Obituary: Jose Pena Gmez

JOSE Pena Gmez was the charismatic leader of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). A brilliant orator, he was cheated of the presidency of the Dominican Republic in 1994 by the long-serving ruler Joaquin Balaguer, who used the fact that Pena Gmez was black and probably born of a Haitian mother to appeal to his countrymen's racism.

Pena Gmez's origins have always been a mystery. He was born in the remote countryside of the north-western Dominican Republic, close to the border with Haiti, in 1937. This was the period when the then dictator, Rafael Trujillo, had ordered a sweep againt Haitian immigrants, which ended with several thousand of them being killed.

Pena Gmez's parents apparently fled to Haiti, leaving him and his elder sister to fend for themselves. They were taken in by a poor Dominican family, and the young boy is said to have taken the name Pena from his new father and Gmez from his adopted mother.

As a young man he was first a teacher of literacy in the countryside, then came to the Dominican Republic's capital city Santo Domingo to study law. As in many Latin American countries, these studies were also an excuse to get into politics.

He began his opposition to Trujillo clandestinely, and then in 1961 joined the Dominican Revolutionary Party, becoming its secretary general two years later. He was also a radio announcer, and it was said to be his fiery speeches in 1965 which helped bring about the left-wing uprising against Trujillo that saw the landing of US marines and the dictator's reinstatement.

Pena Gmez continued to militate in the PRD through the 1970s. He became a prominent figure in the Socialist International, and at the time of his death was its Latin American president. From 1982 to 1986 he was his party's mayor of Santo Domingo, and became its presidential candidate in 1990. He was unsuccessful then, but many people felt his chance had come four years later, when Balaguer was in his eighties, blind and out of touch.

Against him, Pena Gmez was a powerful speaker - dressed in an immaculate white suit, against a white backdrop, his black face and powerful voice appealed directly to many poor Dominicans, but frightened the conservatives who said if that if he came to power they would be swamped by black Haitians.

In the end, Balaguer was said to have won the election by 3 per cent of the votes, but Pena Gmez and his followers alleged massive fraud. After weeks of tension that threatened to degenerate into a civil war, a compromise was agreed, by which Balaguer agreed only to serve half of his four-year term in office and not stand again.

This gave Pena Gmez a third chance. But in the 1996 presidential election he faced a younger man, Leonel Fernandez, who had the backing of Balaguer and the right wing. This time, Pena Gmez won the first round, but without a large enough majority to be elected. In the second round his rivals joined forces against him, and he was once again thwarted.

Soon after his electoral defeat, he was diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer, which proved incurable, although he stood again as mayor in elections due to be held this weekend. On his death, a Dominican newspaper described Jose Pena Gmez as a "great speaker, educator, poet, lawyer, writer and political tactician"; however overstated this might seem, he was undeniably a remarkable man who worked to bring democratic politics to a country that has always deserved better than the politicians who have misgoverned it.

Jose Francisco Pena Gmez, politician: born 6 March 1937; three times married (seven children); died Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic 10 May 1998.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss