The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.61/No.28           August 25, 1997 
Protests Rock Dominican Republic  

SAN FRANCISCO DE MACORÍS, Dominican Republic - Working people demanding water, electricity, better roads, and health care, launched a strike wave that has swept the Dominican Republic for the last two months. They are angered by the economic austerity measures imposed by President Leonel Fernández in the name of paying the government's $4 billion debt to the imperialist banks. Some 1,000 delegates of mass organizations met August 3 in the capital, Santo Domingo, and decided to organize a series of further protest actions.

One of the first strikes was in Nagua on June 9 and 10. Nagua is a rice-growing region on the north coast of this Caribbean nation. Organizers spray painted a call for the strike action on walls throughout the city.

After the strike in Nagua, protesters organized a march June 25 in San Francisco de Macori's and later called for a strike. The three-day work stoppage began July 1. They circulated leaflets in the name of the Coordinating Committee of Popular Organizations with the demand, "Against the poverty and the abandonment of Duarte Province." San Francisco is the capital of Duarte Province and with 300,000 people it is the third-largest city in the country. The largest cities are Santo Domingo and Santiago de los Caballeros.

One of the organizations calling the strike here was the Union of Neighborhood Councils. Merejo Santos, the secretary general of the organization, told this reporter that the principal demands were water, repair of streets, a hospital for children, and industry to process agricultural products to provide jobs. Santos said that the national and international press had distorted the workers' demands when they said that the strike was to insist that an airport be built. During the election campaign a year ago, President Fernández had promised Duarte Province an airport, but once in office the promise was forgotten. Santos said that while there was support for the airport, the other demands were more important.

The government did little to try to stop the strike in Nagua. In San Francisco the government moved in police and military forces, including elite airborne units.

Rafael Alvarez, a national leader of the Dominican Teachers Association, described the strike. Just north of downtown, a working-class neighborhood of wooden shacks climbs up the hill and sprawls into the next valley. The supporters of the strike gathered on the hill while the police and soldiers massed at the bottom to try to keep the main avenue open to traffic. Both participants and newspaper accounts agree that the strike was 100 percent effective and there was no traffic flowing on the streets of San Francisco. For three days there was no work, shopping, public transport, or government services.

The strikers marched down the hill to try to block the avenue and were stopped by the police. The police tried to advance up the hill by firing tear gas and rubber bullets, but were stopped by barricades and a hail of rocks. Protesters also used homemade firearms in the confrontation with the police and military. A committee was named to mediate between the strikers and the government. The committee included union leaders like Alvarez, religious leaders and others who were respected by the strikers.

The strikers agreed to stop the protests for 40 days, while the government agreed to free all the people arrested and to use the time to develop a plan to deal with the issues of the strike.

After the strike in San Francisco, the wave of protests spread to other areas of the country. In San Juan de la Maguana, about 140 miles west of Santo Domingo, demonstrators set up flaming tire barricades and battled the police July 8-9. José Cabrera, a 62-year-old resident who suffered from asthma, was killed when police threw tear gas bombs into his home on the second day of the strike.

During a two-day strike in Barahona and Azua, two cities in the southwest of the island, protesters placed logs in the streets to block the flow of vehicles and masked youths built flaming barricades. Like the earlier actions the strike was total and normal life came to a halt. On July 22 in Barahona a policeman, Wellington Peña, was killed. The police say that Cristián López fired the fatal bullets. His family told the press López is a strike leader but not a murderer. They believe that the cop may have been killed by bullets fired by other police officers. The police insist they are using only rubber bullets and deny that any police officers were armed with the caliber that killed Peña.

The protest movement has not been led by the trade unions. In fact, on July 17, leaders of several unions signed an agreement with the Fernández government promising to do nothing to damage "the necessary climate of harmony." In return the government agreed to raise the monthly pensions of bus and truck drivers to the minimum level for government workers of RD$1,014 (US$72.43) and to build union offices and some housing for union members. Signing the agreement were Mariano Negrón of the National Confederation of Dominican Workers, Rafael Abreu of the General Workers Federation, Gabriel del Río of the Autonomous Confederation of Class Unions, and Eulogio Familia of the Central Union of Workers.

Meanwhile, on August 3 the Dominican daily Listín Diario reported that the government was lowering the price of gasoline from RD$24.70 per gallon to RD$23.60 (US$1.69). Two days before, the president had rejected calls for a 30 percent cut in gas prices, saying it would hurt the govern- ment's ability to pay the foreign debt.

Ron Richards is a member of the American Federation of Government Employees in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  
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