Around 70 protesters gathered near the Embassy of the Dominican Republic in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday, February 27 to demand electoral transparency and accountability on the island in a “Velada para la democracia” (“Vigil for democracy”). Organized by an all-female group of Dominican immigrant artists, it was one of numerous such demonstrations around the world over the past few weeks, including a protest in the historically Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan that flooded the streets by the thousands
Municipal elections in the Dominican Republic were suspended last month due to an alleged technical failure with its electronic voting system, spurring allegations of corruption and electoral sabotage. Around half of the country’s automated ballot machines had failed. In the following days, young protesters gathered outside the Central Electoral Board in Santo Domingo to call for the electoral board members’ resignation, some of them dressed in black to mourn democracy.
Gina Goico, a multimedia artist whose work deals with questions of Dominican identity and one of the event’s organizers, believes artists can be agents of change. Her and the rest of the organizing group — Kilpatry Montes De Oca, Patricia Encarnación, Paola Segura, Ana María López, and Luisa Liranzo — became friends while attending Parsons School of Design and formed a text group to begin mobilizing public action. Montes De Oca, a filmmaker and director, came to the protest equipped with her professional camera.
“We have freedom of expression. We have more power than we think,” said Goico.
Although a new voting date of March 15 has been confirmed and paper ballots promised, Dominicans both locally and abroad want answers, as well as sanctions for those behind the malfunctions.
They also have another impending concern: the country’s general election, scheduled to take place in May. To many, the failed local election in February was an ominous portent of what could happen when they head out to vote for their next president.
For those who haven’t followed current events in the Dominican Republic, understanding the complex political backdrop can be daunting. Aimée Mazara, a Dominican artist, shared her illustrated thread “What’s Happening in the Dominican Republic?” on Instagram two weeks ago with the aim of educating the general public on the post-election events.
“After seeing a lack of information being shared about the protests in the Dominican Republic, I decided to inform and generate a dialogue for the English-speaking Dominican diaspora,” Mazara told Hyperallergic.
“The reach it has generated since through the power of online media platforms has been an eye-opening example (and a reminder) of how graphic arts can become a universal language to raise awareness on social injustices and thereby closing cultural gaps.”
“It’s sad to see how countries like the Dominican Republic, so rich in culture, natural resources, and wonderful people, become stained with an event as historic as the complete manipulation of our elections by state power,” said Edwardo Franco, a Dominican writer who was visiting New York and attended Thursday’s protest.
Franco joined other attendees, mainly from New York’s diasporic Dominican community, as they formed a circle around the red, blue, and white candles and flowers placed on the ground. Holding placards that read “Enduring the cold for democracy” and “We have awoken,” speakers took turns addressing the crowd, the conservation quickly shifting to the role Dominicans abroad can play in securing the country’s future.
“I want to know how many of you here tonight vote for the presidency. Raise your hands,” asked Goico. Only a few shot up in the air.
“That’s not many of us. Those of us who are here in the United States can look from the outside and we can act without the reprisals that our fellow Dominicans face in the island,” continued Goico. “Historically, the diaspora has had the influence and power to lead the way. As a diaspora, we must look ahead and push this forward.”
“Qué felicidad, Danilo ya se va!” (“What joy, Danilo is leaving!”), chanted the protesters, referring to sitting president Danilo Medina Sánchez, leader of the ruling right-wing Dominican Liberation Party that has held power in the island for the last 24 years. Last year, Danilo’s administration acquired the electronic voting machines that were used in the halted February vote for a whopping $19 million using taxpayer funds. At the time, it faced criticism and admonitions from members of the opposition, who claimed the system could be easily tampered with.
Several also lamented Dominican authorities’ response to the peaceful demonstrations. One video shared by the activist group Somos Pueblo shows a tear gas bomb landing near protesters in Santo Domingo’s Plaza de la Bandera.
“We have evidence that at least one of the three tear gas bombs thrown at the young people that were peacefully manifesting was launched from the headquarters of the Central Electoral Board,” reads Somos Pueblo’s post.
“People are definitely afraid to speak,” said a protester who preferred to remain anonymous because she works for an organization that receives Dominican state funding.
“The other day, a woman was forced out of the DR metro, which is supposedly a public space, because she was carrying a protest placard. I ask myself: what kind of democracy is that? When I went out to protest, which is my right, the police was throwing tear gas bombs.”
The upheaval roiling the island has been decades in the making. Years earlier, said Goico, she had organized a protest in the same spot in Times Square near the Dominican Embassy to denounce then-president Leonel Fernández’s constitutional reforms. In 2017 and 2018, anti-corruption protests broke out in the country after it became known that officials from the Dominican Liberation Party had accepted illegal payments from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, known for running a bribery scheme across Latin America, in exchange for contracts.
“For me, this is the last straw. It’s been years of corruption, of abuse against the Dominican people. We’ve finally gotten to a point where we just couldn’t take it anymore,” said Segura.
López said she is kept apprised of updates primarily via family and friends’ Instagram accounts. “The media aren’t being effective at informing people objectively,” she said. “Through my Instagram, I’ve been trying to share ways in which we can inform those who don’t necessarily have access to education. I want to show them that politics isn’t just the government, that they have to get out and vote.”
“Over almost two generations, the Dominican people have never taken to the streets in the way they are now. Our protest has evolved from the issue with the elections to something bigger: we’ve realized the country has become ruled by a single party and is turning into a dictatorship,” said Encarnación.
Thursday’s protest ended with a digital cacerolazo, the banging of pots and pans that has become emblematic of popular uprisings in Latin America. Instead of bringing physical cauldrons to Times Square, however, the protesters pulled up the nifty Cacerolapp application on their smartphones.
“We’ve felt outraged for a very long time, but there was no faith that things would change. We were blind, and we allowed a small group of people to take control of and damage our country,” said Montes De Oca.
“But now, the world is awakening.”
The Organization of American States (OAS) is currently conducting an audit of the stunted elections at the request of government authorities.
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