Hundreds of red and blue Dominican flags raised along the two blocks from 179th street and 181st in Washington Heights could be seen from afar on Saturday. The neighborhood is home to more than 300,000 Dominicans, nearly 823,000 reside in New York City. The Dominican national anthem could also be heard loudly and clearly all along St. Nicholas Avenue.
The Dominican Republic celebrates national independence day on Feb. 27. But that is not why Dominicans had gathered on Saturday. Instead, they were protesting the municipal elections that were held on the island republic on Sunday, February 16th, when elections were suspended four hours after the polls had opened.
At 11:11 a.m. last Sunday, the president of the Central Electoral Board, Julio Cesar Castanos Guzman, said he stopped the vote because of an electronic issue with the automated voting system. But many in the nation did not believe him. They insisted that the vote was canceled because social media videos from towns where ballots were being cast manually showed people were not voting for the candidates of the Dominican freedom party, the PLD, known in Spanish as Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana, which has dominated the presidency for 16 years, but for the opposition party, the Revolutionary Modern Party.
Almost instantly after the polls were shut down, hundreds of people gathered and started protesting in front of the Central Electoral Board office in Santo Domingo last Sunday afternoon.
The elections have been postponed for March 15th and 7.5 million Dominicans are expected to cast their ballots. Until then, Dominicans in New York are determined to show support for their homeland to ensure that the process will be fairer next time around. In Washington Heights, Dominicans can talk about little else than the suspension of voting—people have been watching broadcasts from home and checking in with relatives. But the biggest show of support was Saturday’s demonstration where protestors demanded an investigation of the electronic failure, transparency for the next elections, and the resignation of the president of the Central Electoral Board. The heart of the protest is crystallized in its slogan: “Give us our Democracy back.”
“We are fighting for the only thing the government wants to take away from us, our democracy,” said Crystal Campos, 27, who was born in the United States, but raised in the Dominican Republic, and stood on the sidewalk holding a banner that showed her desire to return to her homeland. She says because of the economic and political situation there, she cannot go back.
by Angie Hernandez Pena
People of all ages gathered Saturday in the heart of Washington Heights with banners and handwritten posters with strong messages that reflected their patriotism and the situation Dominicans are facing in the Dominican Republic. Some of the signs read, “Our Democracy must be respected, it’s over,” or “I want to live in my country, but the government is not letting me.” Many were written in Spanish.
A few posters underscored that even if these Dominicans live 1,500 miles away from their homeland, they still care deeply about what is happening there. “Far but not absent,” read one of the posters held by 23-year-old, Danny Fernandez, who moved to New York two years ago, leaving his family behind.
“We are all here asking for transparent elections,” said Denisa Gonzalez, 28, who has lived in the United States for five years.
Gonzalez said she voted in past presidential elections and she thinks more young people will vote this year because of the protests. Dominicans living in the United States can vote in different stations set up by the Dominican government that is distributed in different schools throughout the five boroughs. To vote, they are required to have their national identification card and they must have registered to vote by going personally to different electoral committees no later than three months before the elections. These committees are also located in different Dominican community centers. After they register, they receive a phone call or an email with the address where they should vote.
According to a report published by the electoral board in 2019, 338,071 Dominicans living in New York are registered to cast ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in May this year. Dominicans cannot vote during the upcoming municipal elections, however.
Many protestors in the crowd Saturday were millennials and said their generation wants a change. Many want the leading party to step out of the election and let the new generation govern the nation. “We, the youth must protest for the future of our children and I am proud that we are all here today,” said Danny Fernandez, 23.
But Dominicans who have been here for decades also voiced their opposition. “We need a free country without oppression,” said Modesta Heredia, 61, who said she has lived in this country for 20 years.
Others asked for a better country so they could go back.
“Migration should be an option and not an obligation,” said Eddy Pena, 43, who moved here six years ago.
There were also protestors in the crowd from other countries showing their support for Dominicans.
“I am supporting Dominican liberty,” said Kotzev Kotze, a 36-year-old who said he was from Ukraine. And Ana Maria from Colombia added: “We are here in solidarity with the Dominicans because there should be no corruption and even though the elections were postponed, they should have never been canceled.”
The protest in Washington Heights was not an isolated one. Throughout the week, hundreds of thousands of Dominicans around the United States and across the globe have organized demonstrations, including Dominicans living in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Washington. In addition, the Dominican diaspora has demonstrated in Madrid, Barcelona, Toronto, Paris, and London.
Word of the protests in the Dominican Republic and around the world began spreading on social media on Monday night, and its mostly young people and many social media users who have been supporting social issues in the Dominican Republic who are spreading the message. From the first day of protests, Instagram has been the main source of information for many users to find out when and where the next protest would be held. In the north, east, west and south coasts of the island, demonstrators have shared images and videos of the crowds.
The protests are already making a difference. On Friday, the director of the computing and coding department of the central electoral board, Miguel Angel Garcia, was suspended. Garcia became president of this department in January 2017. The board’s president said his suspension was meant to preserve objectivity during the investigation of last week’s electronic electoral failure.
Also, the election board sent a letter to the Organization of the American States to audit all equipment that was used in 18 towns on Sunday. The investigations are scheduled to start on Monday. But the president of the election board said he will not resign because he said he has done the right thing.
This automated voting system has had issues before. On October 6, 2019, the Dominican Republic led its first primaries in history and used the automated voting system for the first time. During those elections, people voted for the presidential candidates from the leading party and the opposition party. The ex-president of the country, who is currently running for the presidency, Leonel Fernandez, blamed an algorithm in the software for causing issues in the final counting of the votes. He said the technical glitch let his opponent Gonzalo Castillo get ahead of him. But after an investigation, no problems were found because the one percent difference among the candidates was considered within the margin of error.
The protests will continue next week, and a massive demonstration has been called for on Independence Day, February 27th at the flag plaza in the center of the capital. Millions of Dominicans on the island, in New York, and around the world are expected to join in with their own gatherings. None have yet been announced.
“There have been no fights. The protests have been very organized because we all love our country and need to vote,” said Fernando Ceballos, 29, who said he will fly home to vote in the March elections.
Until the ballots are cast again, protestors are asking for everyone to stay together in this cause.
“We need to stay united as Dominicans worldwide and seek the change we want,” said Darwin Smith, 29, while he clutched his handwritten poster of protest.