STEPPING BACK FROM THE PRECIPICE By John Graham reviewed by Paul Durand
Published in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in Spanish by Fundacion Cultural Dominicana in 2011.
One could not find a better chronicler than John W. Graham to interpret the political events that rocked the Dominican Republic in 1994. A career diplomat in the Canadian Foreign Service,
Graham’s association with the Dominican Republic began with his first posting, to Santo Domingo, in 1960. Those familiar with the foreign service know that first postings create a powerful, emotional link with the country, one that usually lasts a lifetime – and Graham’s affection for the DR is evident throughout the book.
This connection was resumed in 1988, when Graham was appointed Ambassador to Venezuela, with concurrent accreditation to the DR. From 1988 to 1992 he visited the country on a regular basis. Then, as head of the ‘Unit for the Promotion of Democracy’ in the Organization of American States (OAS), he was appointed to lead the OAS mission to observe the elections in 1994. He has since returned many times on a variety of missions (including the production of this book), and his knowledge of the place and its personalities is both fresh and deep – to the benefit of the reader and the final product.
John Graham provides an insider’s view of the political crisis that erupted in the Dominican Republic following the fraudulent electoral process in May 1994. He describes the attempts to ensure clean elections in the lead-up to the vote, and introduces us to the myriad characters involved on both sides of the fraud divide.
His long acquaintance with the principal actor in this drama – the octogenarian President Joaquin Balaguer – provides a fascinating glimpse of a cagey politician and a master manipulator.
From the day of the election on May 16, 1994 – when the first indications appeared that something was seriously wrong – to the final resolution three months later, readers have a ringside seat to a messy, chaotic struggle for power. Balaguer was determined to retain the presidency using any means available, including character assassination, electoral manipulation and outright fraud. Graham describes all this in detail, as well as the allies who became friends, the murky behind-the-scenes operators, and the atmosphere of threat and recrimination. He puts the events into historical and regional context - from the DR’s shaky recovery from the Trujillo dictatorship, to the concerns in Washington about instability in the DR vs removing the dictator from next-door Haiti. There are many more villains than heroes in this story.
The idea for this book originated at “Funglode”, a Dominican think-tank established some years ago by Leonel Fernandez, current president of the DR. In 2007 the Funglode Director approached me (I was then resident representative of the OAS in Santo Domingo), about Graham’s availability, explaining that they were concerned that the 1994 electoral experience had not been properly documented. This constituted an unacceptable gap for educated Dominicans, who take their history seriously – including notorious episodes such as this one. The choice of Graham, a foreigner, was controversial. However, they knew what they were doing - he had been at the centre of the action and could be trusted to be objective; few foreigners would pass such a test.
The book therefore covers a lot of ground that has not been addressed before, except in partisan fashion by those with axes to grind. It provides original insights, especially into the aims and objectives of the various protagonists. A keen observer of Latin American politics for many years, Graham understands what is significant in both the Dominican and the regional context. For a short publication (101 pages, with notes and appendices) it packs a lot of punch and, while it can be read by the general public, it will be better appreciated by academics, practitioners and Latinamericanists.
Graham writes with the skill and ease of a lifelong professional, and the authority of one who knows his material well. His occasional humorous asides add colour and levity – a welcome addition to a tale of unremitting political malfeasance.
“Stepping Back from the Precipice” is essentially an insider’s book, written for a Dominican audience well aware of their politics, their history and the shortcomings of their political system. Although brief, it manages to hit all the high points of what was a watershed event. An extended version, covering more of the history leading up to the 1994 debacle as well as the aftermath (which has shaped today’s polity) would appeal to a broader audience, but would be a different book. This one does what it set out to do, offering a concise but valuable addition to the Dominican political narrative.
Comments by Chapter
The Setting and Signs of Trouble
The OAS team led by Graham arrived in early May, a few weeks before voting day; they were joined by a number of electoral observer groups whose presence and cooperation were essential. Although there were ominous signs (obstruction in the Central Electoral Agency (JCE); vilification of the main opposition candidate for his Haitian roots; hints of rigging the electoral lists) it was not yet evident that this would be the most difficult election in the OAS experience and probably the worst in even the Dominican Republic’s chequered electoral history.
May 1 to 15: The Outlook Grows Darker
Problems continued to mount, as observers were denied access to the JCE’s computer systems, and anonymous death threats were received by one of the monitoring organizations, causing them to withdraw some of their members.
In Graham’s words, “As tensions rose so did concern about the possible breakout of widespread violence”
Voting began deceptively well and with great enthusiasm – turnout was eventually calculated at an extraordinary 87.4% (a sad commentary on Canadian participation rates). By mid-morning, reports were coming in to the effect that large numbers of citizens were being turned away because they did not appear on the JCE-prepared voters’ lists. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of these were supporters of the opposition PRD. A preliminary result issued by the JCE indicated that Balaguer had won by some 22,282 votes, yet it appeared that as many as 45,00 opposition supporters had been disenfranchised. Temperatures were rising, crowds were gathering and violence was expected. The observer teams issued statements pointing to irregularities while trying to avoid language that would further incite violence.
Post Election: Dangers and Dilemmas
As the press in the US and Latin America began to pick up on irregularities in the DR, talk began of the need for OAS sanctions. Graham’s challenge was to blow the whistle on the electoral fraud without shattering the increasingly tenuous stability of the country. One of the unknowns was the position of the military – a significant force in Dominican politics - whether it would intervene, and if so on which side. Heightened security concerns caused the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to withdraw its observation team, which returned to Washington.
Pena and Balaguer
Graham met frequently with the two main party leaders in the hours and days after the electoral debacle. Pena Gomez, leader of the PRD, was restraining his followers from violence, but only with difficulty and against the advice of senior party apparatchiks. Graham’s previous, positive relations with Balaguer were used to good advantage, as he tried to appeal to the 87- year old’s better instincts. This relationship kept Graham in the job, as Balaguer refused to allow him to be substituted by the former Secretary General of the OAS as proposed by the OAS.
This possibility was always present in the Dominican psyche; the country had endured American occupation from 1916 to 1924 and military intervention in the civil war of 1965. Direct intervention, however, was not a serious option for Washington in this period; it was “out of fashion”, and they preferred to work through the OAS.
The Verification Commission: a Road to Nowhere
This credible and reasonably balanced commission conducted a technical analysis of the voting system and concluded on July 12 what was already known – that about 45,000 voters had been disenfranchised. Talk now began of a negotiated solution to resolve the crisis, initiated by Leonardo Fernandez, head of a smaller third party, the PLD. Balaguer was stalling for time, waiting for the JCE to pronounce him winner; this took place on August 2 and “all hell broke loose”, with the prospect of a general strike and renewed civil disorder.
The US Role, Pressures and Suspicions
Graham’s experience as a career diplomat served him well in dealing with the US ambassador and other American diplomats, both in Santo Domingo and in Washington. They were able to approach issues with the same professional understanding, and developed a constructive collegial relationship. Despite more immediate concerns with Haiti, the US was on the right side of the issue and pressured Balaguer to show flexibility and negotiate a solution to the crisis. It was at this time that Graham discovered that a sophisticated eavesdropping system was in place, and that all telephone conversations had to be considered compromised. He also learned that Balaguer supporters (other Latin American ambassadors to the OAS) were pressuring the OAS to replace him, and here the US again stood its ground, insisting that he stay.
Deadlock and Extrication: Ten Days in August
Graham and his allies now focussed on arranging a face-to-face meeting between Balaguer and Pena. Pena and his supporters were reluctant, fearing that the wily old fox would somehow pull a fast one (a well founded suspicion).
At the meeting, Pena insisted on fresh elections and refused to discuss anything nothing else. Balaguer, ever gracious and patient, waited. Then, choosing his moment, he reminded Pena that the elections had ended in a virtual tie, and enquired, “Why don’t we split the cake – two years for me and two for you?”
They shook hands and the meeting ended in confusion.
The following day Graham informed Balaguer that the OAS would not support the arrangement as it was essentially undemocratic. Pena then arrived and, after he informed Balaguer that the ‘agreement’ was off, the two sat down with their legal advisors and hammered out a deal; its essential elements were two: new elections within 18 months, and non-reelection of an incumbent president (the 18-month period was subsequently changed to two years by the Balaguer-controlled senate). This ‘Pacto de la Democracia’ would end the crisis, ensure Balaguer another two years in the presidency, and eventually prove tragic for Pena, who lost the election in 1996. In a bizarre twist, he was defeated by a little-known leader of a small party, Leonardo Fernandez– who won because Balaguer threw his support behind him. So the old fox, nearing the end of his career and his life, had found one final way to betray and defeat his opponents.
In closing, Graham defends the role played by him and the OAS mission as a balancing act between exposing the fraud and maintaining civil peace. It was a difficult challenge, but the fact that both of the main contenders criticized him for being too soft on the other tends to validate his objectivity and the eventual compromise that ended the crisis. He ends by evaluating Balaguer through a Machiavellian lens, concluding with a qualified but positive assessment. (My own assessment would be less generous – I firmly believe that Balaguer could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two).
Paul D. Durand was a career diplomat and colleague of John Graham for many years. He spent much of his career in Latin America, serving as Canada’s ambassador to Costa Rica, with concurrent accreditation to Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. He also served as ambassador to Chile and to the Organization of American States, and held headquarters positions in Ottawa responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean. Durand served as the resident representative of the OAS in Santo Domingo from 2007-2009. He has led and participated in numerous electoral observation missions. He remains involved in the region.
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