Mass protests for legitimate elections redefine Dominican Independence Day

Nicole Acevedo

Dominican Independence Day took on a different meaning Thursday for New Yorker Alejandro Contreras as protests in the Dominican Republic triggered by the fallout over botched municipal elections and heightened government mistrust have spread globally.

On Feb. 16, the Dominican election board, known in Spanish as the Junta Central Electoral, suspended the island's municipal elections for the first time in the country's history, four hours after voters had started casting their ballots. The board alleged malfunctions in its newly launched electronic voting system.

That stranded more than 7.4 million voters who were expecting to cast ballots for nearly 4,000 government positions in 158 municipalities across the Dominican Republic — an important preamble to the presidential elections, which are scheduled for May.

It also affects almost 400,000 Dominicans living in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, who are registered to vote in the election, making up 74 percent of all voters registered abroad.

"The Dominican people are under a dictatorship disguised as democracy," Contreras said in his native Spanish. "We will be demanding the resignation of all the members of the electoral board, as well as a formal public explanation on the impunity and corruption within the government, among other issues."

Contreras is one of thousands of Dominicans in New York who have been participating in solidarity protests to echo the demands that demonstrators in the Dominican Republic have been making for almost two weeks.

In the Dominican Republic, thousands have been rallying at Plaza de la Bandera in Santo Domingo in what has been dubbed the Trabucazo 2020, while Dominican Americans in Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia are participating in solidarity protests.

High-profile Dominican public figures, such as the Grammy-winning musician and composer Juan Luis Guerra, the TV star and singer Charytín Goyco and the singer-songwriter Rita Indiana, urged people to take part in the mass demonstration in Plaza de la Bandera.

Celebrities such as Zoe Saldaña and Romeo Santos, who are part of the Dominican diaspora, echoed their calls, encouraging people to defend democracy and join the protests.

U.S.-based voters express concerns

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., the first Dominican American elected to Congress, described the hundreds of thousands of U.S.-based voters as crucial to Dominican elections, because they're "independent and critical."

"They don't depend on a bribe. They don't depend on being paid off to vote. They don't have a job to protect or within the government," Espaillat told NBC News. "These independent voters abroad are the ones who send the remittances that are the most important part of the Dominican economy."

Officials in the Dominican Republic suspended the election board's national technical director and asked the Organization of American States, or OAS, a U.N.-like group representing 35 Western Hemisphere nations, to investigate the failure of the electronic voting system used in the municipal elections.

The municipal elections have been rescheduled for March 15, and traditional paper ballots will be used.

The OAS said that it had sent an Electoral Observation Mission to "observe in an ongoing manner the organization of the election" and that it expected to "establish the framework" of a binding audit of the electronic voting process by the end of the week.

Espaillat, who represents over 700,000 Dominican Americans in New York City, said, "This is not enough."

In his view, the audit process should be "a collective effort of many organizations that have traditionally supported democracy and civic engagement in order to really guarantee the fullest amount of fairness and transparency."

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Protesters expressed skepticism that issues with the new electronic voter system would be resolved before the May 17 presidential elections and doubted whether they could trust the government, whose party has been in power for most of the last 24 years.

Espaillat took to the House floor Thursday to remind people that Dominicans are fighting to strengthen their democracy on Dominican Independence Day, an effort being led by young people.

"Close to 10,000 young people, for the most part, mobilized themselves in my district last Saturday, something I had never seen before," he told NBC News. "I think that strengthens the concept of what it means to be a Dominican anywhere in the world. When you protest, you're being patriotic."

Isabel Cristina, a Dominican American who has helped organize protesters in New York, said young people are supporting the "real heroes protesting in Dominican Republic despite being targeted by ultranationalists, the national police and, in some cases, even their own family members."

Those protesters believe so strongly in a more transparent and democratic society, Cristina said, that "they have been peacefully protesting for the past 12 days and counting."

Contreras echoed her sentiment: "We won't stop until we achieve our mission and rescue democracy, which the government has kidnapped."

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Image: DOMINICAN REP-MUNICIPAL-ELECTION-SUSPENSION-PROTEST