Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflections on Santo Domingo

Notes on Hispaniola - October 28,2006
by Elizabeth Roebling, Santo Domingo

In Santo Domingo, the oldest city in the hemisphere, work on the construction of a subway has begun. Few believe that it will actually alleviate the congested traffic as the estimated fare will far exceed the current prices for the public buses or the "publicos", the old taxi cabs that ply the avenues carrying six passengers in the four passenger seats. Nor will the subway curb the Dominican's adoration of the car, which along with baseball, underlines their kinship with their gringo cousins up north. Interest rates on cars can be 16% per year which after the rates of 37% under the last administration, seem reasonable and attractive. And despite all the available statistics on air pollution, the dream car for most Dominicans is an SUV, which admittedly makes accessible the remote areas of the country which are still paved only with "caliche", a limestone sort of road bond.

Yet in the older sections of Santo Domingo, one still hears the clip clop of horse's hooves as the vendors sell giant avocados and pineapples. Walking along the sidewalks of Gazcue, formerly the premier neighborhood, whose pavments are cracked and heaved by the roots of the giant almond and mahagony trees, it is easy to slip back in time. The actual handwriting of Admiral Colombus is on display a few blocks away in one of the museums that dot the colnial zone. The old houses, not "colonial" old, for here "colonial" is two centuries older than in the UnitedStates, but old as in the 30's, when the country was dragged into the modern world under one of the more brutal dictator, whose name and legacy are wiped from history but whose ghost somehow remains are mostly sagging into disrepair. Here, as in Haiti,the neighboring nation, the common legacy of thirty years of strong man rule are not easily shaken.

Here there is no New England restraint on the display of wealth, but rather a striving to appear more affluent than one really is. Appearances, like highly-shined leather shoes and manicured fingers and toes, are important here. The new malls scattered around the city are crowded on Saturdays. Shops selling computers, nintendos, ipods, home appliances, imported chipboard furniture, exquisite jewelry and fancy dress gowns, with staggeringly high price tags, are nevertheless full. Credit is becoming easier to obtain and Domincans, like their American cousins, are learning to live beyond their means, indebted to VISA and Mastercard.

Most believe the subway is yet another way for construction companies and bureaucrats to pocket large amounts of cash. Big development projects, highways, airports, dams, have long been the darling of international donors and lenders, and are notoriously financially porous and cloudy. Witness, for instance, Iraq. Projects such as these, built with borrowed money, put the nation squarely under the control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank who are, for instance, now insisting that the country collect more tax revenues. For the money is needed to pay back the loans, if nothing else. The tax base rests primarily on a 16% sales tax, called the ITBIS, which appears on all hotel charges, all restaurant bills, all computerized receipts from large stores. The higher end restaurants include as well a 10% service fee, making the menu prices almost fictional, as a ten dollar meal costs almost $15, as if there were a drastic inflationary rise in prices during the meal.

Wages are low here. A college teacher, with a master's degree, working from 4 PM to 9 PM , five days a week, makes $600 a month. A newspaper editor can earn $800, a middle bank manager $1000. If you have English, you can work perhaps in one of the free trade zones, answering phones, for 44 hours a week and earn as much as the newspaper editor. Many of the workers in the free zone are ex-convicts deported home, bringing with them their English skills learned at Attica and Sing-Sing. But English tutors can expect at best $10 an hour. The best paid jobs are with the Embassies, the international development banks, the multi-national corporations and the big international non-governmental organizations, whose foreign executives live in million dollar homes under 24-hour guards, often armed. Most of the international workers are here only for a few years, three to five, but their presence drives up the rental market.

It is common to see apartments advertised for $3,000 a month. Landlords will advertise the rents in US dollars, an implicit sign that Dominicans need not apply for those who are paid in pesos can not risk the price fluctuation of the international currency exchange which was, for instance, 50 pesos to the dollar three years ago as opposed to 34 pesos now.

The state of low wages exacerbates the divide between the rich and poor which is estimated as the greatest in the hemisphere, But if you are an entrepreneur, own a colmado, drive your own cab, start a beauty parlor, or have connections with the drug lords, you can rise quickly into the middle class. Condominiums are being built all over the city, often priced in the $100.000s with gates, and car parks, and 30 year mortgages and down payments of $5,000. Most of the older condos have "maid's quarters" , a tiny room with a bathroom off the kitchen. Full time, live-in maids can be found for as little as $150 a month and few women from prosperous families here have ever mopped their own floors.
This perhaps accounts for the contrast between public and private spaces as most Dominican homes are immaculate, being swept, dusted, and washed down with disinfectant daily. Yet the public streets are often full of trash. Never having learned to pick up after themselves in private, perhaps they await the public maids to remove the trash that they put on streets, often while they are standing right next to a trash can. At the expensive international schools, wealthy Dominican children are delivered by white -gloved chauffeurs, and picked up by nannies, like the children of Hollywood.

Guaranteeing the ongoing state of low wages is the presence and continued influx of undocumented Haitian workers, desperately poor and hungry, who do the hard and heavy work that Dominicans will not do, cutting sugar cane, digging foundations by hand in the heat of the sun, often for half what a Dominican will accept. Across the border in Haiti, only an estimated 200,000 of the 8 million Haitians actually hold paying jobs, so the promise of any sort of paid labor has a magnetic draw. International and local human rights advocates have been pressuring the Dominican Republic to grant birth certificates to those children born to Haitian women living on this side of the border. Undocumented Haitians are considered "in transit" and not granted citizenship papers which would entitled them to higher education and health care. Many do not even have legal documents from Haiti, creating a vast sea of "stateless persons".

There has been a mixed response to the pressure. Official announcements declare the government's decision to abide by a recent ruling of the InterAmerican Court of the OAS to remedy the situation while enforced deportations back across the Haitian border and recruitment of new workers into the sugar cane fields or work in heavy construction or brothels continues unabated. Rumors abound of a proposed alteration to the current constitution which technically grants citizenship to all children born in the Dominican Republic. There is a threat that that provision will simply be removed from the constitution, avoiding for evermore the issue of citizenship to children of foreign workers. Advocates of Haitian rights here can expect virulent attacks, including death threats.

Many Dominicans believe that the world at large has abandoned Haiti and holds this country, which has a vastly different cultural history, with a different language and different customs, responsible for the future of Haiti. There is a deep seated fear that the aim of the United States, in particular, is to unite these two lands. While there are signs of progress in Haiti, a new elected government, a general disarming of the population, there is an underlying despair over the environmental degradation, the rising uneducated population, the lack of any infrastructure such as water, sanitation, roads, schools. No formal trade agreements exist between these two nations despite the fact that they are major trading partners. Haitians crossing into the weekly market days inside the DR, selling used clothing, vegetables, and cheap US imported rice, buying eggs and paper and plastic products, and long bologna rolls that have been in sun all day, and live baby chickens arriving, miraculously still chirping, from Georgia, are subjected to the whims and abuses of the Dominican customs officials. Under the new Haitian government, they are now subject to taxation by the Haitian border authorities as well.

Even a short day trip across the border at one of the four authorized crossing points, a trip usually made only by NGO workers and missionaries, produces an intense cultural shock. Akin, perhaps to moving from downtown Johannesburg to one of the Bantu villages, or from New York into one of the shanty towns among the cotton fields of Mississippi. On the Domincan side, cars and motorcylcles ply the paved, albeit dusty streets, electric lights, although with an intermittant supply, illuminate the streets, public hospitals provide free health care, and pharmacies, while expensive, are common. Across the border, along the unpaved streets of the Haitian border towns, mules and bicylces are the more common form of transit and electric poles and lines, if present, have no current running through them. The two nations, historic foes, both turn their backs on the border, leaving it open a continuing traffic in illegal drugs, stolen vehicles, and persons - women into the sex trade, as men on both sides of the frontier consider the women from the other culture more desirable, and men, Haitians, some coming voluntarily looking for work, others being recruited for work in the sugar cane fields.

While many people in the Dominican Republic register among the exceedingly poor, with incomes below $2 a day, Haiti leads all the hemisphere's worst statistics: lowest life span, highest level of unemployment, lowest level of literacy, highest rate of HIV/AIDS, tuberculousis, malaria, waterborne disease, highest infant mortality, lowest per capita income, highest rate of environmental degredation. Life in Haiti, already difficult under the dictatorship of Duvalier became almost impossible under the intermittant leadership of Aristide.

International aid organizations both government and non-profit, often work in isolation, without consulting either one another or the government or, perhaps more importantly, the people. There is such pressing need, a sense of urgency to repair Haiti before complete collapse. Often policies are not thought through well and even two branches of an NGO working on both sides of the border may have no coherent development policies. It is not the lack of international funding for restoration but rather the complicated issue of delivery of funds and empowerment that delays aid. Funds which have, in the past, been freely given to governments on both sides of the border have disappeared into cavernous accounts off-shore or into personal “foundations” of government officials. The concept of fiscal responsibility and accountably is new to both these nations who suffered under dictatorship for much of the last century. On this side of the border, there is a gradual policy shift among NGO’s away from a culture of just dispensing aid into one of empowering people on the ground. But it is a long and difficult process, to deliver millions of dollars of aid in an effective manner, peso by peso, gourde by gourde, without creating dependency.

The Dominican Republic enforces its border with a few armed guards and a strongly instilled prejudice against Haitians, who occupied this country back in the 1800's. The memory is kept alive by repetition and education in the consciousness of the current generation. Dominican children are taught that Haitian children learn in school that the entire island belongs to Haiti. Much as many in the southwest of the United States believe that Mexico is undertaking a conscious recolonization of Texas and California, Dominicans fear giving Haitians within the Dominican Republic the voting rights of citizenship. They insist that it is not racism, but rather nationalism. The Spaniards, one social scientist purports, could not think of Blacks as inferior, as subhumans, since Spain had been ruled by the Moors. This sense of deep history stands in stark constrast to the modernistic outlook of United States whose collective memory hardly stretches back more than two generations.

Here family roots are deep. It may take years to change one's voting residence. During elections people travel back to vote where they were born, as in Biblical times. Unmarried chlidren live with their parents, saving thousands of dollars in rent and producing a peculiar type of prolonged adolescence. The family is still the backbone of the culture. Children, most certainly the youngest, are expected to care for their aging parents, as is true also in the neighboring Spanish island of Puerto Rico.

While the general population of the country is exceedingly diverse in color, the ideal for beauty for Dominican women, portrayed in fashion magazines, is a pale coffee complexion (or lighter, preferably lighter), aquiline noses, thin but voluptuous bodies, and long, straight hair. Despite temperatures that hover between 80 and 90 degrees all year, shoulder length straight (or straightened) hair, is the defining mark of beauty. Long time resident foreign women usually have close cropped hair. Air conditioning is becoming a necessity and CFC pollution levels have soared. For every colmado selling frosty local beer and chips, there is a beauty parlor, dedicated to perfecting the ideal of beauty. Most Dominicans insist that their heritage is a mix between Indian and Caucasian, even though the indigenous Tainos were obliterated within 50 years of the arrival of Columbus. Spanish language books define a “mestizo” as an Indian-European mix, and “mulattos” as a Negro-European mix. As in most of hemisphere, "white" is still the color of the Big Boss Man, as can be seen in a cursory glance at the society pages. The "ruling families" , inheritors of vast lands, the cattle ranches, sugar and rum production, citrus and dairy industries, are concentrated in the fertile Cibao valley, north near Santiago, an area striking in the "whiteness" of the population.

Inflation is down to 3% and the economic figures have posted a remarkable 13% growth rate for the year. Unlike a few years back when one dollar American bought 50 pesos, the current exchange rate of 34 has bought the price of the all-inclusive resorts to over $100 per person per day, which along with increased airfares, strains the purses of the middle class European and North American vacationer. Resort workers, who are often required to speak three and four languages are rarely paid more than $500 month. Food is becoming increasingly expensive, with recent price increases posted in such staples as sugar and rice.
So far, the traditional dish, “la bandera Dominicana”, of a giant helping of rice with beans, two small pieces of chicken in sauce, and grated cabbage salad, holds steady in the Capital cafeterias at 80 pesos, or $2.47. But the chicken pieces are smaller than last year.

Beach development of vacation villas and condominiums is now geared to the affluent, often to the top 10%. More and more hotels are being built with designer golf courses, and nightly room charges that exceed the monthly income of many Dominicans. Smaller towns, particularly on the North Coast, beyond the walls of the all inclusive resorts, are being developed as retirement havens and vacation places for foreigners. Yet since the country has long been a haven for those who are escaping legal actions in their home nations and is located conveniently on the cocaine trade roots to the United States and Europe from South America, security in the beach areas is a difficult proposition. Police officers are not well paid and therefore easily tempted into corruption. And corruption itself, the idea that any government official is entitled to personally prosper from the public trough, has been a long tradition. Last week in the Capital, leaders of the Catholic Church followed by a procession of faithful, led a prayerful march along the historic Malecon, the brick paved seaside avenue, asking for an end to the recent crime wave, the "delinquencia", a delicate word for the gangs of armed robbers who have transformed both the Capital and beach areas into danger zones. Ten years ago, it is said, Santo Dominigo was one of the safest cities in the world. The current government, under the direction for the second time by a US educated Dominican, Leonel Fernandez, has ordered all the bars closed at midnight and placed more uniformed police on duty, particularly at night. Yet the construction of buildings, with locked gates and bars on all the windows up to the third floor, indicate that robberies have long been a part of life here.

While the country is exceedingly beautiful, with more land inside natural preserves than even Costa Rico, and has breathtaking scenery which goes from a below sea level salt lake to the highest mountain in the Caribbean, few tour operators do more than book rooms at the resort hotels on the spectacular beaches or offer day excursions into the "outback" on all terrain vehicles. Cruise ships are beginning to come into the Bay of Samana, to the consternation of many environmentalists who hope that the big ships will not disturb the breeding season of the Atlantic family of the humpback whales, who return here to mate every year. These extraordinary mammals are all Dominican, returning home every year from as far away as Greenland and Newfoundland, fasting for six months en route, to mate and deliver their young in the warm shallow waters of Samana Bay. The males start composing a new song every year on their journey home and by the time they arrive, all the males are singing the same song, a bacchate love song.

Although located firmly in the Caribbean, this nation is part of Latin America, preferring alliances with Central and Latin America (such as DR-CAFTA), broadcasting almost exclusively Latin music, retaining a fierce loyalty to the remnants of Spanish culture. For years the majority of tourists here came from Europe. Spanish and French, German and Italians, all have settled here, intermarried, developed large businesses. Yet above all, it aspires to the United States. New York, with a larger Dominican population than Santiago, is its second city, Miami its shopping Mecca, and baseball its adored national sport and promise of fortune. The United States must have streets paved with gold, judging by the money that is sent back here by families living there, an amount which accounts for 12% of the GNP. And the United Sates, for better or worse, appears to be its dream.

Copyright 2006, E.E. Roebling,

For publication rights or reprint permission please contact:

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

word count - 2724

1 comment:

melanie.lynne said...

i'm intrigued by your writing... i've been searching for people who are interested in many of these issues since i moved to the island three years ago. i'm captured by the paradoxical life of being a westerner living a dominican life - as i've adopted a more dominican culture for my family (i'm married to a dominican "campesino") but still remain troubled by the problems that plague the country.

i'm glad i ran across your blog!