I’ve been in the Dominican Republic for two weeks now. The initial days were saturated by a political fever of sorts: debates, campaigns, arguments, rallies, and constant commentary surrounding the upcoming congressional and municipal elections. It seemed to be all that anyone was talking about, and in the town of Cabarete, where I am living, the race for mayor was the hottest topic. The two major candidates were a man from the nearby town of Islabón (Wilson Zapete) and another who now lives in a huge home in one of the poor barrios (Gabriel “Canoa” Mora). Zapete was known as the candidate for change, presented as a man of the people, while Canoa had been involved in politics for years and was described by some as being trujillista. Rumors swirled that Canoa was illiterate and corrupt, while others questioned Zapete’s character and political savvy. Multiple sources reported that representatives of Canoa were paying people 2,000 pesos (about $66 U.S.) to vote for him, as well as buying cédulas (the national identification card needed to vote) from people who were likely to vote for Zapete. These practices, according to many people, are not at all unusual in the poor neighborhoods come election time. In fact, they are expected; one woman explained to me how some people regard the voting process: “Si no me pagan, no voto”.
Elections were held on Sunday, May 16th. I observed the process at two local schools, where the atmosphere was festive—reminiscent of Dominican league baseball games. People wore signs around their necks promoting their candidate, heckled others as they went to vote, and pestered voters as they exited the schools to find out who they chose, all while national police stood guard. The results of the mayoral election were contested, as it was alleged that Canoa engaged in foul play. After several days of recounting, negotiation, and general confusion, Canoa was declared the victor.
The elections provided insight into the perceived importance of documentation, one of the focal points of my research. In addition to the selling of cédulas—perhaps indicating their relative insignificance in the face of a potential monetary reward—I also witnessed cédulas being waved in the air during political rallies to prove one’s status as a voting member of society.
Additionally, I’ve been conducting interviews with people concerning their experiences with the documentation process, specifically that of registering children. Most recently, I interviewed the principal of a local school regarding the situation of undocumented students (meaning those who lack birth certificates). As of now, the reasons cited for which people failed to register their children, leaving them “undocumented”, have included: parental negligence (descuido), the cost of transportation, the time it takes to gather necessary documents, the mother’s lack of identification, and—as reported by one family—racism. I’ve made several trips to the Oficialía del Estado Civil in the city of Puerto Plata, where births are registered and certificates obtained. As a result, I’ve experienced a bit of the frustration that inevitably accompanies the process, as the system is outdated and wildly inefficient (not to mention that the Oficialía is often suffocatingly hot). I look forward to more such trips in the coming weeks…
Lee Evans, MA Candidate, CLACS