This was my first time back in Santo Domingo since 1999. I must admit the city has changed quite a bit. The first thing one notices is the development of physical infrastructure, buildings and roads specially. The long and beautiful ride from the airport to Santo Domingo has now been transformed into a 6 lane highway. They have however managed to preserve those great palm trees and related vegetation along the coastline which hosts the forever-magical Caribbean Sea.
The city itself has brand new and modern buildings and ‘urbanizaciones’, plenty of shopping malls and restaurants, and by far many more car dealerships per square kilometre than Westchester. All this modernisation, as some call it, occurring in the upper/upper middle class neighbourhoods. As I told some of the locals, it reminds me of Bogot� 20-25 years ago when the cartels were at their height and lots of drug money was channeled to construction.
The upcoming Pan-American games in August have also helped to promote infrastructure development as new sports facilities and roads are being built to receive athletes and tourists from over 30 nations. As usual, the games organisers are way behind schedule and some local commentators are questioning not only the deadlines but also the hosting of the games themselves and the respective cost.
There are a handful of very rich families that have access to all sorts of luxuries, products and services. It is thus not surprising to see that real estate prices in the elite urbanizaciones are incredibly high and have nothing to envy NYC. To my own surprise, I was invited to a private wine club for a tasting and was able to find in the store cellar Bordeaux wines from the 60s through the 90s selling at over 600 dollars (for wine buffs, Chateau Petrus 1988 for 650 for example; and there are local buyers!).
However, poverty is still pervasive but one can easily miss it if restricted to these ‘urbanizaciones’ which is probably what most visitors do anyway. A massive amount of casinos also help to hide this. Interestingly, most casino clients we saw were locals – not that I like to gamble but our hotel has one, almost always at full capacity.
Over 10% of the population have left the island, most of them now residing in NYC or Spain. The “remesas” (money sent back by migrants) are close to 2 billion US a year which accounts to over 10% of GNP. DR in turn is the preferred destination for what are now almost 1 million Haitians who mostly work in construction and agriculture at 50/60% of what a Dominican worker could get. Several locals told me that Dominicans are not eager to take such jobs.
As many countries in the region, the economy has not been doing well for the last couple of years. Unemployment is high and many companies, some of them long-standing, are not only laying off workers but also shutting down for good.
The peso has devaluated over 30% in the last couple of months and some economists and bankers are privately saying that the worse is yet to come. There is now talk of ‘dollarizing’ the economy like El Salvador and Ecuador.
The party in power until next year is highly unpopular and will probably lose the May 2004 elections easily. It has however managed to amend the constitution to allow for a second term for the incumbent who announced during the week of our visit that he will be seeking re-election.
In all my trips, I usually talk with local taxi drivers who usually have lots of insights on the local situation. This one was not different. He says that all Dominican parties are the same, equally corrupt. They make lots of promises at election time and when they access power the rapidly forget about them and instead concentrate on getting rich as fast as possible. He sees no real alternatives at the moment. And he sorely misses Balaguer…
What can I tell you?
PS: April in NY also means rain. I decided to catch the express bus to GCT. I was suddenly approached by a Haiti political scientist turned cad driver in NY who offered to take me to the city for the price of the bus. His brother is a former UNFPA Haiti employee and his mother Dominican. He quickly reminded me of the atrocities that the Dominican army under Trujillo used to carry against Haitians living in the border areas. Not any more but discrimination is still alive and kicking.