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Poverty-Weary Dominicans Seek Change by Ballot Box


ALTHOUGH a decade-long economic slide brought on by inflation, high oil prices, and expensive public-works projects shows signs of easing, people in the Dominican Republic are voicing a desire for change.

They may, in fact, oust the man who has ruled them for most of three decades in today's election.

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President Joaquin Balaguer Ricardo is known as an adept politician who has been the dominant political figure since dictator Gen. Rafael Lenoidas Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. Fighting for his seventh term, he has faced tough races before, particularly in 1990, against his lifelong rival Juan Bosch Gavino, who is running again as a dark-horse candidate in this election.

Mr. Balaguer's main rival in today's election for president, vice president, Congress, provincial and local offices is Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, presidential candidate of the left-of-center Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Mr. Pena, a former mayor of Santo Domingo and one of the nation's most popular politicians, is in a dead heat with Balaguer, according to weekend polls.

Two lesser-known candidates are also running in an election marred by violence.

Voters' drive for change seems to be motivated by resentment over poverty. Almost a quarter of the population is unemployed; poor families spend half their income on rice; the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the hemisphere. Cash-strapped citizens have swarmed to free health clinics run by political parties during the campaign. Only 1 in 5 children completes primary school. Yet this is a country Dominican businessmen and World Bank officials say should be the political and economic leader of the region.

Balaguer has made his political mark building roads, bridges, and aqueducts. But this year he seems to have heard the message of the electorate and is campaigning on a platform to improve education and health care.

``The infrastructure was Part 1,'' says Nicolas Almanzar, the education director of the ruling Reformist Party, explaining the president's shift in emphasis in this campaign. ``That is now done.... We have the base, and now we have to build the second part: investing bigger resources in the people.''

Others are skeptical. ``He's out of touch with what we need,'' says economist Eduardo Tejara of Balaguer, whose age is a factor for many voters. Balaguer is elderly and blind.

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Front-runner Pena, is tapping voters' feelings of neglect with his campaign slogan, ``Pena: Investing in the people.'' And at campaign rallies, he harangues crowds into a frenzied response to his calls: ``Who brought up the price of rice? Who brought up the price of meat?''

If elected, Pena will be the first black president in over a century in a country in which 85 percent of citizens are at least partially black. Supporters hope his dark skin will work in his favor. ``Voters may recognize that a black man who studied his way out of poverty is more likely to institute real reform than white candidates,'' a PRD supporter says.

But his background is also working against him. For years, Pena was branded a Haitian. Opponents charged his parents were Haitian and that he therefore was unfit for Dominican office. To rebut these charges, a PRD founder, Sacha Bolman, dug up the bones of Pens mother to prove she was a Dominican mulatto.

Still, some Reformists are fanning concerns that Pena will not stop Haitians from flooding across the border and possibly reoccupying the Dominican Republic, as they did in the mid-1800s. ``Haitians may think they have more opportunities if Pena is president,'' Mr. Almanzar says.

As the country flounders through a confused transition from an agricultural to a service economy, economic and political analysts take different views about the country's economic prospects.

``Unemployment [at 22-24 percent] is the No. 1 problem of the country,'' Labor Minister Rafael Albuquerque says. The top income generators now are tourism, money from Dominicans living abroad, and the industrial free-trade zones, through which foreign companies use low-cost labor to assemble items such as sports clothes. The free zones create about 15,000 jobs a year, Mr. Albuquerque says.

But it is these same zones and the first Reagan administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative that are responsible for much of the nation's fiscal troubles, says Leopoldo Espaillot Nanita, chief government administrator to former President Antonio Guzman Fernandez.

The CBI, still in effect, was instituted in 1984 to build economies and foster free trade. It provides duty-free access to the US on a range of products. But both the initiative and the zones have had the opposite effect, Mr. Espaillot says.

``Starting with the CBI, the Dominican Republic started devaluing its currency as a way to attract foreign, especially US investment,'' he says. ``But this is only sponsoring the impoverishment of our people.''

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