Every Saturday night, 27 local residents meet in an abandoned salsa club in East Tremont to discuss Dominican Republic politics. The various clergymen, business people, and housewives are intent on getting the Bishop in their midst elected as the island’s next president in May.
These Dominican expatriates have little campaign money, and even less political clout. Still they feel so strongly about the the chaos and poor education choices back home, they have convinced themselves that Bishop Roberto Quevedo has the moral backbone and business experience to win.
“I trust Quevedo because he cares about the country the most,” Orgilia Palmo, one of the campaign volunteers, said minutes before the meeting began. “He’s a strong man who can help the D.R. that’s falling into pieces.”
Others believed his experience as a volunteer is enough to convince voters of his suitability for president. “He sends boxes of food, supplies, HIV testing material, everything to the country all through donations here, sometimes his own money,” said Nestor Rodriguez, Ventura’s friend of more than 30 years. “He organizes all this stuff to help the community here and now look at him – helping by running for president.”
Besides, Ventura said he has always dreamed of going back.
“There’s so much corruption with all the revenue the D.R. has,” said Ventura, 56, a real estate broker and Bishop of East Tremont. “I want to see the money spent on the children, not the government.”
To run, however, a candidate needs a party endorsement. So, Ventura and his comrades established one called Partido Para El Pueblo Dominicano (PPPD) on August 13. Their key platform is to redirect funds into education and social services for the elderly. Since 30 others are running for the office, and since only two parties–Partido Revolucionario Dominicano and Partido de la Liberación Dominican–have led in the polls since the early 1960s, Ventura’s bid is hardly a given.
For one thing, he has lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years. Born in 1954 in the Dominican Republic to a father who was a grocer and a mother who worked in a textile factory, Ventura grew up around hard working people. He came to the U.S. in 1969 and spent his teenage years in an apartment on a tree-lined block on Manhattan Avenue in Harlem. He said even as the fifth child of nine, he wanted to take charge in the house.
After immigrating to New York City with his grandmother, he got his real estate license in 1973 from North Country Community College in upstate New York. He still works as a broker in the South Bronx. Like his parents, he is self-employed. Ventura, a resident of Morris Avenue, owns two properties now. But it was one on 229 East Tremont that changed his life when a boiler exploded during installation in 1998.
“My whole body was burned and a piece of the boiler went straight into my forehead,” Quevedo said. “The doctor said only a miracle could save me, and that’s what I believe it was.”
The religious epiphany prompted Ventura to join a church and devote more of his time to God. By 1992, he became a pastor at the New Covenant Baptist Church in the Bronx and was ordained a bishop in 2008.
Through the Baptist Church of all Denominations, a church he opened in 2008, Ventura runs community-wide drives to collect clothes and canned food to send back o the Dominican Republic. He ships the merchandise with his own money, so they only send boxes every couple of months, he said.
“He’ll help anyone and he does it only because he wants to,” said Pastor Luis Coriano of the church Quevedo started. “Now his faith makes him want to help more. But I was surprised that he was running because religion and politics don’t mix.”
The mix happened in 2006.
Ventura took up an interest in politics after he attended a meeting in Manhattan with the General Council of the Dominican Republic that year. “There’s instability and a bad administration there, and the money isn’t being spent on the people, my people,” he said.
Indeed, the World Bank loaned the government $300 million for social programs; Inter-American Development Bank loaned another $500 million for the same purpose in 2010; and the government entered into an $8.6 billion trading partnership with the U.S. in 2009. These combined cash sources placed the Dominican Republic as the largest economy in the Caribbean and Central American region, according to a 2011 report from the Congressional Research Service. Still, more than 40 percent of its people live below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Ventura did not call it “corruption” of funds but others did.
Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that publishes annual reports on international corruption, gave the Dominican Republic a score of 3 out 10; 0 being the most corrupt. The island was ranked 101 in a list of 178 countries, the highest ranking as the most corrupt.
His campaign has a Facebook page with almost 200 friends and two YouTube videos with about 150 views combined. Ventura does not see the timid online presence as foreshadowing.
“My biggest challenge will be the election,” said Ventura, a tall man with graying hair and calm speech. If his Facebook following of 200 is any indication, the challenge is nearly insurmountable.
“I want this from the bottom of my heart. If I don’t get it, I will persist and resist until the day I die.”