Born on March 6, 1937, his life became centered on politics long before he worked his way up to become the leader of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). During a political career filled with heartbreaks, disappointments and failures, Peña Gómez was nominated three-times as a candidate to be the Dominican president and mayor of the capital, Santo Domingo. But above all, Peña Gómez’s battle against racial constraints and anti-Haitian bigotry that were perpetually used to deter him from his lifetime mission of winning the presidency and then using it to recreate a Dominican Republic which for the first time would be at the service of its citizenry. Although repeatedly denied the presidency of his country, without exception, he became one of the most outstanding black political figures in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, and a true hero in the hemisphere.
Rafael Trujillo, a virulent anti-Haitian and bloodthirsty Dominican dictator, headed the 1937 Parsley Massacre, known as “El Corte” in the Dominican Republic, in which he ordered the executions of an estimated 17,000-30,000 Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans living along the Dominican-Haitian border over a five-day period. Guns, machetes, clubs and knives were employed against those victims who could not properly pronounce the Spanish word perejil, meaning parsley. This massacre was supported by purported “evidence” that Haitians were stealing cattle and crops from Dominicans. In effect, what Trujillo was after was to advance a violent movement to “Dominicanize” the entire island. Many Haitians, including Peña Gómez’s parents, Ogis Vicente and Maria Marcelino, fled from Haitian-occupied pockets along the border of the Dominican Republic back to Haiti. As a result, Peña Gómez was orphaned and adopted, as an infant, by a Dominican family.
As Peña Gómez matured, he took on various jobs working in a grocery store, a bar, and as an apprentice of a shoemaker and a barber. In addition to these occupations, he became an instructor in a literacy program for poor children in his native province of Valverde, and later worked as a teacher in night and rural schools. Peña Gómez determinedly entered the ears and minds of the public in 1960 after he moved to Santo Domingo, enrolled in a broadcasting course, and was hired as a sports announcer. His hunger and love for politics was awakened during his time spent in various colleges.
Peña Gómez’s ventures into politics were not limited to the classroom. He soon became an avid supporter of the Dominican politician and intellectual Juan Bosch, leader of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), a moderate left-of-center social democratic party. Dominican rightwingers, however, saw to it that the party was portrayed as radical after it became the leading opposition to the Trujillo dictatorship. Shortly after Bosch was elected to the presidency in 1962, as the first democratic president of the Dominican Republic in thirty years, he was ousted in a military coup. Former Dominican Vice-President Joaquín Balaguer, a man who preached vicious anti-Haitian and racist attacks, and even wrote a book demonizing black people, secured the now vacant position as president of the Dominican Republic. During this period, Peña Gómez assumed the leadership of the PRD, and in 1965 he went on Radio Santo Domingo to call for a popular insurrection against the coup and for the reinstatement of Bosch as president. He was successful in inspiring thousands of Dominican youths to take to the streets and confront the military.
This insurrection led to a civil war in the Dominican Republic. But within Washington’s Cold War vision, Peña Gómez was labeled a “threat” to the democratic western hemisphere, and was accused of being both communist and pro-Cuban. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the U.S. Marines to invade the tiny country in 1965, ostensibly to rescue foreign nationals stranded there, but in actuality, to score a blow in the civil war, and to counter what was presumed as capable of evolving into a possible communist, pro-Castro movement.
It was also during this period that Peña Gómez was sent into exile. While living abroad in France, he was involved in efforts to attract international support for the condemnation of human rights violations against Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans in the Dominican Republic. Before his increased political activity and resulting exile, Peña Gómez enrolled in the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and graduated with a law degree in 1966. His yearning for education and intellectual growth continued as he studied political science and constitutional and labor law for two years at the University of Paris, and later studied political science at Harvard and Michigan State Universities.
Throughout his life, Peña Gómez, like other dark-skinned Dominicans and Haitians, felt the stigma of racism perpetuated by the country’s light-skinned Dominican elite. His intrinsic worth spoke for itself, and it was no wonder that soon Peña Gómez became a presidential contender with overwhelming credentials. However, his party (PRD) did not support his nomination, arguing of the handicap posed by the impossible, even inconceivable notion that a black man, especially of Haitian descent, could become president. This is the result of the crippling fact that no politician who openly acknowledged African ancestry has ever been elected president of any Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. Peña Gómez returned from exile several years later and even after successfully securing the presidential nomination in both 1990 and 1994, he ostensibly lost to Joaquín Balaguer. The government claimed that the 1994 election revealed a narrow victory over Peña Gómez, but it was the influence and support of the U.S. for Balaguer that allowed him to run away with the presidency, even though there was universal belief that the election had been fixed.
The negative publicity surrounding this election resulted in a shortened term of two years and an agreement for a new election in 1996. This incident was clearly racially motivated to intentionally prevent Peña Gómez from heading the country as its first black president. Conservatives, the ruling elite, and the United States, viewed Peña Gómez as a negative symbol of empowerment for black Dominicans and those of Haitian descent. He was also seen as an embodiment of the 1965 Dominican civil war. In 1996, Peña Gómez lost for a third time to the current Dominican President, Leonel Fernández, who was supported by Balaguer (before the latter’s death) and the conservative right wing. Each of these elections, which resulted in narrow defeats of Peña Gómez, were sullied with irregularities and fraud. There is no doubt that Peña Gómez actually had won at least one of these ballots, maybe two.
Peña Gómez’s life would soon come to an end, as he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1994. He died on May 10, 1998 in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic, just six days before the mayoral elections in which he was running, leaving behind his wife and eight children. Most significantly, this Caribbean nation lost an extraordinarily gifted political figure and a person of towering morality and strength of character, who was unique to his generation. His body was taken to the Olympic Stadium of the Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic Center. There, masses of Dominicans wept over the loss of Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez, exceptional politician and weighty intellectual who was crudely kept out of reach of opportunities to change Latin American racial politics and the cause of democracy forever.
Peña Gómez always appreciated the work of COHA, and for almost two decades, he rarely came to Washington without coming over to its office to discuss the latest misadventure being endured by his party, government, or country.