An Interview with Pedro Franco
By Beverly Bell
May 20, 2014
From Santo Domingo, Pedro Franco is an organizer of social movements and mutual-aid cooperatives. He is also a member of CoopHabitat, which promotes housing coops.
"Easy tasks are not for people who want to create change." - Pedro Franco. Photo: Beverly Bell
Previous theories of social transformation could be constructed based on the American Far West movies, where the stagecoach came through the desert with those who stole, guarded, and transported the gold. The revolutionaries waited to raid the coach.
Revolutions – the October Revolution, all of them - were based on that image of the assault on power. This is an anti-Zapatista image, which instead is of building power from the community, from below. This image requires a new vision. Our problem nowadays is how to build power and a new economy from below. There are many factors to take into account in doing this, but first and foremost: human beings.
There had been some social movements in the city: traditional movements as well as the union movements and so-called “housewife” movements; cultural and youth clubs that worked on popular art, popular education and sports; the literary movement… During times of dictatorship, the youth movement and the teachers’ movement were those that had the most staying-power.
With the global crisis of perspectives with the fall of the Berlin Wall, many grassroots movements and labor unions here suffered a very negative impact. The global, unipolar domination that we are now so familiar with was born. In the mid-1980s, urban social movements re-emerged in the country. These community-based, poor-people’s movements took up the struggle against the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
We had a popular uprising April 22 to 24, 1984, with the demand of breaking the agreements with the IMF. People occupied the whole country, holding demonstrations everywhere, and on the second day, the government brought in a specialized militia called the Hunters from the Mountain. Their prey was human beings. It was a slaughter; over 200 Dominicans were killed.
The urban movement subsequently weakened, but it persisted and took on new expression, as in the Popular Urban Network, housing cooperatives, and a wave of neighborhood and citizen organization. Together they’ve developed successful struggles, like a victory to stop a cement factory from being established in a forest reserve; modifying a contract with the Barrick Gold Canadian mining corporation so that the nation got 56% of the revenue, instead of 3%; and forcing another reserve, Loma Miranda, from being exploited for gold.
The Dominican Political Context
The political context of the Dominican Republic is no different from the rest of Latin America. If we look back a bit, we know that the right-wing forces and American forces, have acted on calculations made about the Dominican Republic. The Kennedy doctrine had the priority of preventing a new Cuba in the Americas and the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic is the country that is closest to Cuba, and has a very similar historical tradition. The Americans demonstrated their concern in 1965, with an intervention by 42,000 Marines.
The poet Pedro Mir wondered, writing about one of the famous American aircraft carriers during that invasion, Intrepid [in a poem by the same name]: Why do you fear these barefoot men and women, why are you coming to Santo Domingo? You who are used to spewing out smoke and fire, to consuming whole nations with your ire, what are you afraid of, why are you coming to Santo Domingo? And the poet told the aircraft carrier: I know you come simply out of fear, you see the will these peoples have. The US also supported our worst dictator, Trujillo, during that period.
Right now there’s an imposition of neoliberalism in the Dominican Republic, using the same recipes found in different countries. We’ve been a sort of a testing ground for these policies. We stopped being an agricultural country, state companies were privatized, and financial, speculative capital started taking over. We became a country of tourism, free-trade zones, and sweatshops.
The Dominican Republic also reflects the deepening of poverty throughout Latin America. Eighty percent of Dominican wealth is in the hands of 20 families. We have an excellent record of growth, but most of the capital has gone to these 20 families.
The political parties are powerful and they unite to do terrible things, like excluding a large part of Dominicans [of Haitian descent] from their rights, constitutionally weakening women’s rights regarding their own bodies, and giving away our country to mines. Now, for example, when the price of gold is so high, we have an agreement with a mining company which takes away 97% of the profits, leaving the state only 3%. We could go on for hours talking about control by traditional political parties in the Dominican Republic.
Facing the Future
We need to look at what we want to be and do. There has been a tendency of social movements to take up roles like NGOs [non-governmental organizations, or non-profits]. Do we want to be consultants, receive funding, have big conference rooms and a lot of bureaucratic staff? Occupy all our time with paperwork, internet, reading the international press? Go from Tunis to Argentina, and from Argentina to Alaska, and I’ll drop by my country and grab my suitcase and off I’ll go to Asia, and maybe a week or 15 days in Europe wouldn’t be bad… Do we want to be people who travel the world, or people who transform societies from the ground up? Do we want to be coordinating a project with international funding, with salaried functionaries in the office, or do we want to be out there knocking on doors and raising awareness?
These are challenges for all movements. Maybe I have old-fashioned ideas, but it seems to me that social movements don’t need so much money. What we need, fundamentally, is to get moving.
The left has committed a lot of errors, and that has led many people to think of them not in terms of power but only in terms of defending causes. The left is pretty inactive; they [the government and the bourgeoisie] are coming down hard on people, and the left says nothing. When it’s time to choose, people vote for traditional parties, for the right. All the left and the progressive forces don’t even make up 2% of the national vote. It’s the fault of the movements themselves, because they have wanted to act as apolitical, as non-partisan. They say, “[Elective] politics are not my problem, my problem are social ones.”
I will end by saying that in spite of that reality, we are taking action. In the Dominican Republic today, there is struggle, there are new social movements. Youth are playing a stellar role, but we all contribute. There’s an environmental movement, a solidarity economy movement, a teachers’ movement, mutual-aid cooperatives, and also [progressive] NGOs. The Citizens’ Forum is a space where we all come together for global and national campaigns. For example, after a lot of effort, together the Citizens’ Forum achieved getting 4% dedicated to basic education. Not 4% of the budget, but of the GDP.
Creating a new society with political alternatives and an economy based on solidarity is hard work, but we must take on the challenge. We need a new society today, today, not tomorrow. Easy tasks are not for people who want to create change. You have to face great tasks with bravery and persistence, with the help of good friends.
Thanks to Flavia Moreno for translating the interview.