These are restless times in the Dominican Republic. On Thursday afternoon a 21-year-old medical student, Willy Florian Ramirez, was walking past the scene of a protest in Santo Domingo when he was shot dead by police. A series of increasingly violent demonstrations has been taking place against the government in recent days, but Ramirez was the first fatality.
Two days later a 52-year-old teacher, Angela Moquete Mendez, was hit by a bullet after being caught up in a protest in her neighbourhood of Villa Estela, in Barahona. She had been out trying to source drinking water. She died in hospital a few hours later.
Nineteen police officers have been arrested in the wake of Ramirez’s death and the government of President Danilo Medina has promised a swift and thorough investigation. In doing so it may be hoping that the reasons for the demonstrations will stay in the background.
On the surface, these protests are about tax reforms. The Dominican legislature is passing legislation to raise the national sales tax from 16 per cent to 18 per cent to help reduce a growing national budget deficit. But the idea that people would take to the streets over a couple of extra cents on the price of a loaf of bread, especially against a trigger-happy police corps, is unrealistic. A simmering undercurrent of public disgust has risen to the surface, and some Dominicans are talking of open revolt. “This country is on the verge of bankruptcy because they took every penny,” Jorgy Cruz Soto, the owner of a production company in Santo Domingo, told the New York Times. “We are very close to a civil revolution.”
The underlying reasons are almost impossible to untangle, but here are a few features of the Dominican news landscape. The former president Leonel Fernandez has been implicated in a wide-ranging corruption inquiry relating to his eight years in office, which ended in May. Fernandez’s party, which controls both houses of the legislature, has been agitating furiously to remove some of its senior figures from the scope of the inquiry. His successor, Danilo Medina, has studiously avoided commenting on the controversy so far. But Medina’s administration is pushing through sweeping changes to the defamation laws that would hamstring freedom of expression. Amendments to the criminal code would make it an offence, punishable by imprisonment of up to three years, to publish offensive statements about the President, Vice-President, senators, congressmen, judges, election officials and the attorney-general. In effect, it would make it impossible for journalists to hold politicians to account just at a time when questions are mounting about their conduct in office.
Back in 2003 the country’s second largest bank, Baninter, collapsed as the result of massive fraud, perpetrated by its owners, linked to political corruption. Five years before Lehman Brothers, in the midst of the boom years that preceded the global banking meltdown, Baninter provided a template for the crisis that would afflict other Western nations. When Baninter went down, the government bought it out and bailed out the deposits of savers, a total of US$2.2 billion. The losses incurred by a corruptly run private bank were swallowed up in the national public deficit, with the result that inflation rose to 42% and the currency halved in value. Now, as the deficit continues to grow, the poorest Dominicans are being asked to make up the shortfall through taxes on food. This month’s fiscal reforms were perhaps the last straw, a fart in the face of the public that reminded them of the stench of corruption that has poisoned the atmosphere for years.
Corruption in high office, a banking collapse, trigger-happy police, a judiciary struggling with government interference and a media being squeezed into a regulatory straitjacket: all the signs are that democracy is hanging by a loose thread. Two people died in the Dominican Republic when Hurricane swept through the Caribbean at the end of October. A fortnight later, two more deaths are making headlines. But there’s nothing natural about this disaster.