- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
The news today is that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has postponed his trip to the Dominican Republic this week to return to Washington from Chile for meetings with the Ukrainian prime minister on Wednesday, March 12. That is unfortunate, because senior official attention is needed on the growing political problems there.
On the surface, the Dominican Republic appears to be stable, with a fairly popular government attempting to do right by its people. Behind that image, however, are disturbing political trends that U.S. policymakers should not overlook.
A compelling argument that all is not well with Dominican democracy is in a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "The Dominican Republic: Becoming a One-Party State?" That report argues that undue manipulation by the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) — which controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches — is "fundamentally threatening the country’s democratic institutions."
The report argues that the ruling party uses these advantages to create a system "rigged" in "the PLD’s favor." The systematic effort to ensure the PLD’s domination is led by the ambitious former president, Leonel Fernández, and abetted by current President Danilo Medina.
The state of the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) is also examined. The PRD remains fractured since its chairman, Miguel Vargas, struck a deal with the PLD to endorse that party’s recent political reforms. PRD members contend that Vargas has abandoned his role as opposition leader and is cooperating with the PLD for his own personal ends. Indeed, one remarkable bit of evidence of Vargas’s questionable actions is that he refused to support his own party’s presidential candidate in 2012, Hipólito Mejía, to whom Vargas had lost the PRD nomination.
Vargas’s critics allege that he has made a pact with Fernández to subvert the PRD from within in exchange for political power and economic favors from the government. Although they have been trying to remove him and restore their party’s opposition status, they have been thwarted by arbitrary rulings by the PLD-controlled judiciary and electoral tribunal. In effect, PLD leaders have hijacked the opposition by defending Vargas and preventing authentic PRD activists from reclaiming their party.
There are convincing examples in the public record to raise doubts about Vargas’s probity. In a WikiLeaked cable, the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic attributed Vargas’s vast wealth to "shady dealings." In 2013, he was accused in sworn testimony of receiving $300,000 in political contributions from convicted drug trafficker José Figueroa Agosto, known as the "Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean." The accusations were made to Dominican authorities by Figueroa’s former girlfriend, but investigation of the charges has stalled.
Vargas’s credibility suffered another hit this year when a newspaper revealed that he had received a sweetheart $15 million loan from the PLD-controlled government bank; the newspaper quoted senior PRD leaders as saying that the loan was "approved in record time" and in violation of the entity’s regulations." PRD representatives claim the loan was a reward to Vargas for his service to Fernández’s interests during the 2012 presidential election.
The United States has an interest in helping Dominicans strengthen democracy and the rule of law, spur economic growth, and improve the lives of all their citizens. Vice President Biden can advance these objectives if he speaks candidly about undemocratic machinations that serve corrupt politicians’ ambitions but hurt the people and country those politicians are supposed to serve.