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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Protests Surround New Constitution

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

SANTO DOMINGO, Oct 23 2009 (IPS) - The Dominican Republic passed the 38th version of its constitution Thursday evening, amending more than 40 articles that drew public protests and opposition from civil society groups and many average Dominicans.

Drafted by sitting President Leonel Fernandez and his main political rival, Miguel Vargas, it met with little political opposition in Congress.

The last constitutional revision, in 2002, allowed a second consecutive presidential term. The new constitution allows for unlimited re-election of a president as long as another president serves after four years.

Two other articles were also highly controversial – first, a ban on abortion in all cases, including rape, incest and even to save the life of the mother, and second, the insertion of the words "respecting the rights of private property" in the section which states that all beaches, rivers and water sources are part of the national heritage and belong to the people.

Legislators said this was to protect the important tourist industry. Protestors said it was to take away their patrimony.

Numerous protests over both were held in the major cities. One prominent daily newspaper ran a poll which indicated that 80 percent of the population did not support the new document, and stenciled signs declaring "This is not my constitution" have been appearing around the capital, Santo Domingo.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 6, the new Constitution will be law of the land.

Lorena Espinoza, one of the organisers of the protests, said recently, "There are many sectors engaged in this protest. I am a member of the Collective Mujer y Salud, but we have academicians, students, women's groups, workers, citizens' groups, all joined together here."

"This is not just about the privatisation of the beaches, this is about all the rights that they are taking from us, the rights of women, the collective rights of the citizens, against all the rights which are being cut by this constitution," she said.

Other aspects of the new charter have also caused consternation. While there is a supreme court to rule on the constitutionality of laws, ordinary citizens are barred from bringing challenges unless they have proper legal standing. While the free access of citizens to information held by the state is affirmed, it is also stated that the state itself will only release information which it deems to be true.

Citizenship rights, particularly for Haitian migrants – the subject of ongoing international controversy – are addressed at length. The new constitution maintains the current wording barring automatic citizenship for those born here of parents of foreign diplomats or "in transit" and adds the words "or those who are in this country illegally".

However, it does extend citizenship to those who are born here who do not have the rights of citizenship in any other nation, clearing up a matter of statelessness for many grandchildren of Haitians. Under the Haitian constitution, one may only claim citizenship if one's parents are born in Haiti.

Although there was little public protest, marriage is now defined as solely between a man and woman. This makes the Dominican Republic the only nation in the world to ban homosexual marriage at the constitutional level.

At the same time, many regulations and rights are now made explicit in this constitution which were previously absent.

Administrative corruption of public officials is now a constitutional offence. Officials are barred from holding more than one paid government position. Rights to labour organising, strikes, public education, and swift justice with the presumption of innocence are all now constitutional rights.

In a roundtable discussion held by FINJUS (Fundacion Institucionalidad y Justicia), a civic group that has studied and provided detailed input into the reform process, Flavio Dario Espinal, a former ambassador to the United States, reviewed the most important aspects of the new charter.

"We cannot say now whether this constitution will be progressive or not," he cautioned. "Often the points that we think are important now will in fact not be important in the future. And yet something that we have not even considered now may turn out to be exceedingly important in the future."

Espinal pointed out that this constitution was, for the first time, the result of a consensus among the two major political parties, with the aid of the third party. Earlier constitutions were imposed on the nation by one leader or one party.

However, he recommended that the entire constitution be subjected to a referendum.

That suggestion was rejected by Frank Martinez, a member of the Assembly, who claimed that average citizens were not adequately informed or educated to vote on the constitution and that their votes would be subject to bribery and corruption.

Because of the collusion of the political parties, many members of the public are sceptical that it will serve the greater good.

Julio Cesar Vargas, an instructor of political science at Intec, voiced the suspicions shared by many.

"This constitution was made by agreement with the political parties, with the thoughts of those who are in power, not to expand the rights or the protection of the citizens," he said. "The constitution was not a result of the opinion of those from below but those who already have and wish to consolidate their power."

"They have cut back on the rights of the citizens. For example, they have placed religion in the place of science in the regulations on abortion. It was not discussed with all the depth needed to reflect what the people really think," he added.

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