Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Stannard, a former lobbyist, who is still an author and musician. This is the last of a three-part series on the Dominican Republic.
Much has changed in the Dominican Republican since I was last here in 2001; most of it for the better. But as the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Most people here do still live a substandard lifestyle compared to most people in the United States. However, whether or not our lifestyle is better would be subject to interpretation. Americans like to think that they live in the freest country in the world and perhaps they do. We can leave the country and return home, which many people around the world are not able to do. That is a real shame. But if you drive down the road in America your vehicle must go a certain speed; must have proper lights; you must wear your seat belts, you can only pass in certain areas; you’re expected to ride on the right side of the road and your vehicle must be registered and inspected. If you fail to do any of these you can be assured that there will be a police officer who will stop and ticket you. In the Dominican Republic your vehicle must be registered and that’s about it. There are no police in cruisers waiting to bust you.
On a night trip from Sosua to Las Terrenas we encountered many people on small motorcycles that had no lights at all. Some were going with traffic, some against traffic. Yes, this may sound like an insane way to drive, but if you can come to grips with the fact that these people have virtually no laws when it comes to driving and that the road works if everyone is paying attention and respects other drivers. If there is an accident both parties are likely to claim responsibility versus trying to say it was the other driver’s fault. It’s not a bad way to live and perhaps having fewer laws may cause people to acquiescent and come to a resolution if something does happen.
We think of this country as being a Third World country, which it is, but if you spend time here you realize that they appear to enjoy a different degree of freedom than most Americans.
There’s plenty of crime here, just like there is everywhere when you have an overabundance of poor people. We paid a visit to an old friend, Sulieka, who once worked for Helen. We have not seen her in many years. She’s worked hard and put every extra peso she had into a lovely, cement house. If you own a cement house you are considered to be middle class. Her brother-in-law is a fisherman, who unfortunately had his motor stolen on his boat so he’s not able to work. He didn’t seemed too stressed out about it. “Somebody else needed my motor more than I did.”
It’s a mystery how he’ll be able to afford a new motor since he’s not working, but that is the nature of this country. Just about everything that happens here every day is a mystery. No one bothers to question things that happen; they just go with the flow. No problem.
I interviewed one of the many people here selling ridiculously beautiful, fresh fruits and vegetables, a man named Angelo (but it might be Timouthy). As fate would have it, he worked in New York for a web marketing company, a near perfect job for anyone from this country. He decided to come back and work at the family business. “I’m not here for the money. You can’t make any money here. I’m here for the culture. Las Terrenas is a beautiful town,” he said.
I suggested that this town/country could use his marketing skills and he directed my attention to a laptop that he had set up in the back of the shop. The contrast of yesterday colliding with today was very satisfying.
According to people with whom I’ve spoken to here, as of this year the government is poised to finally comply with a law passed some time ago that says 4 percent of the GNP must be spent on education. This would require the government to invest $2 billion into education. Even though the law has been on the books, the government has invested only about half of what is called for.
A disturbing 13 percent of all people over the age of 15 are illiterate. The new president, Danilo Medina, seems to want to do the right thing and to comply with the law. People here are taking a wait-and-see approach to see if his actions meet his words. Most, but not all, kids here either go to school in the morning or after lunch. The additional funding would allow them to go to school all day, thus furthering their education and hopefully affording them better lives.
Much like it is true for other countries around the world the future of the Dominican Republic lies in its children. Having a well-educated population will inevitably work to the long-term benefit of this remarkable country occupied by hard-working, decent people. As for President Medina’s promises, people here have heard it all before. They have lived under corrupt leaders who exploited the country for their personal gain. They have lived through some very tough times.
Today feels different. Things appear to be on the move here, which, of course, can be both good and bad. Some locals with whom I spoke said that they would prefer I not write anything positive about this country, because they don’t want any more people coming here. Sound familiar? With growth of this degree comes more corruption, drugs, sex trafficking and crime in general. Not unlike any major city in America there are parts of this country where you would want to be more on your guard than other parts. There are more than enough confidence men floating around just waiting to snag a peso or two from your wallet, so you do need to exercise some caution.
However, if you can get by some of the apparent, and not so apparent obstacles (the weather, for the most part, not being one of them), and you are friendly and decent to the folks who’ve lived here for many generations you will be rewarded with brilliant smiles and people willing to drop everything they’re doing to help you out. There are few places that I’ve been to where I have ever felt this safe, Vermont being one of them. Thinking about it, this place, and the people living here, remind me very much of my home state. They mind their own business, but will lend a helping hand and/or information if called upon.
If only we could swap weather with this country we’d be all set.
This place, and the people living here, remind me very much of my home state. They mind their own business, but will lend a helping hand and/or information if called upon.
In closing, I think it’s fair to say that the Dominican Republic has undergone significant growth and changes in the past 13 years. I think it’s also fair to say that all-in-all this growth has been beneficial to the working people, the people who are this country’s strength. Their standard of living has increased. There are opportunities here for people who want to work hard to get ahead and possibly own their own home. Opportunities for young people and working people also appear to be on the rise, or at least more so than when I was last here.
Spending some time here is enough to make you stop and ask if America might be becoming more of a Third World country. Some people are actively working to destroy our unions and privatize our schools. Some are working hard to keep people from voting, as opposed to encouraging everyone who is a legitimate voter to vote. Thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign financing, the nation’s wealthiest people will now be in a better position to buy our congressmen. We have allowed our infrastructure to deteriorate. We’ve seen our country stalled by recession initiated by greed and lack of oversight.
The key to the success of any country is to the put people first. Although I’m not completely sure that this is the goal of this country, they certainly seem to be taking more initiatives designed to help people than what I’ve seen in the past. The country has had its share of corruption and probably still does, but for now it seems that things are happening to improve the lives of the average Dominican. If they can keep this up, then perhaps they stand a chance at a better life for all.