Wearing green t-shirts, carrying massive signs decrying the corruption of their political leaders, thousands of citizens of the Dominican Republic marched last week in the latest action organized by the Movimiento Marcha Verde (Green March Movement).
The goal of the demonstration, according to organizers, was to show to the citizenry how “corruption and impunity affect their everyday lives,” and how collective citizen action is required to change a political system rotten to the core. Marcha Verde is neither the first nor the only social movement to stand up to corruption in Latin America (only days ago there was a massive demonstration in Argentina expressing the same ideas) but it is one of the most coherent and best organized. Hopefully its example will be followed across the continent.
As the recent legal troubles involving Brazilian president Michel Temer show, the corruption investigation involving the oil giant Petrobras (already more than three years old) continues to produce shockwaves. Among the giants felled by the investigation is Odebrecht, the largest construction company in Latin America. The revelations of joint malfeasance between Petrobras and Oderbrecht executives have involved businesses and governments across the region and amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. The leaders of the Dominican Republic, as it turns out, were particularly chummy with Oderbrecht. Recent revelations suggest that the Dominican president Danilo Medina and his predecessors Leonel Fernández and Hipólito Mejía, received campaign contributions from Oderbrecht that essentially functioned as bribes to facilitate the signing of contracts for the company. According to information released by the United States State Department in December 2016, 6.2 billion dollars in contracts involving Oderbrecht were signed during the administrations of the three presidents.
The Oderbrecht revelations provided the impetus for the birth of Marcha Verde. In January of this year, tens of thousands of Dominicans marched behind the green banners to express their frustration and anger. Over the next month, about 300,000 people signed a Green Book demanding the appointment of an independent prosecutor to look into the links between Oderbrecht and public officials.
In contrast to upsurges of anger in other Latin American countries, which make a strong statement only to dissipate amidst the impotent sense that nothing will really ever change, Marcha Verde has stayed vibrant and active. They’ve organized smaller events across the country, including the “carrying of a torch” to symbolize the coming of light in the midst of darkness.
What is most discouraging is the fact that no major public figures have been prosecuted for the Oderbrecht case. The problem is a concentration of power at the top. Unlike most other countries in the region, when the Dominican Republic became a democracy, it came to be dominated by a single political party, the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party, or PLD). All three of the presidents involved in the case belong to the PLD, which often also controls the courts and the legislature. The opposition, divided and weak, has not been able to mount a real challenge. Finally, citizens themselves have taken up the mantle.
Marcha Verde has gathered together people from all walks of life: rich and poor and middle class, workers and farmers and business owners, men and women, young and old. Because of its hold on power and the media, the PLD has had many platforms through which criticize the marchers, accusing them of “destabilizing” the country and trying to “usurp” power. As journalist Jhonatan Liriano has pointed out, the heterogeneous and decentralized quality of the movement is at once its greatest power and its greatest vulnerability. Since it doesn’t represent a political party or particular interests, Marcha Verde can legitimately claim to represent the voice of “the people”.
At the same time, there are limits to what a diffuse movement can accomplish. The danger is that it will be coopted by one or another of the opposition parties, and turned into yet another tool for fulfilling some aspiring leader’s ambitions. Only time will tell how far Marcha Verde can go.
For all the badness that has come from Brazil’s corruption scandals, the Petrobras and Oderbrecht cases show that the fight against corruption is becoming a priority for ever more Latin Americans.
In Guatemala, the largest demonstrations in decades brought about the resignation of president Otto Pérez Molina in late 2015. A similar popular upsurge brought down president Orlando Hernández in Honduras. In Brazil, president Dilma Rousseff was forced to resign following enormous marches across the country. In Peru, citizens have formed “anti-corruption brigades” to bring attention to public officials’ misbehavior. Such is the effervescence of civil society. Whether, in the end, any of it will make a difference remains an open question.