3 May 1998
José Francisco Peña Gómez , leader of the Dominican Revolutionary Party, PRD, and a Vice-President of the Socialist International, died at his home in San Cristóbal, in the Dominican Republic, on 10 May after a long illness.
He was born in the Dominican province of Valverde to poor immigrants from Haiti in 1937 who had to flee the country later that year as the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who adopted the name of `The Benefactor', unleashed a campaign of hatred against Haitians. Adopted by a Dominican family and working as a shoe shiner and a bartender, the young José Francisco set himself to study hard, moving to the better educational opportunities in the city of Santo Domingo - which had then been re-baptised Ciudad Trujillo by the dictator. He got a doctorate at the capital's university before going on to higher studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Returning home he became a supporter of Juan Bosch, then leader of the PRD, who, despite winning the presidential elections of 1962, was ousted in a military coup shortly afterwards. In 1965 Peña Gómez rose to political prominence as he went on the radio and called powerfully for a popular insurrection against the military dictatorship and a return of Bosch. He and a handful of troops loyal to the elected president and opponents of the triumivrate of Emilio de los Santos, Manuel Enrique Tavares and Ramon Tapia Espinal who had been put into office by the soldiers and who enjoyed no constitutional legitimacy, seized Radio Santo Domingo. The forces who continued to take orders from the military counter-attacked. After fighting in the streets of Santo Domingo the constitutionalists and their fully justified insurrection against the imposter generals were crushed. The anti-constitutional forces were backed by a multinational force of foreign troops and hopes of a return to democratic rule were deferred. The multinational force, which was backed by the Organisation of America States, was given the task of annihilating the constitutionalists. It included troops from Paraguay, then ruled by General Alfredo Stroessner, and by forces from Guatemala at the time ruled by a succession of military figures who had little regard for human rights. Later the force was joined by Brazilian troops answering to the military government which had seized power in that country the previous year.
Peña played his full part against those at home and those from abroad who were determined that the unconstitutional government should stay in power. The constitutional forces which he supported were commanded by Colonel Francisco Caamaño Deñó. Much fighting centred around the Duarte Bridge, at that time the only link across the river which flowed through the centre of the capital.
The next year, 1966, the conservative Joaquín Balaguer, who had been political secretary to `The Benefactor', assumed office as President and continued the dictatorship which Trujillo had all but institutionalised in the Dominican Republic. Balaguer was to continue to rule almost without a break until the 1990s. (Not without reason was the Dominican Republic chosen by Hollywood during the government of Balaguer as the place to shoot scenes of the film The Godfather.)
Peña never lost hope of better times and worked with Bosch in the PRD until the latter left to form a new grouping in the 1973, unhappy at what he saw as the excessively moderate line being pursued by Peña and his supporters. Under Peña's leadership the PRD won the presidential election in 1978 and 1982, and he himself was mayor of Santo Domingo from 1982 to 1986, gaining a reputation for honesty and efficiency in an office which had not previously been known for those qualities.
As leader of the PRD he expended much effort at the end of the 1980s in the pursuit of finding settlements for labour struggles against employers in the private sector, some of which were foreign owned, such as Falconbridge Nickel (Canadian), Gulf and Western (US) and Metaldom (Spanish).
Standing for the presidency himself in 1990 he came third behind Balaguer and Bosch, suffering from the disabilities which blacks with Haitian antecedents often faced in a country which underwent invasion and occupation by Haiti in the 19th century and where racial prejudice is still a long way from being eliminated.
In 1994 Peña won the presidential poll only to see himself robbed of victory by the conservative forces around Balaguer. He called a general strike which was widely supported by his followers and after international protest, Balaguer later announced that he would leave office prematurely in 1996 after serving seven terms in power. In the 1996 poll Peña won the first round of voting but fell short of the majority needed.
In the second round of voting Leonel Fernández, a lawyer representing the new party of the old leader Juan Bosch and supported by Balaguer and his party, won a narrow victory.
Within the SI, Peña devoted himself to the fostering of the SI Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean, SICLAC, which he presided over for nearly twenty years and which came to express the voice of the region vigorously in SI councils. For many in the SI family he stood for the force of Latin passion and eloquence.
In a message to his widow, Peggy, SI President Pierre Mauroy said Peña had been `one of the most fervent defenders of our ideals in the Dominican Republic and the world and one of our greatest leaders'.
SI Secretary General Luis Ayala, his friend of long standing, said at his funeral: `In the midst of such suffering at the loss of our brother José Francisco Peña Gómez, a giant in the struggle for democracy and our shared values, we, his friends and all social democrats, will know how to follow his unswerving example in the defence of social democratic principles'.
His funeral was the occasion for widespread expressions of public grief, demonstrating the high level of popular esteem he enjoyed, particularly among the humblest Dominicans.
The influence of Peña was felt after his burial as the PRD won outright majorities in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies in the polls held a few days after his death. Johnny Ventura, who stood as mayor of Santo Domingo, replacing Peña at the last minute, was swept into office, together with his widow who is now deputy mayor of the capital city of the Dominican Republic.