS delegation, said that the number of irregularities didn’t affect the outcome of the vote. And Medina’s margin of victory (51.2% versus Mejía’s 46.9%) was well within what the polls predicted in the weeks ahead of the election.

However, the vote irregularities are a painful reminder of the biggest problems that beset the Dominican Republic: corruption and political patronage. The DR ranks 129 out of 182 in the Transparency International index on corruption. According to the World Economic Forum, corruption is the most problematic factor for doing business in the country. The Dominican government is a machine of dispensing favors and political patronage to supporters. For example, the departing administration of president Leonel Fernández has 334 vice ministers distributed among 20 cabinet ministries. The Ministry of Agriculture has 37 vice ministers, Public Health has 34. Each vice minister enjoys a nice salary plus benefits such as a discretionary credit card, travel expenses, car with a chauffeur, staff, etc. The Dominican Foreign Service boasts 113 ambassadors and 1,163 diplomats despite having representation in only 54 countries and 6 international organisms.

The big question then is whether president-elect Medina will break with the past or be more of the same. He comes under the shadow of president Leonel Fernández, who has been in power for 12 of the last 16 years. Medina was twice Fernández’s Secretary of State (equivalent to Chief of Staff), however, he challenged the president in the PLD primaries of 2007 (and eventually was defeated), establishing a reputation of independence from the current president. On the other hand, his vice-presidential candidate is Margarita Cedeño, Leonel Fernández’s wife and current first lady. Medina’s campaign slogan was: “Continue what’s good, change what’s wrong, do what’s never been tried before.”

I spent a week in the Dominican Republic last March on the invitation of the local free market think tank CREES and I could perceive the dissatisfaction that most Dominicans feel towards their political class. An exiled Venezuelan friend even drew parallels between the DR today and his country back in the late 1990’s, when a disaffected Venezuelan population, sick of their corrupted politicians, chose an outsider as president. No strongman appears in the Dominican horizon, though. But there’s an increased feeling that the country needs a dramatic cut from its present.

Perhaps the sentiment is best expressed in the song “Apaga y Vamonos” (meaning something like, “the last one to leave turn off the light”) by renowned Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra that says:

The same promise, the same CD
The same lie and the same coffee
The same speech and the same cliché
History recycled, all we have is faith

The last one to leave turn off the light
The good men, where are they?