Impressions of the Dominican Republic
Former EC Commission trainees describe their experiences.
In August 1993, a group of 16 former trainees from the external
relations and development direct orates-general of the Commission visited the
Their goal was to learn more about the realitities of the
European Union's development cooperation with this ACP country. During their
two-week stay, they undertook a busy schedule which included visits to a number
of EU-sponsored projects and discussions with a broad cross-section of local
people including government officials, entrepreneurs, farmers and students. In
this vivid account of their trip, Martin Buis and Bod van Dillen recount their
experiences. They also give us some of the impressions formed by the trainees
about life in the Dominican Republic and about the development process which is
currently under way.
Santo Domingo Airport was hot, the atmosphere humid. We were
welcomed with a cool drink by officials of the National Authorising Officer, our
official host, and a representative of the Commission Delegation. An
air-conditioned government bus brought us to the first of our air-conditioned
hotels, some twenty kiLomes along the Avenida de las Americas, in Santo
We spent about a week in Santo Domingo. It was here that we had
extensive discussions with the officials of the Commission Delegation and
representatives of the ministries of health, agriculture and education. A
Spanish expatriate working for the Education Ministry explained to us, for
example, the country's difficulties in the area of primary education. He was
happy about the European Union's assistance in providing teaching materials and
was very proud of the newly established faculty of artificial intelligence at
the Santo Domingo University. One of the main problems he listed was the
unwillingness of teachers to work in the countryside, because of the relatively
low wages and the bad living conditions. He also said that 95% of children went
to school, which seemed a very high figure judging from the number of children
playing or selling all kinds of things on the streets. He briefed us on the
Union's financial support for a ten year plan which would raise government
education expenditure from an estimated 1.4% of GDP in 1989 to 3.5% by the year
At the Agriculture Ministry we discussed recent subsidised rice
exports. We wondered whether this had been a wise thing to do, given the
existing poverty and malnourishment of children, especially in the countryside.
We gained the impression that a better distribution of arable land would lead to
increased production and more equitable income distribution.
The problem of clear land-ownership titles and the new banana
import regime were explained to us in great detail during our visit to two
banana plantations, where we talked with local producers and the general manager
of the export company 'Fyffes'. The Dominican producers felt mistreated because,
as non-traditional ACP producers, they could not benefit to the same extent from
the favourable trade conditions offered to all other ACP banana producers. Only
some of them owned their land, a necessary precondition for getting a loan from
The representative of the Ministry of Health invited us to visit
one of the modern and well-equipped hospitals but instead we went to see a Rural
Health Centre. We were struck by the small supply of medicines available and it
was explained to us that it was difficult to reach people living in remote
areas, because of a lack of mopeds.
It would be wise not to fall ill in the Dominican Republic.
There is, for example, only one doctor per thousand inhabitants. Total health
expenditure in 1990 was $263 million, which is only 3.7% of GDP or $37 per
The EU supports the country's health and education sectors.
Financial assistance is channeled through a counterpart fund generated by the
sale of oil. A sectoral import support programme, as a form of
balance-of-payments support, was also set up to meet the need for a first quick
disbursement of funds after the signing of the Lomonvention.
On our way to Barahona, we stopped for a visit to the oil
refinery at San Cristobal. We were informed about safety measures by a local
staff member who had recently completed a course in psychology.
He emphasised the need for the workers to feel happy and
comfortable, since 95% of accidents were due to carelessness caused by lack of
concentration. We thought this might be true, but wondered about the absence of
a disaster relief plan, especially since the refinery is located in an urban
One of the projects financed by counterpart funds that appealed
to us most was the small-scale drinking water supply provided for some 150
households near the city of Azua. This is a very useful scheme, given that about
40% of the Dominican population lacks access to clean drinking water. We were
concerned, however, about the working conditions of those engaged in
construction - including a number of young people who were painting the interior
of the water tank.
Our trip continued via Barahona to Pedernales, a small city
close to the Haitian border. We enjoyed the beautiful, but barren, landscape,
the virtually untouched beaches and the warm sea. Near Pedernales we visited a
hydro-electricity and irrigation project. It was very impressive to see the
irrigation canals, which had been recently completed. The 9.2 kilowatt
hydro-electric station had not yet been built, but the proposal was explained to
us in detail and looked promising on paper. It can only be hoped that the
electricity generated is used for the benefit of the region. The national
network is known to suffer from 'leaks'.
Travelling by government-licensed bus and being accompanied by
government officials had at least two advantages. First, we were able to travel
throughout the country unhindered. Second, and more important, our guides
managed to obtain permission from the local authorities to cross the border and
visit a Haitian village. We were struck by the absolute poverty. People were
hanging around, children were begging for pesos, an almost naked woman was
washing some clothes in a brook. In one way or another, we all felt deeply
moved. It was perhaps surprising that the Haitians allowed us to take pictures
during the performance of a traditional voodoo-dance.
Moving up north to the Lago Enriquillio, we stopped and visited
the Las Salinas mining plant, which has been chosen for Sysmin intervention. We
were told that the government-run installation has the potential to satisfy the
world demand for both salt and chalk. However, due to poor management, lack of
efficiency and equipment shortages, average production is apparently less than
10% of potential output. Profits had not been reinvested since, according to the
spokesman, the authorities had never shown any interest in maximising (export)
production. Turning the plant around seems likely to be a formidable task.
We also visited one of the seventeen so-called 'zones francas',
which are enclosed business parks. The companies involved pay low taxes and can
therefore fully exploit the export possibilities of the Caribbean Basin
Initiative, as well as the Lomrade preferences. The majority of these 'fiscal
paradises' are privately run, but they are set up with help from the government,
with a view to creating jobs. We were shown a video, made to persuade American
companies to move to the free zone, which mentioned local salaries of just 66
cents (US) an hour, with only 11 days' annual leave. A large majority of the
workforce are women. The spokesman, a well-dressed businessman, explained the
'Cuban threat' to us: Cuba is closer to the United States, and if the Cuban
regime changes, they will probably end up establishing similar business parks
We travelled further up north, via Santiago - the second largest
town - to the north coast, where we visited a very interesting project at the
archeological site of La Isabela, the place where Columbus reputedly first set
foot in the 'New World'. The aims of this project are to transfer the local
population to a newly built village nearby, to dig up the remains of the first
Spanish settlement and to open a museum to display these remains. The new
village, as well as the almost completed museum, looked neat, but there appeared
to be little local participation.
The country's largest foreign exchange earner nowadays is
tourism. A second international airport has been opened near Puerto Plata and a
third one is planned near Barahona. The number of hotel rooms has increased
tremendously in the last couple of years. Following the Americans, the Europeans
too have now discovered this beautiful island and its low prices. We spent two
days in a luxury tourist resort in Sosua, under far better conditions than the
country's first tourist did back in 1492! It was something of a culture shock
after what had gone before and we felt out of place. From a development point of
view, we wondered what spin-off tourism provides for the local population.
Amorous relationships between local people and overseas visitors are, of course,
not unknown. As young and single maim, we were naturally assumed to be
interested in this as well. That is how we found ourselves being escorted to a
bar 'just around the corner' and ending up some 30 minutes later in a shabby
brothel in the backstreets of Santo Domingo, politely refusing the services
tendered. Not surprisingly, AIDS is spreading rapidly across the island of
We spent the last two days of our trip in Santo Domingo,
visiting the restored 'old city'. It was from here that Diego Columbus
(Christopher's son) ruled the island and the other 'New World' settlements in
the region. We did not visit what must undoubtedly be regarded as Mr Balaguer's
most prestigious landmark, the so-called 'El Faro a Colon' - a momentous tomb
for Columbus' physical remains, which is also a museum and a lighthouse. The
cost of constructing this edifice came to some $40 million - which we thought
was perhaps a little too much to commemorate someone who, after all, did
initiate the extermination of the indigenous population and usher in centuries
of foreign domination. The lighthouse is said to be the most powerful light in
the western hemisphere and it projects a cross in the sky - that is, if Santo
Domingo's electricity system does not suffer from one of its notorious
From the outset, we were interted in finding the answer to two
basic questions. Why did the Dominican Republic accede to the Lomonvention,
and was its membership (to date) a success?
Links with Spain
Part of the answer to the first question lies in the Spanish
entry into the Community in 1986. Spain has traditional links with this
Caribbean country and obviously has an interest getting a share of the business
opportunities generated under the EDF. There was also the fact of the EC's
relationship with Haiti, which also joined the ACP group in 1991. As the
difficulties encountered in enforcing the UN embargo against Haiti have
subsequently shown, the two countries' destinies are closely linked.
The second question is the more difficult one to answer.
Although we visited all the projects currently being undertaken, it was not easy
to gauge their overall effect on the country's economic and social development.
However, the local staff responsible tried very hard to explain the details to
us, to answer our questions and to influence our judgment in a positive way.
From what we saw, it seems clear that the Dominican Republic has
considerable potential and the Dominicans seem eager to get things done. On the
other hand, it was not always easy to determine what, if any, were the
government priorities. It has been suggested that the country's political system
is unduly bureaucratic and, on occasion, corrupt, but we were also told that the
people are not, in general, unhappy with the economic stabilisation policies
pursued by the country's 86-year old president, Joaquin Balaguer. They are
apparently sceptical about whether the main opposition leader, Pena Gomez, can
do any better. This year promises new elections, which will hopefully take place
in a free and fair atmosphere.
Looking back now, five months after our return, we feel that our
study trip was sucessful in giving us the opportunity to learn more about this
ACP state. For some of us, it was our first visit ever to a developing country;
our first chance to witness the realities of the Lomonvention in action.
Our overall impression is a balanced one. Strenuous efforts are
being made to develop the country, but a lot still has to be done. There seems
no doubt that financial assistance from the international donor community is
essential but what about the contribution of the rich people of the country
itself? We were told that, if forced to pay high taxes, the rich would simply
follow the path already taken by almost one million of their (generally poor)
compatriots, by emigrating to the USA. In this context, we wondered what we
could say to our critical friends in Europe when asked to defend the external
assistance provided to the Dominican