Obituary: Jose Pena Gmez

Nick Caistor
Tuesday 12 May 1998 23:02

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.

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