Dominican Candidates Campaign Abroad
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - One campaign billboard reads, "Miami, President Hipolito Mejia is with you." Another says, "Leonel Fernandez welcomes you, New York."
The colossal signs on the highway to Santo Domingo's airport are aimed at expatriates who for the first time will be casting ballots overseas in a May 16 election pitting Mejia against his predecessor.
The Caribbean country's presidential contenders are increasingly looking to voters abroad, making frequent campaign stops this year in cities from New York to Madrid. The candidates held fund-raising dinners, met with mayors and led marches to the same blaring merengue music heard at home.
Such politicking has gone on for years in New York and other cities with large Dominican populations, as candidates have sought contributions and support from expatriates who still wield influence with relatives back home.
But the decision to put in polling places in New York and a list of other cities is a testament to the growing power of Dominican voters abroad. Since thousands began to emigrate in the mid-1960s, mostly to the United States, many of them have been pushing for the vote.
"We have the right say what happens in our country," said Jose Santana, 60, a mechanic who moved to New York in 1983 and still sends a few hundred dollars a month to relatives. "I love the country and my family as if I was still there."
Thousands of people flew in from New York City and Miami to vote in the 2000 elections.
In recent weeks, heavily Dominican areas of New York City like the Bronx and Washington Heights have seen a blitz of campaign advertisements on television and radio. Meija now trails Fernandez, according to recent polls.
The Dominican government estimates more than 1 million Dominicans live in the mainland United States, mostly in New York and Miami, with 100,000 more in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Smaller pockets are in Canada, Spain, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean islands.
A law passed in 1997 extended presidential voting to citizens abroad, but the Electoral Commission couldn't organize the polling in time for the 2000 elections.
This time, Dominicans will head to polls set up in schools and other centers in several eastern U.S. cities, plus Montreal; Caracas, Venezuela; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the Spanish cities of Madrid and Barcelona. Ballot results will be sent by computer.
The number of overseas voters registered is small: 52,440 of the national total of 5 million. Dominican commentators say reasons range from a lack of information to a requirement for a Dominican identity card, which must be renewed every four years.
The Electoral Commission is considering alternatives to the identity card to increase voting in future elections.
The Dominican government says those living abroad send back an estimated $2 billion a year in family remittances, constituting one of the country's main income sources.
With the vote, Dominicans overseas have one more way of shaping their country, said Mirtha Cabral, 36, a real estate agent who has lived in New York for a decade.
"This gives us a direct connection to politics at home," she said.