by Christopher Teal
In the sweltering Caribbean summer of 2000, as a first tour officer I was asked to lead an embassy observation team for the southwest provinces of the Dominican Republic. We were told to track activities during the presidential elections on that corner of the island to determine if they were “fair and open.”
Six years earlier had been a turning point. The fraud in 1994 was so prevalent that the old caudillo Joaquin Balaguer, Dominican president for much of the previous three decades, was forced to offer new elections after pressure by the United States. Our invasion and “liberation” of Haiti appeared for naught if we also allowed the other side of the island to flounder in dictatorship. Balaguer reluctantly gave up power, but it remained to be seen whether a successive transition could take place in 2000.
Our trip to Barahona was a four-hour drive from Santo Domingo through green waving stalks of sugar cane and trees heavy with mangos. But in the last hour the scenery and vibrant communities along the roadside changed. Lush hills gave way to barren terrain of scrub brush and poorly constructed shacks. Life here was harder, hotter, and unforgiving. It was an easy location for widespread corruption to take root, and we feared that the electoral process would be as troubled as the land itself.
Pulling into town, we scouted out our base. A day before voting, things seemed calm. The government had banned the sale of alcohol in the twenty-four hours before the election, to give everyone time to vote with a clear head. But the first thing I noticed when we arrived was that the beer flowed pretty freely. Since we obviously stuck out as the “gringo observers” the curious came out to speak to us. For them, the circus had come to town, adding to the festivities surrounding the election. Soon the local election officials came by, anxious to take us to polling places and demonstrate to the outside world how well organized they were. They did seem well prepared, but their anxiety to complete the next day’s task was a heavy burden. No one was sure if violence or massive fraud would reign.
Early the next morning queues formed. The Dominicans had developed a unique system called colegio cerrado. First the women arrived at 6:30 a.m. and signed in. Their names were checked against the electoral roster and if there were mistakes on the ID cards (cedulas) or they were at the wrong polling place, those voters were just out of luck. One woman came to vote and found that the information on the registry incorrect, so the officials informed her she could not vote. Complaining, she said that the same problem occurred during the pre-electoral dry run a month earlier, in which she was listed as military (she was perhaps in her early 60s). She asked them to correct this and even checked her information on the internet. On-line it appeared that it had been corrected. Come Election Day, here was the same mistake; now she could not vote.
However these problems occurred only on the margins and as a whole, everyone was enthusiastic and the turnout was quiet large. It was encouraging to see such enthusiasm since the women had waited all morning to finish their check-in process and then voted. It was not until the afternoon that the men came, repeating this same process. Not very efficient, but it had been declared a government holiday. Unusual contortions were necessary to avoid yet another plagued election.
As the day wore on we ran across a team from the Carter Center — Jimmy Carter was busy in the capital — and they shared concerns about the extremely slow process of voting and reported rumors of cedula buying in certain remote areas. After viewing several other voting stations, we spoke with some officials from a local NGO and asked them about the cedula stories. They, too, had heard rumors of IDs being “borrowed” for a small payment. They suspected it was the military trying to suppress the vote of dark-skinned individuals whom they thought were of Haitian descent. But these were difficult areas to reach and the Carter people had no way to get there.
Fortunately we did. Via four-wheel drive we ventured further inland and found a contact who confirmed these stories. This contact put us on the phone with a priest who worked in the Bateys, cane-cutting communities in the countryside. He knew of individuals from the military and the political parties who had offered cane workers either food or money (up to $30) for their cedulas. But how widespread was the problem? I felt we had to investigate.
Despite being low on gas and driving over more potholes than dirt road, we made our way out to one of the Bateys to meet with our priest first hand. He happily greeted us, inviting us to sit on his home-made wooden chairs. Yes, the military had been quite active of late in the area. Most of their activity involved the illegal trafficking of Haitian workers, he claimed. He noted the irony of the Dominican Government, on the one hand deporting illegals back to the border, while their military was simultaneously ferrying those same workers back to cut cane.
The idea behind the cedula buying, he told us, was to prevent people from voting in an area thought to favor the opposition party. Since it was a rural, impoverished area full of Haitian immigrants or their descendants, they were easy targets for bribes or coercion by party activists and soldiers. How widespread, it was hard to tell. Many people out there did not even have any documents to prove their identity. It may not have been a statistically significant number in terms of the entire island, he thought, but someone should know.
Nightfall was drawing close and we finished up to watch the results. The opposition won despite deceitful efforts in the rural southwest of the country. The process crept slowly, but overall was peaceful, and we judged it to be successful. The vast majority was able to fully and freely exercise their right to vote, though it was frustrating to see the manipulation of the poorest and most uneducated. However, without a watchful international presence, it was easy to imagine how rotten the entire electoral system could have been. As we pulled out of town, the local officials thanked us for keeping the process as clean as it was just by our presence. Democracy was neither easy nor a given, they told us, but perhaps a little more real thanks to the United States sending a few observers.
And that was basically why I had joined the Foreign Service in the first place.
Christopher Teal has been a Foreign Service officer since 1999. He currently serves in the Department of State as the Public Diplomacy desk officer for Southern Europe and the Caucasus. Previously he was a Cultural Affairs officer in Lima and a Consular and Press officer in Santo Domingo. Before entering the Foreign Service, Mr. Teal was a journalist.