The Catholic Church and political mediation in the Dominican Republic: a comparative perspective.

Author:Betances, Emelio

This essay looks at the Catholic Church and political mediation in the Dominican Republic during the 1980s and 1990s. It opens with a review of the Latin American context regarding the transition to democracy, the debt crisis, and the church's response to the new political reality. It draws some comparisons from Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where the church played an important role mediating political conflicts. The core of the article concentrates on three parts: the Dominican transition to democracy, the church mediation in the Tripartite Dialogue of the 1980s and early 1990s, and in the general elections of 1986 and 1994.

The purpose of this article is to make the case that transition to democracy provided the framework for church participation in political mediation. Church mediation tends to occur in countries with weak political institutions or where political instability threatens the status quo. Political mediation offers the church a unique new role in Latin America because it appears as non-partisan in societies filled with social and political conflicts. I argue that a non-partisan political position does not mean that the church is neutral vis-a-vis politics or that it is not interested in politics or in order and stability. In fact, the church promotes liberal democracy as the most adequate political system. I submit that the church uses mediation as a way to reincorporate itself into the new political reality that results from transition to democracy in Latin America and, particularly, in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is used here to illustrate the political consequences of weak institutions and how the church accommodated democracy.


The church as a political mediator in the transition to democracy has not been studied extensively. The authors of references concerning the issue have limited themselves to marginal comments about the church. (1) Church scholars, on the other hand, have produced a substantial amount of literature on the church, but they focus mainly on church and politics and not on issues that pertain to the transition to democracy. (2) Studies that examine the role of the church in the transition to democracy, and particularly the issue of mediation, are very limited. The most important include Fleet and Smith's The Catholic Church and Democracy in Chile and Peru (1998), Klaiber's The Church, Dictatorship, and Democracy in Latin America (1998), and Meyer's Samuel Ruiz in San Cristobal (2000). Among these studies, Klaiber's stands out as the best because of its insightful historical analysis of eleven countries and its comparative perspective regarding both the transition to democracy and the role of the church as mediator in Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico.


The post-Vatican II church was significantly affected by Latin American social and political events. It was compelled to become involved in the political and social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s when military regimes ruled supreme. In many countries, the church became the "voice of those without a voice" and primary defender of human rights. These were the years of the Latin American Bishops" conferences in Medellin (Colombia, 1968) and Puebla (Mexico 1979). In these meetings the bishops condemned Latin American social structures as sinful, and recommended a prophetic option for the poor.

Church involvement in politics varied from country to country, but in general one notes the emergence of a commitment among the clergy to seek social justice. As part of this commitment, a liberation movement, also known as the Popular Church, developed to oppose political oppression and human rights violations. Those who joined the liberation movement were concerned with social injustice and poverty and embraced socialist policies as a way to address these issues. In short, this movement proposed a church model that required it to support people's struggles for social justice and national liberation. The liberation movement was supported by a small but active group of theologians who pondered about the relation between salvation and the historical process of liberation of man. They looked at theology as man's critical reflection on himself and his basic principles. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, "only with this approach will theology be a serious discourse, aware of itself, in full possession of its conceptual elements ... (it) also refer(s) to a clear and critical attitude regarding economic and socio-cultural issues in the life and reflection of the Christian Community." (3)

Liberation theology had a large number of followers throughout Latin America. It was particularly strong in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador where it received support from important bishops. While it is true that the liberation movement did not dominate the orientation of Latin American church hierarchies, it did have a powerful influence on many bishops, and its legacy still lingers on. Despite their political moderation, important members of the Catholic hierarchies of Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, and, more recently, Guatemala, played decisive roles by offering protection to those persecuted for political reasons. Some of these national churches created commissions for the defense of human rights, which included the Commission of Justice and Peace in Brazil (1968), Vicariate of Solidarity in Chile (1975), the Justice and Peace Commission in Bolivia (1973), Legal Defense in E1 Salvador (1983), and the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (1989). By creating awareness of the repressive nature of the military regimes and defending human rights and the rule of law, the work of these commissions helped prepare the way for a transition to more open and democratic societies.


The transition to democracy occurs in the 1980s as the various ecclesiological models of the church readapted their strategies. The political climate changed as a result of the transition from military to civilian rule. The church was no longer needed to protect those persecuted for political reasons. The church hierarchies read the "signs of the time" and sought ways to incorporate themselves into the promotion of liberal democracy. The liberation movement within the Church lost support within and outside the church as political and social groupings became increasingly able to express themselves without being repressed for political reasons. Guatemala is the exception to this pattern because though repression diminished, it still has not ended. Traditional pre-Vatican II forces within the Church, who adhered to a conservative position that accepts the status quo uncritically, joined with those who believed that Latin American societies needed to be modernized. Those who identified with the modernization model believed that the church needed to carry out its mission more effectively. They shared a similar outlook with traditionalists concerning the need for church unity, authority of the bishops, community building, fraternity, and a sense of belonging, but they were more open-minded than traditional bishops. In short, this new model proposed disengagement from direct, partisan politics in favor of a more general stress on highlighting and denouncing injustice, creating vital Christian communities, and extending pastoral activities. Pope John Paul II joined in support of this new direction of the church in Latin America and promoted its new role as mediator and conciliator of social and political conflicts. (4)

The transition to democracy in Latin America was complex and took place in the context of widespread poverty. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) required the implementation of economic adjustment programs to approve new loans to cash-starved governments. These programs usually demand cutting the national budget to reduce spending, privatize government assets, reduce trade tariffs, etc. The implementation of these programs usually increases poverty and makes social relations more tense and conflictive. These programs are particularly problematic in countries with weak political institutions, such as Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, or involved in civil wars such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Following the tall of the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer (1971-1978), the Bolivian hierarchy became involved in mediating both social and political disputes. Despite numerous political frictions between the hierarchy and the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua after 1986, the former agreed to mediate between the government and the counterrevolution, or Contra, to bring an end to the military conflict. Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas played a crucial role in El Salvador by bringing the Salvadoran guerrillas and the government to the negotiating table. Similarly, in Guatemala, a group of committed bishops led by Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio encouraged and mediated the peace settlement in the mid-1990s. In Chiapas, Mexico, Msgr. Samuel Ruiz was a central figure in the negotiations that took place between the Mexican government and the Zapatista guerrillas. Political actors and observers have widely acknowledged the importance of church mediation to bring about peace and stability in the region. (5)


The slow process of the Dominican transition to democracy is largely due to the long dictatorial rule of Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961), the U.S. military intervention in 1965, and the authoritarian rule of Joaquin Balaguer (1966-1978). In this section, I argue that Balaguer is a factor we do not find in Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. This is what is peculiar about the Dominican Republic.

Transition to democracy in the Dominican Republic was accomplished...

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