Early spring marks the brutality of midterms, papers and presentations for most college students. What is even more grueling is the fact that Midwesterners will often meet this new season with prolonged snowstorms that we unfortunately enjoy through the end of April. It is no surprise that so many students travel to beautiful, warm, beach filled nations during spring break to rid themselves of the cold. The Dominican Republic is well known for its rich forests, beaches and tourist based economy. The country takes in thousands of American travelers a year! However, the underlying political climate of this nation is seldom in conversation when choosing this destination. Diving deeper into the politics of the Dominican Republic, it is evident that the country could be heading towards democratic erosion.
Starting at the institutional roots of this nation, the executive branch of government is drifting away from its democratic pillars. President Danilo Medina, member of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), has recently faced a sharp decline in his approval rating; at the start of his career he was hovering around 80%, but now is down to about 50%. But why? Corruption.
In 2016 Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, traded $92 million in bribe money to public officials and business people in order to obtain contracts for the company. When the news broke, the protests and demonstrations began for a more honest, transparent and democratic government. Although Medina claims to eliminate corruption problems, the country has the second highest bribery rate in the world, has risen on multiple verified corruption scales, and has moved from a “free” to a “partly free” nation on Freedom House standards.
However, beyond the scandal that was illuminated by the press, there are many underlying issues that the government faces. Medina amended the Dominican Republic’s Constitution back in 2015 in order to run an additional race for presidency. To some Latin American countries, this change does not mark anything significant, since the Dominican Republic’s Constitution has been amended four times in twenty-one years. However, Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg note the dangers of any legal change to the framing of a democracy. The alteration of term limits is viewed as a pathway to an eroding democracy. The ease of legal change in the Dominican Republic illustrates the ability for a leader to extend his or her time in office, theoretically, indefinitely. This should not be taken lightly. This extension of time could actually incentivize leaders, such as Medina, to pass other Constitutional Amendments that essentially eliminate competition, centralize executive power, and destroy checks and balances of a democratic system.
The Dominican Republic’s Constitution guarantees the Freedom of Press; however, the media is another area of question. Although the government claims the media has the liberty to verbalize any conflicting or contentious views, there are limitations. First, the Dominican media is controlled by a concentrated handful of politically and economically inclined individuals. It is important to look back on history when understanding the potential decline of democracy in the face of a regulated media. Although it might seem far off base, Maja Adena explains how the consolidation of media in Germany, by the Nazi party, led to the expansion of their ideals and eventual domination. Of course, one could argue that there are major political, economic and historical differences between Germany in the 1930s and the Dominican now. However, it is important to take an extreme circumstance and look at the similarities in this democratic looking, Latin American state.
In addition to consolidation, many journalists have reported intimidation tactics by the government when covering contentious or delicate topics. This is concerning for multiple reasons. First, the simple threat or rumor of intimidation psychologically creates self-censorship within the media. In relation to Ozan Varol’s concept on stealth authoritarianism, there are many mechanisms toward democratic erosion that alone do not catch the public eye’s attention. Individually, each instrument of the government looks democratic, but the conglomeration of multiple mechanisms creates democratic backsliding. The media’s self-censorship constitutes one of the many pathways to a disintegrating public voice; thus, allowing the government to rule without a public check. Second, in relation to my first point, politicians and other officials, through intimidation, essentially have the power to weed out stories that shine a bad light on the government.
Currently, the international community is not distressed about the political climate in the Dominican Republic. However, it would be both foolish and naïve to rule out the possibility of democratic erosion in this nation. The executive branch, under President Medina, has failed to reduce corruption after the Odebrecht situation, lacks the capability to allow pure Freedom of Press, and has changed legal documents to maintain his power.
My suggestion is to remain weary of the political situation developing in the Dominican Republic the next time you are planning a vacation to a beautiful, tropical island.
Photo by: Caraib Connexion.