/** nacla.report: 333.0 **/
** Topic: Local Democracy by Lilian Bobea **
** Written 12:56 PM May 1, 1997 by nacla in cdp:nacla.report **
Reprinted from the March/April 1997 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.
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[Lilian Bobea is a sociologist at the Latin American Social Science Faculty in Santa Domingo, and at the State University of NY at Birmingham.]
As President Leonel Fernandez and his Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) gradually reveal the political direction of their new government, a semi-rural, north-central province called Salcedo may be emerging as a model they would like the the rest of the country to follow. It was here in the early 1990s that Fernandez's vice president, Jaime David Fernandez Mirabal, then a federal senator from Salcedo [RIGHT?], led an energetic project to decentralize and democratize the Dominican political process. Since the successes and setbacks of the Salcedo experiment reveal a great deal about the current state of Dominican society and the prospects for change in the near future, it is vital to understand what the project is all about.
Salcedo's experiment in decentralization and democratization took shape after the provincial elections of 1990--elections won by the PLD. A slate of PLD reformers, joined by leftist leaders and union representatives, sought to fashion an experiment that would overcome the traditional concentration of power and decision making in the hands of the federal government. This was--and remains--a daunting task. The Dominican Constitution gives the president direct control over most of the national budget, and this undermines the ability of municipal and regional governments to carry out projects and reforms according to local needs. Control over the police force is also concentrated at the national level, weakening local mechanisms of accountability. [OKAY?] And there is no such thing as local legislation: all Dominican laws are national.
Salcedo is not alone in its attempt to bring political decision making to the local level. In Puerto Plata, for example, the tourist mecca on the country's north coast, a project of urban planning and economic and social reform began five years ago with support from community organizations, churches, opposition parties and the business community. But it is in Salcedo that the development of a genuine local politics and the encouragement of citizen participation is taking place in the most systematic and interesting way.
Though Salcedo remains largely rural, its small cities have grown rapidly over the past few decades. Many farmers continue to eke out a living in the declining sectors of cocoa and coffee production, but many others have sought out employment in the public sector as well as in the informal economy. Grinding poverty plagues both the urban and rural areas of the province. While some Salcedo houses have zinc roofs, electricity and running water, many have roofs thatched with palm leaves, and no running water at all. Residents frequently fetch (hopefully) fresh water from nearby rivers and streams.
But grinding poverty has not made the people of Salcedo passive. As the neoliberal policies of the 1980s squeezed them even more than usual, Salcedo's poor--lacking other ways to influence a highly centralized government--took to the streets to show their discontent, demanding that the central government build aqueducts to supply water, and that it improve health services. The political vitality of the 1980s, in turn, had its roots in the popular mobilizations of the 1960s and 1970s against the repressive rule of Joaquin Balaguer. During those decades, unions, peasant organizations and women's groups played key organizing roles while young activists throughout the country organized sports groups and social clubs that became centers of popular education and resistance to Balaguer's authoritarianism.
By the 1980s, the scenario had changed dramatically. The country's urban population climbed from under two million to over four million during the 1970s and 1980s, and this rapid urbanization transformed the nature of collective action, displacing older sites and styles of political organization. In the rapidly growing marginal barrios of Dominican cities, new political forces emerged in response to the growing poverty and deepening inequality brought on by neoliberal economic policies. Urban movements began to focus their energies on issues that were truly local--like access to basic services such as schools, health clinics, electricity and potable water.
In this new scenario, traditional collective actors, such as political parties and unions, became less relevant than before, and the connection between left-wing parties and local struggles grew ever-more distant. This reflected, in part, the near-disappearance of a coherent national project for the left--a process that was accelerated by systematic government repression throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.[OKAY?] Equally important, however, was the rigidity and intolerance of the two center-left opposition parties, which failed to present programs that realistically responded to the desperate conditions in which most Dominicans lived.
Alongside the parties and the trade unions, then, a new political actor has emerged--the new urban poor who live in the so-called "marginal neighborhoods." They seize land from the state or large landowners, illegally appropriate electricity and water, and create ad-hoc councils to demand basic services from the government. These actions, which exist outside the structure of traditional politics, have not attracted the support of any political party or "respectable" organization. Slum dwellers find that their urgent day-to-day problems, and the mechanisms they create to solve them, exist in a kind of political limbo. As a result, these urban social movements are more diffuse and fragmented, and their capacity to negotiate vis-a-vis the state is weaker. Yet they continue to struggle against their spatial and political segregation to assert their citizenship rights.
It is within this larger context of social change that Salcedo's decentralization experiment makes sense. The political confrontations and mobilizations of the 1980s were seen by participants as struggles against the centralized authority both of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) administrations of the early 1980s and Balaguer's Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) government after 1986. While the PLD was not itself a new political force in 1990, its newly installed municipal and provincial leaders felt they had a mandate to reform the province, above all through the decentralization of resources and decision-making. In fact, prior to the province's 1990 elections, politicians from both opposition parties, the PLD and PRD "agreed that whoever won would initiate a new system."1
Once in office, the PLD put together a plan to spur local development by means of a broad process of consultation and collaboration among the diverse political and social forces in the province. Central to the plan was an effort to promote forums where different proposals could could be aired and collective decisions agreed upon--a policy of dialogue and decision-making known as concertacion. The PLD hoped to bring the diverse popular organizations that functioned in Salcedo into this process, including neighborhood associations, women's groups, peasant associations and sports clubs. The first step was the creation of a group called the Community Development Forum, which brought together provincial and congressional officials, local clergy, political leaders and community group leaders. The Committee developed a strategic plan based on project proposals for the region, and also administered public funds allocated by the central government for local use [RIGHT?]. At the same time, the new leaders organized meetings with an even broader range of community groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify critical problems in the province. The meetings, which also sought to foster support by explaining the decentralization process to community groups, identified health, education and employment as priorities.
When Salcedo's new leaders declared that the province had moved "de la protesta a la propuesta"--from protest to proposal--they often pointed to these new mechanisms of popular expression. Yet devising new alternatives had as much to do with the high levels of political mobilization before 1990 as it did with the new avenues of expression. "The province of Salcedo was already one of the most organized in the country," commented one leader.2 If Salcedo moved from protest to proposal, it did so at least in part because the protests made the proposals possible. The protests, after all, had forced local politicians to imagine new and creative ways to deal with the province's pressing problems.
The reformers--PLD municipal authorities as well as then- senator and current Vice-president Jaime David Fernandez Mirabal--organized their initial efforts around an ambitious public health plan.3 A technical office was set up to design infrastructure projects, including rural and urban clinics, drainage and water systems, and garbage disposal systems. It also trained dozens of community residents as public-health educators to advise their neighbors on hygiene and other health issues.
The reformers faced two fundamental problems at the outset. First, the decentralization plan was sui generis--as a local initiative, it was not linked to any broader commitment by the central government to introduce nation-wide reforms. Funding, given the limited budgets to which Dominican provinces have access, was therefore a major problem. To succeed, the decentralized political institutions of Salcedo would have to be parallel to, and largely independent of, normal structures of government. To begin with, local officials looked abroad for resources. The Pan-American Health Organization, largely underwritten by the Italian government, offered substantial funding for the project. In fact, Salcedo's success in attracting funds is widely attributed to Fernandez Mirabal's ability to make use of his contacts in Italy, where he had obtained a degree in public health.
By many measures, the Salcedo experiment has been a great success. On the health-care front, the project organizers oversaw the training of dozens of nurses to work in primary care at local hospitals and clinics. They also organized an immunization campaign against tuberculosis and other diseases, and they promoted health education in poor neighborhoods. In just a few years, Salcedo's infant mortality rate has notably decreased [FROM WHAT TO WHAT?]. Beyond progress in the area of health, the project also created a series of agricultural initiatives (mostly to help small farmers grow and market non-traditional crops), [RIGHT?] an office to fight discrimination and violence against women, and a project promoting democratic participation that has trained over 2,000 community leaders to act as liaisons between municipal agencies and the province's communities.
Yet the decentralization experiment has faced a number of problems, among them Salcedo's long history of partisan rivalry. "Salcedo was the most conflictive province in the country," said one political leader. "The authorities could never agree on anything. One leader was always boycotting the other's plan, so that they never came up with solutions to the problems of the community."4 The reformers believed they could overcome sectarian in-fighting through their policy of concertacion. While the opening of the province's political system after 1990 encouraged a more productive way of engaging in political dialogue, it is not clear how successful the reformers were in keeping their promise to promote "the effective coordination of all the social, political and economic forces of the province, with the goal of enhancing the general welfare."5 The provincial electoral defeat of the PLD in 1994, moreover, put the entire decentralization project at risk, revealing the fragility of Salcedo's much-heralded concertacion.
More important is the issue of what popular participation means in Salcedo. Several new organizations of grassroots participation were formed, such as the Committee for Community Development, which coordinates community activities and brings together already-existing groups for dialogue and mutual aid. Another new form of popular expression is represented by the cabildos abiertos, or open councils. [WHO CONVOKES THEM? WHAT ARE THEY CONSULTED ABOUT? WHO PARTICIPATES?] Although the cabildos serve only as consultative bodies, they have still encountered resistance from traditional leaders who fear the growth of popular participation.
Despite the good intentions embodied in these new participatory mechanisms, a tradition of top-down decision making continues to hamper the process, as a recent experience known to the author illustrates. A subsistence farmer named Eugenia was selected to take part in a pilot agricultural program. She agreed to invest in nontraditional crops for her small farm. After the first crop failed, technical assistants urged her to try another, and then a third. In the end, Eugenia had no crop and owed a substantial sum of money to the project. She felt mistreated because the "experts" simply told her what to plant, then gave no technical support. She had no sense of how her experience fit into the larger project, nor what the project was, who was in charge, or how decisions were made.
As Eugenia's case suggests, decentralization in Salcedo at times recapitulates longstanding inequalities between peasants and experts, and contradictions between democratic decision-making and the desire for certain instrumental outcomes. At times, the rhetoric of participation masks a hierarchical approach to problem solving. "The community was the main protagonist," said one consultant. "It is the community that develops and executes the project. They take part at the key moment, as manual labor." And a community leader drove the point home. "The authoritues," she said, referring to the new reform-minded provincial government, [RIGHT?] "came into the community looking for people to get involved. It's not that the community had no importance--the project never would have worked without them. But it was the authorities who took the initiative."6
The weakness of Salcedo's decentralization experiment became evident by 1994. Despite progress in many areas, the PLD was turned out of office by Salcedo's voters. While the loss in Salcedo was part of a nationwide rout of the party, it is hard not to conclude that the vote signaled the PLD's failure to bring together the diverse political forces in the region and to mobilize the population in favor of a far-reaching process of political transformation.
"Participation is like trust," observed a Salcedo activist, "it takes time to develop."7 And while Salcedo's reformist leaders were politically committed to their decentralization project, genuine participation remains an unconquered territory. If genuine decentralization is the transfer of power and responsibility not just to local caudillos, but to the people themselves, then much work remains to be done. Fundamental to a transformative project is the conviction that democracy is both a means to an end and a good in itself. In a society that is only now emerging from the deep- rooted authoritarian tradition of Joaquin Balaguer and countless lesser caudillos, the process will clearly not take place overnight.