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Dominican’s Poor Had Easy Choice

May 19, 2000

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ The power stayed on for election day, and then the outages resumed _ letting refrigerators grow warm, TV screens go black and electrical fans fall idle in the muggy Caribbean heat.

As if that wasn’t enough discomfort for the residents of La Cienega slum in the capital, rain has flooded the streets with raw sewage, inundating a local school.

Such is the routine indignity of everyday life in La Cienega _ and it helps explain why opposition leader Hipolito Mejia trounced the incumbent Liberation Party candidate in Tuesday’s presidential election, despite a rapidly growing economy.

``We heard about all the new construction, but none of that (prosperity) reaches here,″ said Caty Adahamas, who at 18 is an unemployed, unmarried mother of two subsisting on an allowance from her stepfather, a furniture maker.

The government of President Leonel Fernandez _ whose four years in power saw economic growth of almost 40 percent _ has improved some things here, residents grudgingly admitted. There are some newly paved streets, more phone lines and a colossal new bridge being built overhead to span the muddy waters of the Ozama River.

But there is also the gnawing feeling of having been left behind, that the increased foreign trade, investment and tourism have served the interests of a small elite.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization cited the Dominican Republic last month as one of several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that lacks both sufficient food for its people and the funds to import it.

Sometimes, said 20-year-old Yohanda Lugo, her 5-year-old boy can’t go to kindergarten because his school floods when it rains. A pockmarked concrete patio passes for a schoolyard, strewn with three weeks’ worth of uncollected garbage.

Like almost everyone in La Cienega, Lugo and Adahamas voted for Mejia, the Dominican Revolutionary Party candidate who soundly defeated Danilo Medina of the governing party and conservative former President Joaqin Balaguer, 93, who served seven terms.

Mejia fell short of the necessary majority to win in the first-round vote, but his opponents declined to engage him in a second round.

Mejia won hearts with a peppery tongue and promises to pay more attention to human-scale problems. He also has tried to calm the domestic and foreign business communities, assuring them he will not deviate from the country’s current economic policies.

``My strength is finance, management, the reordering of public things, the making of institutions,″ he said.

Opponents warn of a repeat of the scandal-ridden administration of the last Revolutionary Party president, Salvador Jorge Blanco, who governed from 1982-86.

But those who voted for Mejia are concerned with problems closer to home.

Juan Ramon Santana, who runs a small grocery store in La Cienega, complained bitterly of lost business since the electricity went off Wednesday evening and the beer in his coolers went warm and flat. Santana, who lives in a back room of the store and earns $100 a month at the best of times, can ill afford the inconvenience.

All he wants from Mejia and the presidency is ``that the lights should stay on.″

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