The Miami Herald
May 18, 1999

At 92, Balaguer hints at another run in Dominican Republic

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- (AP) -- In a country that cherishes
strong presidents, Dominicans who wistfully recall Joaquin Balaguer's 22-year
authoritarian rule are plotting an extraordinary comeback.

In recent weeks, Santo Domingo's trees, utility poles and walls have been
plastered with posters featuring a 1986 photo of Balaguer and the slogan, ``One
more time -- out of necessity.''

``We need a person like Doctor Balaguer,'' said Ramon Rogelio Genao, who at 32
is the youngest deputy in Congress and 60 years younger than Balaguer.

The patriarch's return would set up a race between the past and the future in May
2000 elections. The leftist Revolutionary Party is set to offer a formidable ticket in
Hipolito Mejia and Milagros Bosch, younger politicians who have a broad
grassroots following.

Despite near-blindness and frail health, Balaguer has done nothing to quash
growing speculation that he will seek an unprecedented seventh term as

Since leaving office amid vote fraud allegations in 1996, Balaguer has personally
supervised strategy for his Social Christian Reformist Party, appointing deputies
and dispensing advice from his modest Santo Domingo home.

His latest book, a historical work titled ``Eternal Greece,'' was recently released
during a nationally televised broadcast -- one intended, in part, to demonstrate
Balaguer's ``mental capacity and lucidity,'' Genao said.

Talk of an improbable Balaguer candidacy has fascinated Dominicans, who spent
more than half a century under Balaguer and his mentor, dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Balaguer -- who declined an interview request -- is the last of three strongmen to
dominate Dominican politics since Trujillo's 1961 assassination.

Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, firebrand leader of the leftist Dominican
Revolutionary Party, died last year; Juan Bosch, leftist head of President Leonel
Fernandez's Liberation Party, has retired.

``Dominican democracy is based on chieftains,'' Genao said. Even ``we in the new
generation are still accustomed to a strong -- STRONG -- leadership, like Pena
Gomez, like Joaquin Balaguer.''

Since 1996, Fernandez, a 45-year-old, New York-educated lawyer, has led the
Dominican Republic out of isolationism to become a leader in Caribbean affairs.
That's a source of pride for many here.

Fernandez has tried to break from patronage politics and make the judicial
system less corrupt. He is keen on foreign investment and privatization, and U.S.
officials say law enforcement cooperation has never been better.

But many among the poor, who comprise 70 percent of Dominicans, have yet to
benefit. Unemployment stands at about 30 percent. And time is running out for
Fernandez, who by law can't seek a successive term in office.

Many remember Balaguer for giving land to the landless, housing to the homeless
and building airports, schools and roads.

``Balaguer was good because there wasn't as much hunger,'' said Kika Pena, a
35-year-old mother of two who, on a good day, earns $10 selling secondhand
clothing in the capital's impoverished Capotillo market district.

Whatever the facts, Balaguer ``is still seen as a mythical creature, a Messiah
who can deliver,'' said political analyst Jose Israel Cuello. The cost was high:
persecution of political opponents and, in later years, alleged vote fraud.

Genao is betting that a popular fear of open trade markets and a pervasive streak
of xenophobia in Dominican politics could propel Balaguer, fervent nationalist, to

If he doesn't run, Balaguer likely will help determine who wins -- much as he
brokered Fernandez's 1996 victory by allying their parties to narrowly defeat the
frontrunner, Pena Gomez.

Not everyone relishes that prospect.

Santo Domingo shopkeeper Rafael de Leon is a longtime member of Balaguer's
party but says it's time for him to retire.

``He's finished,'' de Leon said, more as a wish than an assertion. ``We're living in
a time where everyone wants something new. You've seen and done enough, now
sit down.''