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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Dominican president poised to win reelection as voters eye crisis in Haiti

President Luis Rodolfo Abinader of the Dominican Republic addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

By Simon Romero and Hogla Enecia Pérez

President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic was heading to a win in his reelection bid Sunday as voters embraced his crackdown on migrants from neighboring Haiti, an anti-corruption drive and his stewardship of one of Latin America’s best-performing economies.

Abinader, a former executive in the tourism industry, took 59% of the vote against 27% for his closest rival, Leonel Fernández, a three-time former president, and 11% for Abel Martínez, a provincial mayor, with 21.5% of votes counted, according to the Dominican Republic’s national electoral authority.

Both Fernández and Martínez called Abinader on Sunday evening to concede and congratulate him, despite the lack of full official results, which were expected to be available in coming days. In a victory speech, Abinader thanked his rivals and those who voted for him.

“I accept the trust placed in me,” Abinader said. “I will not let you down.”

The election showcased how a political leader could turn migration fears to his advantage.

The Dominican Republic is deporting tens of thousands of Haitians this year, despite pleas from the United Nations to stop as they flee gang-fueled lawlessness. Abinader is going even further, building a border wall between the two countries that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

“He has shown who wears the pants on this issue,” said Robert Luna, a voter in Santo Domingo who works in marketing, about Abinader’s hard-line migration policies. “He’s fighting for what the fathers of the nation wanted.”

Abinader’s likely first-round victory also showed how the Dominican Republic, with one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies, stands apart from other countries in the region, where many leaders who rose to power in the same period as Abinader are dogged by dismal approval ratings.

“This is definitely not a ‘change’ election as many others have recently been in Latin America,” said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization.

Much of Abinader’s support also stems from his anti-graft initiatives. He won his first term in 2020 by vowing to clean up the corruption that has long been embedded in the political culture of the Dominican Republic, a country of 11.2 million people.

He appointed Miriam Germán, a former Supreme Court judge, as attorney general. She has overseen investigations that ensnared high-ranking officials in the previous administration, including a former attorney general and a former finance minister.

The investigations have largely focused on people opposed to Abinader, prompting criticism that his own government has been spared. But other moves, like the passage in 2022 of an asset forfeiture law, offer hope of lasting change. The forfeiture law is viewed as an important and pioneering tool for disrupting and dismantling criminal enterprises, depriving them of property acquired illegally.

Rosario Espinal, a Dominican political analyst, said Abinader could have won reelection simply by focusing on the battle against corruption, as he did in 2020, “but not with the margins that he wants.”

Instead, Espinal said, Abinader embraced the nativist immigration policies traditionally pushed by the Dominican far right. “He needed to find a new topic that would resonate,” she said. “He found that in migration.”

As Haiti descended into chaos following the assassination in 2021 of the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, Abinader built on the anti-immigrant measures already enshrined in Dominican law.

He suspended visas for Haitians in 2023, and then closed the border with Haiti for nearly a month, in a dispute over the construction of a canal in Haiti using water from a river shared between the two countries.

“He has to take a tough stance,” said Sandra Ventura, 55, a businessperson from Tamayo in the country’s south, about Abinader’s migration policies.

Dominican immigration officials have gone considerably further, with some accused of looting the homes of Haitians and embarking on a campaign to detain and deport Haitian women who were pregnant or who had just given birth.

Pablo Mella, academic director of the Pedro Francisco Bonó Institute, a Dominican university, called Abinader’s policies toward Haiti a “public and international disgrace,” particularly the treatment of pregnant Haitian women.

“What happens is that’s what gets votes,” Mella added. “Candidates are vying to see who’s the most anti-Haitian of all.”

Before the election, a large majority of Dominican voters said that the upheaval in Haiti was influencing how they would vote. And Abinader clearly benefited from such concerns, with nearly 90% of voters expressing support for his construction of a border wall.

Many in the large Dominican diaspora were also allowed to cast ballots in the election, with more than 600,000 eligible voters residing in the United States and more than 100,000 in Spain.

Abinader has defended his immigration policies, saying they are no different from what countries like Jamaica, Bahamas, the United States and Canada have done to limit the arrival of Haitians fleeing the crisis.

“I have to do whatever is necessary to secure our people,” Abinader told the BBC in a recent interview. “We are just applying our law.”

Abinader’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Still, some voters were not sold on the incumbent. Tirso Lorenzo Piña, a door attendant and an evangelical Christian in Santo Domingo, said he was unhappy with Abinader’s support in the United Nations for admitting Palestine as a member.

“Everyone has their own ideology, concepts, ways of thinking,” Piña said. “But I don’t like him.”

Still, Abinader is benefited from a divided opposition and broad consensus in the Dominican Republic in favor of investor-friendly policies that have spurred economic growth. His handling of the pandemic also helped, with the relatively quick distribution of vaccines allowing the Dominican tourism industry to bounce back while some other countries were requiring visitors to go into quarantine.

Tourism is a pillar of the economy, accounting for about 16% of gross domestic product. The World Bank expects the Dominican Republic’s economy to grow by 5.1% this year.

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