A close ally of Trump, Dominican Republic president Luis Abinader embraced austerity and deported nearly half a million people during his first term as president. With little alternative, Dominicans have reelected him for a second.

Dominican president Luis Abinader adjusts his glasses during a press conference in the wake of his reelection in Santo Domingo on May 20, 2024. (Stringer / AFP via Getty Images)

No one in the Dominican Republic was surprised when businessman Luis Abinader of the Partido Revolucionario Moderno (PRM) managed to get himself reelected in the first round of the presidential elections on May 19. He obtained 57.4 percent of the votes, well ahead of his competitors Leonel Fernández of Fuerza del Pueblo (FP) with 28.9 percent and Abel Fernández of the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD) with 10.4 percent. The polls and four years of a government with barely any coherent political opposition predicted this result. In addition, the policies of the three leading candidates were almost indistinguishable, which partly explains the low voter turnout.

In other parts of the region, the rise of the far right has occurred in a context of polarization, as these forces clash with rebellious social movements or electoral center-left parties. In the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, the main political parties and mainstream media express a consensus around unhinged conspiracies about women’s and LGBTQ rights and the LGBTQ community, as well as about violent measures against the Haitian immigrant community. This gives local extremism an air of conventionality and respectability. While Javier Milei and Jair Bolsonaro’s praise of military dictatorships and Nayib Bukele’s claim to be a “cool dictator” have garnered criticism, Abinader’s comparison of himself during the campaign to Dominican dictator Joaquín Balaguer went largely unnoticed.

The discrediting of the FP and PLD parties, associated with the corrupt and privatizing governments that preceded Abinader, was a decisive factor in Adbinader’s first presidential win in 2020, and it continues to hold weight today. At 45.6 percent, the abstention rate in these elections is the highest of any presidential election after Balaguer’s twelve-year dictatorship (1966–1978). The NGO Participación Ciudadana reports that the traditional practices of clientelism and electoral manipulation were widespread on voting day: illegal proselytizing was found at one out of every three voting centers, and vote buying at one out of every six.

This flawed electoral process has resulted in a comfortable parliamentary majority for the government, which will allow it to attempt to reform the constitution and carry out a tax reform, labor reform, and approve a new penal code, among other ambitious legislative projects, without having to negotiate with other political forces. Abinader’s PRM and its allies will control 146 of the 190 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and twenty-nine of thirty-two seats in the Senate — more than enough to rewrite the constitution.

The party of Ramfis Trujillo, a grandson of the dictator, backed the colorful candidacy of Roque Espaillat, an admirer of Milei who drew 1.4 percent of the vote. Although this percentage was lower than the number of null votes cast, it was enough for the party to remain recognized by the Central Electoral Board and for it to receive electoral financing up until 2028. When Espaillat boasted during the campaign that he did not pay taxes, he was not too different from Abinader, who figured prominently in the 2021 Pandora Papers leak for his offshore accounts. The sum of the votes of the four remaining presidential candidacies was less than 2 percent.

The margin of Abinader’s victory has a recent precedent. In 2016, Danilo Medina of the PLD won presidential reelection with a higher percentage, and a greater number of absolute votes, than Abinader, despite the fact that the electoral roll was smaller at the time. In that election, Medina’s party won two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies and twenty-nine of thirty-two Senators. Despite this, Medina was unable to reform the constitution to clear his path for a third consecutive term in office, and his party split and was defeated in 2020. In this year’s election, the party suffered a greater debacle, winning only thirteen seats in the lower house and none in the Senate.

Change That Keeps Everything the Same

Abinader came to power in 2020 touting a single word: change. Although the PLD had been governing with the wind of sustained economic growth in its sails, enormous social inequality and exasperation with corruption generated growing discontent. President Medina’s attempt to move toward another reelection bid divided his party. The US government tipped the scales in favor of Abinader, who had hired Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani as an adviser. At the height of the debate about constitutional reform, less than a year before the 2020 elections, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned Medina to dissuade him from pursuing a third consecutive presidential term.

To reap the benefits of a protest vote against the PLD, Abinader gave different meanings to “change,” depending on his audience. He seemed to follow the maxim of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard): “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Back in December 2013, Abinader had spoken out against court ruling 168-13, which retroactively stripped the nationality of multiple generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent. “Unjust decisions, not very civilized, are taking away the right to nationality from Dominicans with faces that are different. . . . A civilized country should not tolerate any kind of discrimination,” said Abinader, then a contender to become his party’s presidential candidate.

Abinader lost the 2016 election. By the following election campaign, in 2019, Abinader had brought into his corner liberal intellectuals and professionals with democratic backgrounds, such as journalist Juan Bolívar Díaz, the current ambassador to Spain. But at the same time, Abinader defended ruling 168-13 and expressed his opposition to alleged international plans to merge the Dominican Republic with Haiti or to impose the weight of the Haitian crisis on the Dominican state.

Once in office, invoking the same conspiracy theories and a sharp rhetorical contrast between sovereignty and human rights, Abinader promoted a policy of mass deportations. In 2023, the Dominican government expelled 251,000 Haitians, according to official data, a figure greater than the sum of all deportations carried out between 2017 and 2021. In four years, the government carried out a total of around half a million deportations.

The methods the government has employed to hit these record numbers surpass even Bukele’s policies of indiscriminate repression. Under Abinader, detentions and raids need not comply with constitutional minutiae such as court orders or the presence of a prosecutor; it is enough that immigration authorities, police, or military personnel consider a person suspicious for “looking like a Haitian.” These methods, documented by Dominican and international social and human rights organizations, have resulted not only in the arbitrary detention of many black Dominicans, but also in the separation of thousands of children from their families, the detention of pregnant women in hospitals, and other heinous crimes such as rape, forced disappearances, and killings.

Additionally, authorities registered in 2023 the “voluntary return” of more than 246,000 people to Haiti in the context of the Dominican Republic’s closure of the border in retaliation for the construction of an irrigation canal in Haiti on a binational river. The director of the National Institute of Migration, Wilfredo Lozano, estimates that in 2023 there were some seven hundred thousand people, both “Haitian and of Haitian origin,” in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican population is 10.7 million people. These figures give an idea of the relative dimensions of the collective expulsion of Haitian immigrants, some of whom have been living in the country for decades.

Undoubtedly, this policy has imposed a drastic escalation of oppression on a sector of the population that has suffered systematic and structural racial discrimination for decades. It is a policy that recalls some of the most sinister episodes in Dominican history, such as the anti-Haitian genocide of 1937 and the racist massacre of hundreds of peasants in 1962 —crimes against humanity that are not officially recognized or commemorated. All parties with electoral credentials — openly or not, critically or unconditionally — support this anti-Haitian policy.

The Movimiento Reconocido, which organizes Dominicans of Haitian descent affected by denationalization, warned before the presidential elections:

[N]one of [the nine presidential] candidates has addressed the problem of racist denationalization and statelessness which affects more than 200,000 people in the country, constituting the largest stateless community in the Western Hemisphere. We believe that this omission is extremely serious and shows little democratic commitment to human rights and to the construction of a non-racist public policy in the Dominican Republic.”

Human rights violations have reached such extremes that even the US government, an ally of Abinader, imposed sanctions in 2022 on the US sugar company Central Romana for engaging in forced labor practices against Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. It also warned dark-skinned US travelers of the risk of detention by Dominican immigration authorities.

Balaguerista Theory and Practice

Not unlike Brazil’s Bolsonaro or Argentina’s Milei, Abinader has praised Dominican dictator Balaguer. He has also compared himself to Balaguer, who was part of the regime of Rafael Trujillo (1930–1961). After the 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic, Balaguer exercised power in murderous fashion between 1966 and 1978, and he returned to rule between 1986 and 1996. This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the last forceful disappearance attributed to Balaguer, that of university professor and left-wing activist Narciso González.

Abinader said he shared with Balaguer, a notorious racist ideologue, an alleged commitment to austerity in public spending and defense of sovereignty against Haiti.

Abinader also carries on Balaguer’s legacy in other aspects, such as electoral corruption and clientelism. Under the current government, social inequality remains rampant, with the richest 1 percent of society controlling 42 percent of wealth, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Trade union freedom continues to be restricted, partly as a consequence of Balaguer’s 1992 labor code, which prevents economic growth and increased labor productivity from translating into an increase in real wages.

In addition, international organizations have accused the Abinader government of spying on journalists. The government has passed an authoritarian intelligence law, which media have criticized for forcing them to release information about their journalistic sources. Even Hitler-inspired paramilitaries march in the streets, threaten to kill journalists, and attack public activities of leftist groups with total impunity. These paramilitary forces support Abinader’s border wall construction and massive deportations, demanding that the president go further. Like these groups, Abinader is a denialist who claims that, in the Dominican Republic, “there has never been a race problem.”

With his somewhat boring style — to which he owes his popular nickname, “tayota” (chayote), a vegetable without taste or smell — Abinader transmits abroad a false image of moderation. Yet his words and actions place him within the same tendency expressed by Bolsonaro, Milei, Bukele, Chile’s José Antonio Kast, and Ecuador’s Daniel Noboa. What’s more, in the brief time they coincided in power in 2020, Abinader and Trump had a very close relationship. Abinader followed in Trump’s footsteps by announcing the move of his embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he defined his foreign policy based on the hypothesis of a “new cold war.” It is likely that if Trump returns to power in the United States, this ideological affinity will become much more evident.

On the first weekend of the new presidential term, coinciding with the president’s trip to the Vatican to meet with the pope, chilling news arrived from the interior of the country. Striking Haitian sugar cane workers at the private company Consorcio Azucarero Central, in Barahona, were fired upon by police with pellets and live bullets, leaving around fifty injured, according to a witness. The main national media are silent. It’s a harrowing symbol of the times.

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