Santo Domingo/ACORN International

Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic: Santo Domingo is something else again!  We flew two hours to the east and south into another time zone – Caracas time in the same way one would say that eastern standard is New York time or Central Standard is Chicago time – and another world. 

Here an election is just under two months away and the signs of it are everywhere.  The party in power is in trouble, and it’s all about the economy.  Things have not been improving in the Dominican Republic over the last several years, and from the talk one hears from Dominicans everywhere – at least working and lower income people – people will be voting their pocketbooks and change is coming.

ACORN has a lot of Dominican members – thousands – in New York, especially in the Bronx and Washington Heights, Jersey, and, impressively, in Providence, Rhode Island.  In fact we helped elected Miguel Luna there as the first Dominican on the city council.  Two years ago I attended a meeting with two of our New York leaders, Marisol Marti and Pedro Hamilton, in Santo Domingo about health issues and then traveled with them first to San Francisco and then Samana on the peninsula to meet with others.  I was particularly impressed with the fifty or so folks we met at the Samana city hall and their interest in organizing.  This time Marisol was back along with Maria Polenco, vice-president of the national ACORN board and also from New York along with two of our leaders from Providence, and three of our staff:  Donna Bransford from ACORN International, Heather Appel our head organizer for Bronx ACORN, and Amy Olin, our head organizer from Providence ACORN.  The leaders were trying to take the next step and see if there was either a partnership prospect or some project where they could apply what they had learned in organizing ACORN in the states back here in their home country.

We had a great meeting within an hour after I got off the plane and rendezvoused with our members and staff in a very poor neighborhood in Santo Domingo called Capitolito, where 90,000 people live in one square kilometer.  We met 18 leaders of what we would call civic or neighborhood associations, who met as part of an umbrella group to coordinate various activities – the Organizacion de Barrios de Capitolito.  Their issues ran the gamut from black water to housing shortages to keeping the utilities on to whatever.  They were articulate, skilled, vocal, and angry leaders.  We all hit it off marvelously.

Two interesting things. 

On tactics, when things got to the end of the line and the regular menu of actions did not exert enough pressure they would call a community “strike.”  What is it?  Not your normal protest!  They would shut the whole community down – nothing would come in or out.  Any resident who broke the strike was treated as a scab and could expect problems and retributions.  Roads and businesses closed.  Nothing went in or out.  Everything would be turned upside down and then out into the streets and towards the government.  One can imagine….

The other had to do with the huge problem, particularly in these once again troubled times, of Haitian immigration that was flooding their neighborhood.  There are a host of issues here that lie in the complex problems of race in the Dominican Republic, where discrimination is real and often rests of the slightest of shades.  Here the swarm of Haitians coming into Capitolito exacerbated housing shortages, caused huge pressure on wages – one man told of Dominicans working 400 pesos a day (about $8/USD) on jobs and having Haitians offer to work for 75 pesos to take the work (about $1.50/USD), social services (which have already been diminished), and increased racial discrimination against Dominicans with darker skins.  They were all careful to say they understood the situation, but one could feel the problem as people in a small unsteady boat felt they were suddenly sinking.


Leaving Cuba

Havana, Cuba: I leave Havana for Santa Domingo with more questions than answers.  Our hosts with the CDC had been sincere and gracious.  The delegation had been open handed and welcoming.  We had all learned a huge amount in a relatively short period of time.

Some things just did not add up, but perhaps it really did not matter that much one way or another.  Take tips in the tourist trade.  It is easier to believe in virgin birth than that tipped workers pool all of their tips.  First, let’s be clear – there is nothing good about tips – period!  Employers should pay a fair wage – customers should demand that that is the case and accept that when they pay for a meal or whatever that part of the surcharge is providing labor with its just due.  Why in a communist society are they even talking about tips at all?!?  Search me.

In theory then if the customer were forcing workers to take tips, then why wouldn’t there be a system of equal sharing?  Pooling all tips would be a dream come true, and certainly that is the rap we heard continually.  In truth even if something between a piece and the whole pie ends in a tip pool, the effort alone is a huge accomplishment compared to the practice in the States.  But, why then were we constantly being hustled for tips by individual workers?  And, why if we were led to believe in more than one location that all tips were going to the Cuban cancer fund, were we not making a direct contribution from our delegation to the fund, and eliminating the middleman?  One of the union officials in Matanzas in fact had been frank at lunch with me off to the side and said, “hey, everyone loves money, we do the best we can” or words to that effect.  Sounded right.  I can totally believe that.

Take the cab drivers we met the first day.  Even conceding that they made a $35000 contribution to the state’s cancer fund, 150 drivers working every day and making tips would sure come up with more than $1.00 equivalent in tips for the day, and the simple math means that it did not all go to the cancer fund.  So, why gild the lily?  It’s overkill.  The effort enough is cause for applause, so why take it to a point where it erodes the earlier hope and admiration by stretching past credibility.  As I said, more questions at the end than answers.

Cuban society has much that speaks to all of us.  It is refreshing to not be constantly barraged by advertisements and commercials.  One feels safe on the street.  There are lots of security patrols.  People are friendly.  There seems little racial discrimination. We spent a couple of hours the last day walking through the beautiful and excellent Museo de Bella Artes, and then walked over to the old governmental palace, which is now the Museo de Revolution where from floor to floor one can trace the heroic period when the “bearded” ones came down from the Sierra Maedras and chased Batista out of office. 

And, Havana is an elegant and beautiful city in its own special way.

I will have to puzzle this out for a while.