Report made with the support of Intermón Oxfam
They have everything, papi1. They have the fly, they have the party, they have the sabrosura, they have raw materials and the natural wealth of a mycological paradise, they have the workforce they need, democracy, and several generations born in peace. Nevertheless, over 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.
In 2012, President Leonel Fernández left the country with a 3500 million euros hole, more than 8% of the GDP, caused by the public financing scheme of his ambitious election campaign, and a long Latin American tradition of state corruption. As part of the plan create to confront the deficit, the incoming government led by Danilo Medina implemented a new tax package known as the paquetazo that included increases in indirect taxes and in staple goods, exempt until then. Most of these measures affected both the weakened middle-class and the large lower-class. However, hardly anyone received the corresponding services for the taxes they had paid.
Slow living. Real slow
Everything goes slowly in a narcotic smiling calm. In an airport corridor, a young police officer walks towards her workmate dancing salsa. Some other employees hum radio hits behind their desk and chat, stopping only to take care of tourists. No one is in a hurry. It is real; most of the stereotypes are true. Nobody is stressed. Not even the driver, who has been waiting for us for two hours because of a mistake about our arrival time. They don’t expect the tourist to be anxious either, and four people and 25 minutes are needed to confirm that no, money exchange offices do not deliver bills to companies. So moments after leaving the airplane, visitors must choose whether to begin a crusade for efficiency, typically claimed by the little European we carry within (for losing it in a frustrating way), or get fully into the real slow living. Slow nothing-works-but-it-doesn’t-matter- mamasotaliving…
Obviously, the editor gets fully into it. In a modest hotel, a Haitian woman serves us a breakfast that could fit in any Hilton. That’s what being in paradise means: the best coffee, the best fruit, and mineral water. Without talking, we know she is Haitian because of the sad look in her eyes. It is not some lyrical attitude, the wound is evident, the distrust inherent to almost every Haitian we meet during our journey, intensified by the lack of concern their neighbours show. Their history, both recent and remote, provides them with a catalogue of reasons to distrust everybody, especially Dominicans. We begin to understand everything after learning why the river bordering the two countries is called Masacre2. In 1937, 15.000 Haitians were killed there following dictator Trujillo’s plans of ethnic cleansing: the borders were closed and those who would not pronounce properly the word perejil3 were murdered. Only when an earthquake devastated the island in 2010, both countries drew together and Dominicans opened the borders, formerly built to reject Haitian immigration, to help them. Currently, however, there remains a strong trace of racism against them, despite of the wide range of Dominicans’ colours — perhaps because of that.
That’s the first crack in the Dominican calm.
Getting into the pickup where I will discover the Republic, I notice a sticker representing a machine-gun crossed-out. I perceive it as a pacifist manifesto, but it isn’t: it is the official symbol to forbid the armed access to pubs, hotels and other establishments which so decide. In Dominicana the bearing of arms is legal, so when I knew it, I appreciated the relaxing atmosphere in the streets. After 30 minutes travelling under a soft sun and chatting over the ubiquitous salsa, our driver frown by passing near some uniformed men.
“I was once kidnapped by the military”.
He speaks in the same tone used to talk about the weather two roundabouts ago.
“They stopped me by blocking the road. They put me in the boot of their car, they hit me, they robbed me, and then they set me free in the middle of nowhere, alive, thank God. I know they were military, they spoke like them, they used their slang, they even stopped to talk with some other soldiers”.
I realize then Santo Domingo is full of people in uniform, without an apparent reason or need for it. It is not a country in war, neither it is part of the NATO, it hardly ever takes part in international missions, but the army is present everywhere in the city. And there is always work for them: they can be chauffeurs, nannies or do any other kind of service for civil servants.
It is normal for Luis, our driver, to be sceptical about the armed forces. And it is not necessary to be kidnapped to ask for a reform of the institution. Manuel, university student who grew up as part of a military family, entered the Navy when he was 18 years-old. He admits a lot of them are getting arbitrary extra pays. They are exempt from the raids — illegal but daily — made by the police to raise money. They earn €84 per month, a low wage regarding the average of the country. Despite the fact they benefit from a family health insurance, free canteens, hair-dressers and some other free services, it is expected that they need to find “alternative” methods of financing. It occurs in the same way in the police service, where a medium unskilled agent earns €114 per month, and where the combination of power, weapons and shortage is lethal for citizen’s confidence.
It is also admitted by Lieutenant Colonel Manuel de Jesús Corporán at San Francisco de Macorís police station. We were supposed to spend our first days in the island in this village, but we changed our mind because of the violent demonstrations during the strike organized by the FALPO (Frente Amplio de Lucha Popular). A young man was dead, and nobody knows where the bullet came from: protestors accuse the police, police point at him as a burglar caught in fraganti and the inhabitants murmure that was a settling of scores between narcos, who usually profit from these situations to “clean their houses”.
Third crack: the apparent Dominican calm does not hold water.
Lieutenant Colonel Corporán makes a serious face, according to these serious circumstances. In response to the death of the young boy, the student’s union FELABEL, unofficially considered the university branch of the FALPO, called for another strike at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD), the oldest of the Dominican Republic, in which Colonel Julián Suárez was shot by apparently by a student. So now policemen are suspected of having assassinated the young student, and have a barely veiled desire for revenging the death of one of their leaders. The case is so complicated that Wilson Daciel Nicasio, one of the accused students, has given himself up on a NCDN4 television program, something the Spanish viewers would have appreciated. That is the common way to surrender to the authorities when there are fears of their reactions. Is that fear justified? So thinks Corporán, and talks about the “bad agents who enlist not only to protect the citizens but also to reach other objectives. We are working to improve the situation in two years from now”. However, he is not able to identify the measures needed for a radical change, which seems almost miraculous. Due to the topic of our conversation, Lieutenant Corporán could perfectly fell tense. Instead of it, he cannot help bursting out laughing while posing for the photographer. As always in this country, the meeting ends in a discreet party, and it is difficult to keep serious more than forty minutes.
But the party cannot solve the social tension. In response to the death of the Colonel, the police have, for the first time in history of democracy, violated the university jurisdiction to inspect FELABEL’s headquarters, finding weapons and a wig, evidence that in the eyes of many, had been placed by the agents to have a reason to dissolve the organization, known for its long revolutionary activity. In fact, all of the UASC university organizations seem to respond to hard political speeches rather than to student issues. We only need to glance at their names: Frente Estudiantil de Liberación Amín Abel, Frente Estudiantil de Liberación Flavio Suero, Fuerza Juvenil de la Revolución, Frente Estudiantil Socialdemócrata, Vanguardia EstudiantilDominicana. As each one of them is related to a different political party, politicians make sure the next Dominican political leaders will fit into their ideological schemes, characterized by an astonishing revolutionary rhetoric used by the Latin American left but always far from the real necessities of the people. Most of the students are enrolled in one of these associations, which provide them with free canteen, fee exemptions and many privileges concerning university enrolment. For Laura de Jesús, the disenchanted former Communications Director of the Secretaría de Bienestar Estudiantil at the Federación de Estudiantes Dominicanos, this participation does not represent a real concern, since only 12% of the students vote in university elections. Rather than activate a political conscience during their time spent at university, young people get there the essential ability to live — even survive — in Dominican society: having the appropriate friends in the appropriate places.
Where is the money?
Rosana, social worker, knows a lot about this. She talks about a little girl with a coin blocked in her throat, carried by her poor mother from one hospital to another because none of them accepted to treat her for free. She was finally accepted in a hospital where a friend of the family worked. She also knows it because her Institute is the only provided with electric light in all the area. It is an exception in a country where the standard situation is having restricted access to electricity in spite of paying the bills on time. Consequences are not that serious at schools, where there are only four hours of class per day for each turn but, what happens with craftsmen if they can only use their machines four hours a day? Rosa Elena makes juggling to keep her small furniture studio. She has access to electricity from 9:00 to 13:00 and since 18:00, to illuminate during the night. She pays monthly over €74 for this service, but this is not enough to make survive her business, so she uses the planta, an electric generator powered by fuel for which she pays €18 per day. So she pays €434 each month, in addition to other amounts emanated from the measures of the paquetazo. She enumerates: foam rubber she fill the furniture with (piled in a coin of the workshop) has increased its prize in 100 pesos. Before, a pound of nails cost 25 and now it costs 55. The prize of a coffee packet has doubled from 5 to 10 pesos…
“If during the evening my children tell me they are hungry I suggest them to drink water. I cannot even buy an afternoon snack for them. To afford my daughter’s university we drink less water (tap water, which they pay always on time, is unsafe), we eat less and we make the most of soap”.
Rosa Elena is a single mother, as most of Dominican mothers. Marriage has been replaced by informal short-term relationships. Dominicans have a very precocious physical development that begins when babies are able to walk since they are 9 months only, and ends in an alarming teen pregnancy rate. The majority of teen mothers leaves the school after being abandoned by their partners, in a vicious circle of union and abandon in which woman shoulder all family responsibilities. Emigration does not help to solve the problem, and a lot of families suffer from separation when parents emigrate to find a better life in the United States or in Spain. Consequences of this situation are parallel families and children growing up in their grandparents or uncles’ houses. Promiscuity is a commonplace in a culture where perreo is gaining ground on the dance floors. Travelling to Dominican Republic gives the visitor not only a degree on slow living, but also one in the art of seduction. Teenagers and old people, they all develop this ability with the same effort as if they were learning to drive or to read properly. Men spend their time on learning to court women, and women invest lots of hours and resources in being (even more) attractive. As a matter of fact, the police officer filled in my immigration because “It is what Dominican law tells to do for beautiful women”. Suddenly, I remembered the British officer who intimidated me while scrutinizing my ID photo behind an anti-bullet glass at Stansted airport. Almost the same situation. However, this is only the friendly face of sentimental Dominican culture, where 24% of women between 14 and 49 years old admit have suffered from domestic abuse, caused by economical crisis, according to what it is said in social gatherings and also by public opinion. Men, they theorize, arrive at home full of concerns they forget by abusing their wives. An unfair reaction caused in some way by their entourage, they say. A sign that there is still much to be done.
Georgina is also a woodworker and has a child. In the Dominican Republic it is weird to find women who work with power saws. Georgina, Rosa, Elena and some other women in their situation are an honourable exception thanks to the work of Ce-Mujer, an association that trains them in non-traditional activities, mostly technical. In addition to help them finding a job and a professional development, the association tries to transform the sexist side of the Dominican mentality: most of these women’s partners have left them unable to accept their women worked in a workshop, as men do. This initiative also attempts to alleviate the effects of the tax-reform, which has restricted Dominicans’ access to the canasta básica, a set of basic products essential to any family, which value determines Dominicans standard of living. The Banco Central considers the cost of this canasta básica is €192.8, an amount of money only earned by 51% of the population. Georgina has stopped buying milk for their children. And the paquetazo is highly responsible for this situation.
For the population, one of the biggest problems of the paquetazo rests in knowing what the money is used for. After a huge campaign all over the country, the coalition Educación Digna has managed to achieve a commitment from the State to use 4% of the GDP in education programs. However, when it comes to applying it, the business class who helped the organization does not support a pay rise for teachers, whose average wage is about €278. By the time the country is debating the application of that measure, Minister of Education has increased her salary by 200%.
But the coalition is not alone. It is part of Justicia Fiscal, a social movement appeared after the paquetazo which counts with a high social participation and agrees with government in the necessity of increasing taxes. However, it works to demand a deeper fiscal revision to know how the money is invested. They think that has to be done from the basis, calculating how many resources are needed for achieving their goals. But by fixing the budget in a reasonable way they would have to leave behind the current patronage system. One of the initiatives of the organization was a “tournament-debate” where students, after a raffle, gave arguments in favour or against the reform. These activities are used to encourage tax policies analysis and criticism at national level. In students’ opinion, with whom I talked during my visit and who are a good reason to have faith in future, laws are well drafted. The problem is that they are not always enforced. Government makes huge investments without reflecting them on its official Program, so getting information about them is a complicated task. Last year and following an audit, the Chamber of Accounts admitted not knowing how many thousands of millions had been spent. There were no consequences. Santo Domingo underground, a huge construction project seen by many as disproportionately large compared to city’s poverty and the lack of some basic services (like tap water or electricity), did not appear in the annual budget: the millionaire investment, 40 times bigger than the money spent on water supply and sewage system in 2009, was taken from another line in the budget. We don’t know which line, because despite the existence of a law that guarantees the transparency of information, government sources have made their best to obstruct the access to the most compromising data. Silvio Minier, representative of Justicia Social who also works at Intermon Oxfam, complains that after thousands of requests, the Government has sent them hundreds of locked PDF files. In other words, they have to copy all the data by hand if they want to make any estimate, another detail that shows how hard it gets for citizens to control how their taxes are managed. It is not surprising that black economy represents 57%, and that public confidence on institutions is not in its best shape…
Bullets and cocoa
On my way to San Francisco de Macorís I cross the country in the passenger seat, half of my body out of the car aiming my camera to Dominicans, who are a gift to photographers and to observers in general. They do not care being observed and look back at me with a mixture of curiosity, pride and affection. They love the camera; I have gone from asking their permission shyly to not being able to meet their portrait demands. There is only one man who doesn’t let me take a picture of him. He is Haitian.
After spending a whole day with the people from San Francisco, we can barely imagine them carrying arms in violent protests as they did last April in response to the latest tax reform during which a young man was killed. They are, like the other Dominican I have met, extremely patient and polite, and they have an enviable ability to enjoy life. Yet we can still find some graffiti with the motto “un bombazo contra el paquetazo”5. As we leave the village, our car is invaded by a strong bitter scent, and cocoa plantations become dominant elements of the landscape. Patria Durán, a 69 year-old woman who looks 45, as everybody here, is a cocoa producer in the neighbourhood of La Ciénaga. With nine children to support and an old husband unable to work, she makes a living from the land and, at the same time, she is a public health promoter in her community. She invites me to her plantation: she walks peacefully in her sandals while I receive the visit of some yellow ants (those that bite) all over my calf, in spite of wearing long trousers and long socks.
“There are poisonous ants here?”
“And poisonous snakes?”
“The only poisonous animals left here are men”.
In the same way as many other cocoa producers do, Patria carries a machete the same size as Cocodrilo Dundee’s which she handles in a sweet grandmother’s expertise, and she teaches me how to do it. Ripe cobs (something a city editor cannot distinguish) are cut and opened using the machete and a simple but efficient flick of wrist. From its inside, producers extract a bunch of seeds covered by a white viscous substance. When I am offered to eat one of them, I decide to put it into my mouth quickly, almost without thinking. It is the most tasteful candy I have ever eaten. White alien substance turns out to be sugar, element that will cause fermentation in Hispaniola seeds, the best ones, used to produce dark 70% chocolate bars. Sánchez seeds, worse than the others, are used to make “American style” bars, as Mars or Milky Way. When the sun sets, we relax on the porch with her husband and one of her grandchildren. “We are lucky to have electrical light the day you are here. Tomorrow is our neighbours’ turn”.
Patria produces organic cocoa for a fair trade organization, and is part of the cooperative Cooproagro. Before, she sold her cocoa to an intermediary who fixed the prices unilaterally, and give her, for instance, 3900 pesos per quintal of product. As part of the cooperative, she knows the daily quotations for cocoa beans (4100 pesos for hispaniola cocoa) to sell it properly, she receives her share when they divide the annual income (over 800 more pesos per quintal), and she benefits from works carried out thanks to the social bonus, the money paid by the importer of fair trade products that, in the same way as Intermon Oxfam does, gives Cooproagro money to invest in community needs: asphalting works to encourage direct sales where no intermediary is needed, a health centre to avoid the long way to the hospital, the aqueduct that carried drinking water for the first time in the neighbourhood two months ago, a chapel for their religious practices, a school canteen… Have you heard about it before? Yes. These are indeed the services the State is not giving them. “We pay our taxes and government tells us they are going to help us, but we don’t have drinking water, or electrical light, or proper lanes…We can only notice organizations’ work”.
They have everything. They could enjoy everything. And they deserve it. They would only need not to be robbed…
Photograph: Guadalupe de la Vallina (Full gallery here)
The article was translated by Carolina Camarmo
1 It is not surprising that the singer Maluca Mala has Dominican origins.
2 Masacre is also the Spanish Word for “Massacre”
3 Spanish word for “Parsley”
4 Television nacional
5 “A bombing against the paquetazo”