Dominican Republic Feature

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The Dominican Republic Today

Leonel Is President Once Again

Locals just call him Leonel (lee-o-nel), but the full name of the Dominican Republic's president is Dr. Leonel Fernández Reyna. In 2008 the head of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) was reelected for his third term, which will be over in 2012. (He won his first four-year term in 1996, at the age of 42, but was not reelected until 2004). An intellectual politicoand a former New Yorker, he put the country on a sound economic path in the 1990s, curbing waste, fostering privatization, lowering unemployment and illiteracy, and awakening tourism. Leonel was defeated in 2000 by Hipólito Mejí, a so-called man of the street, whose reign proved disastrous. It is said that when Leonel took over again in 2004, the treasury was nearly empty. The sales tax was raised to an unpopular 16%, and to reduce crime in the capital a midnight curfew on weeknights (2 am on weekends) was established. Although the curfew has put some nightclubs out of business, the city is a safer place, and the extra money in government coffers is devoted to tourism infrastructure developments. These days, Leonel doesn't rate as high in the popularity pools as he originally did, and rumor has it that he has fallen into some of the typical political pitfalls.

Tourism Is Expanding the Middle Class

The past 20 years have improved the income and standard of living for many Dominicans. Since 1992 tourism has grown to encompass 24% of the country's GDP, and car dealerships are opening up all over the island, this in a place where a car—never mind a luxury import—was inconceivable for most families. The government plans to invest some $1 billion in tourism infrastructure developments by 2012. For many, education and social mobility have come through tourism. Although they may have grown up in a palm-thatched hut with a dirt floor, many tourism workers now own a home in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood. Poverty, however, is still omnipresent, from city slums to the most remote areas, especially near the Haitian border.

Dominican New Yorkers Return Home

Many Dominicans who have been living in New York—sometimes for decades—are now starting to come home to retire and/or invest their hard-earned money. For decades, those sons and daughters who chose to try and get ahead in the States have sent their dollars home to their families. Remittances from Dominicans who live outside the country, particularly those one million brothers and sisters in New York, were calculated to amount to $1 billion annually. Although they are still a top source of revenue for the country, the Dominican New Yorkers have been negatively impacted by the world economic downturn, like so many others.

Dominican Players Are Synonymous with Good Baseball

Osvaldo "Ozzie" Virgil was the first Dominican to enter the U.S. Major Leagues when he made the NY Giants in 1953. He paved the way for the 82 players who now populate our majors, including the ever-popular Manny Ramirez. The famous Alou "baseballing" family started its sporting history when Felipe Alou debuted for the San Francisco Giants in 1958. Mateo (Matty) made the Giants two years later; Jesus followed Matty into the Giants in '63 and now Moises is "the man."

Superstar athletes can be credited with bringing both their fame and hard-earned cash to their homeland. Their substantial salaries contribute to the country's economy, too, from the luxury penthouses they buy to the philanthropic donations that can turn around a whole hometown. Sammy Sosa, who started life as a shoeshine boy in San Pedro Macorís, has donated a sizeable fortune to that mighty town that spawns baseball greats. He owns an apartment in the capital's classy Malecón Center and a villa at Casa de Campo, as does Juan Marichal. Known for his flamboyant style, Marichal was one of the early Dominican record-breaking pitchers and the first Dominican Hall of Famer (1983). His Juan Marichal Golf Tournament at Los Marlins Golf Course, held annually in Juan Dolio, has raised millions for the island's needy families.

Larimar and Amber Gain International Recognition

These indigenous semiprecious stones are starting to bring in big bucks to the island. For years amber was the more popular product, but as the novelty of wearing fossilized resin has held steady, interest in larimar has grown. Larimar, a pectoline that is the color of the Caribbean Sea, is being set in sterling silver with more upscale designs and is especially gaining popularity in Europe. Jewelers are having difficulty meeting demand. There's only one larimar mine in the world, and that's in Bahoruco, in the Southwest.

High Energy Prices Foster Innovation

Electricity all over the Caribbean is more expensive than in the United States, but rates are among the world's highest in the Dominican Republic. And despite these exorbitant prices, regular power outages occur; in some neighborhoods they even occur daily. (The power company justifies this by saying that if everyone actually paid for their electricity, there wouldn't be any outages.) This has forced innovation. Wealthy homeowners have always had generators, but the growing cost of diesel fuel has created a surge in sales of efficient, compact fluorescent bulbs and solar hot-water heaters to both homeowners and small inns and bed-and-breakfasts. Apartment dwellers, particularly in Santo Domingo, have small, battery-operated generators. People are also resorting to wind power. As prices rise at the pump, more taxi drivers are turning their vehicles over to propane, which is a third of the cost; at approximately RD$10,000 (US$275, which is still real money in the Dominican Republic), a propane conversion is an investment to save over the long haul. Larger resort complexes that use a lot of power enter the sustainable realm by growing some of their own food and planting heat-absorbing trees to shade buildings.

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