By: Ryan Eustace, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Following the release of a June 6, 2014 report on Chinese investment in Latin America, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) was contacted by the Dominican Academy of Arts and Sciences, a non-profit organization committed to sustainable development and democracy in the island nation. Dr. Clayton Shillingford, President Emeritus of the organization, presented COHA with a series of grave allegations concerning the integrity of the democratic process in his country. These accusations largely revolve around the incumbent Labor Party’s propensity for taking advantage of the nation’s weak institutions, particularly in the years leading up to the 2009 general elections.
Violation of Election Laws
In its budget outline for the general election of 2009 the Labor Party set aside $1.2 million USD for the “mobilization of and air transportation for approximately 600 overseas voters, whose participation is vital to our success.” These voters, diaspora Dominicans, came in from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Venezuela, Barbados, Trinidad, and other Eastern Caribbean islands.”This practice of flying in voters raises some serious concerns among the opposition.
Part 1, section 55 of Dominica’s electoral laws define electoral bribery as any event where someone gives, directly or indirectly, “money or valuable consideration to or for any elector…in order to induce any elector to vote.” According to Sir Brian Alleyne, former Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSC), “paying for an airline ticket to Dominica would fall within the definition, [when] the motive is to induce an elector to vote. …That, to my mind, would amount to bribery under the section.” Alleyne added that if the candidate who paid the bribe were convicted, “he would be disqualified from retaining his seat.”
In the summer of 2010 representatives of the main opposition party, the United Workers Party (UWP), brought petitions charging bribery and other electoral irregularities to the ECSC. The petition alleged not only that plane tickets were paid for by the government, but also that voters were further bribed with cash when they arrived in Dominica. However, the court rejected the majority of the petitions. While there were issues with some of the petitions, the dismissal of others, particularly those concerning bribery, raised suspicions of political manipulation. According to two high-ranking members of the opposition, speaking on condition of anonymity with this researcher, the high court was subjected to political tampering. COHA’s sources noted their conversation with ECSC Judge Brian Cottle in which he admitted that “no judge will ever rule against a sitting government if it can be avoided.”
Some see electoral manipulation as a consistent pattern in several incumbent left-leaning governments in the region. Michael Edghill, regular contributor to Americas Quarterly and Caribbean Journal, charges that “the circumstances surrounding the case and the allegations supported by the opposition party in Dominica are very characteristic of what has been reported from other states that are part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).” In 2008, Dominica became the first English-speaking country to join this organization of progressive nations, largely a creation of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Dominica has also benefited greatly from its inclusion in PetroCaribe, an alliance through which Venezuela sells oil to Caribbean nations at discounted prices. According to Edghill:
Leading ALBA states such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua have seen numerous allegations against their governments for unfair electoral practices such as voter intimidation and [electoral] corruption. That [these practices are a] possibility and that a judge would be hesitant to rule against the government has merit. Judges who fear reprisal for ruling against the government is another consistent mark of ALBA states.
The United States has picked up this issue of the alleged lack of independent judiciaries in ALBA countries. The Countering ALBA Act of 2013, sponsored by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), specifically cited the need to oppose the “politicization of the judicial system” in ALBA states. However, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s unbroken record of unequivocal opposition to all manifestations of left-leaning ideology in Latin America should raise doubts about the accuracy of her charges. Still, these allegations of problems in the Dominica judiciary give Ros-Lehtinen more weapons for her anti-ALBA attacks.
The Dominican Electoral Commission: Nominally Independent
In Dominica voters are to be removed from the list of those eligible to cast ballots if “he has died [or] he has been absent from Dominica for a period exceeding five years.” However, as Lennox Linton, political leader of the main opposition party UWP (United Worker Party) stated in an interview with COHA, this portion of the law is routinely ignored. Linton pointed out that not only is his brother still eligible to vote after residing in New Jersey for more than 15 years, but that the names of his sister and father, both of whom are now deceased, remain on the register of eligible voters.
Calls to properly update the list of registered voters have been more urgent in recent years. In 2005 the Chief Elections Officer of Dominica recommended the use of voter ID cards to help facilitate updating and maintaining of an accurate voter registry. In 2009 the OAS Observer Mission for the General Election in Dominica noted its concerns with the irregularities in the voter registry. The OAS Mission suggested reforms, finding that the current register of voters “contains names of people who are deceased or have moved out of the country and have not returned.” The OAS recommended, “providing cards to registered voters of Dominica … [so to] facilitate the complete revision and updating of the voter registry.” The Mission recommended that voter ID cards be issued “in time for the next general elections.”
This push for cleaning up the voting registry has created problems for the leadership of the governing Labor Party. A March 2008 email between Anthony Astaphan, legal counsel to the Labor Party, and Prime Minister Roosevelt Skeritt sounded an alarm: “There is madness going on at the Commission…these guys are talking about reforms to include ID cards and COMPLETE REREGISTRATION! Such reforms will undermine your reelection legacy as the opposition will say look, the Commission agreed with us; reform was required because of wide spread fraud!!!!!!!!!! (sic)” Shortly after the email, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skeritt’s personal lawyer, Alik Lawrence, was appointed to the reform commission. An April 2008 email between Lawrence and Skeritt read: “I see from the documents sent to me that the Commission has taken a decision to introduce a new voter registration system before the next election. I have serious reservations about this and would like to have a chat with you both about it. I would prefer not to do so via email.”
Stifling Reforms and Dominica’s New Norms
In 2013, the Dominica Electoral Commission established that over an 18-month period starting in October 2013, voter ID cards would be printed, and that they would be ready by March 2015. This would come just in time for the next General Elections, in compliance with the OAS Missions’ recommendations. Yet in a June 2014 meeting between representatives of the Electoral Commission and the UWP, the Commission sought to undercut the argument for the necessity of reform, claiming that “the voters’ list is not as bloated as it is made out to be.”  Claudios Sanford, Deputy Leader of the UWP, stated that “it was very clear coming from the chairman of the commission that Dominicans will not be having a multi-purpose ID card for voting in the next general election…when questioned, the answer was we do not have the legal authority … in our current law to ensure a total re-registration of voters.” What this may mean is that there will continue to be no way to verify that the voters being flown in from around the world by the Labor Party are actually valid voters under Dominican law. Wielding undue influence in supposedly independent institutions obviously undermines democracy, but this trend is particularly troubling since this meddling casts doubt on the legitimacy of the entire Dominican electoral process.
It appears that a disturbing trend is developing in which Dominica is diverting from the norms of the rest of the English speaking Caribbean. According to Michael Edghill:
The tradition in the English-speaking Caribbean has always been one that maintained respect for the institutions of government. Governments in power get to appoint who they want to various commissions and boards and also get to nominate a majority of upper house members under the Westminster model. Respect for government itself however (sic) has precluded most governments from nominating simple party loyalists as opposed to highly qualified and respected politicians.
These qualities seem to be eroding in Dominica where political manipulation of the judicial branch is becoming harder and harder to deny. This erosion of judicial independence cheapens Dominican democracy.
Where Is the Money Coming From?
The ruling Labor Party’s 2009 campaign budget outline refers to the factors that could affect democratic life on the island and the likelihood that Taiwan will financially aid “opposition forces.”  Accordingly, the document continues, the Labor Party will “have to lean heavily on some of its long standing friends for direct and meaningful financial support.” It is apparent this phrase is referring to China; indeed, earlier in the document, China is specifically mentioned as enjoying “known friendly relations with [the party].” Friendly seems to be a bit of an understatement. In 2013 the nations signed a $300 million USD investment deal equal to one third of the small island’s GDP. As a 2013 article in MercoPress stated, “Beijing virtually is purchasing the small territory.”
Confidential U.S. diplomatic cables, published by Wikileaks, appear to corroborate this troubling picture of Dominica. A 2009 cable authored by the U.S. Ambassador to Dominica, Mary Martin Ourisman, held that Dominica, “the poorest and most vulnerable of the Eastern Caribbean islands … also appears to be the most susceptible to outside influences.” Another 2009 cable from the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires, Brent Hardt, expanded on this view. “Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit has decided,” Hardt held, “that he can ride a wave of financial support from China and Venezuela to overcome his government’s poor showing on economic issues and widespread allegations of corruption that have come to plague his administration…[The Prime Minister’s] alleged ability to extract money from both Venezuela and China gives him a campaign war chest that is believed by many to be several times the size of the opposition’s finances.”
Unfortunately, the full extent and impact of Chinese political contributions to the Labor Party cannot be assessed at present. Information pertaining to political contributions, such as names and amounts, does not have to be publicly reported in Dominica. Hence, the source of the money that flew in Dominican diaspora voters will likely remain a mystery. When Prime Minister Roosevelt Skeritt was asked where the Labor Party gets its money, he curtly responded, “It is no one’s damn business where the Labor Party gets its money.”
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