By:Bill Decker Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:Heads of State
Tourism, Agriculture, and a Really Good Barber
The last decade has been tough on the Dominican Republic. There has been poverty, bank collapses, significant decreases in trade, floods, and most recently an influx of short-term immigrants after the devastating earthquakes in Haiti. Rafael Hipólito Mejía Domínguez, the President of The Dominican Republic (DR), from 2000-2004, spoke with me during the Biennial.
The interview was scheduled to take place at 9:30 a.m. but slipped to 9:50 a.m. As we were ushered into the room, one of my colleagues turned to me and said...“Latin time.” It was something of a mob scene, with 40 or 50 journalists approaching these diplomats, each hoping for at least a few minutes of undivided attention.
As soon as I found Mejía, he remarked in English, “You must know my barber.” I was put at ease when he used the same corny joke that I have been using for years; Mr. Mejia and I are both bald. Once he started with a joke, it was easy to see that this was a man who wore his charisma as well as he wore his blue suit.
Just a bit of framing... Early in the decade the Dominican Republic experienced a horrible recession which drove it to great poverty. Just days before leaving office, the country had a siege of power deficiencies and blackouts. The economic crisis and the government’s feud with the electric companies - all foreign-owned - had kept most of the 8.8 million residents unhappy for days in 100 degree heat. Mejia blamed his predecessor for the electricity problems; arguably those deals had been cut years ago and Mejia was not responsible.
Although Mejía’s term was fraught with controversy, he remains committed to his country and its residents. As an active member of the Global Center for Development and Democracy, Mejia is pushing for more social equality, while making political institutions more inclusive.
Despite my list of questions, and previewing them with colleagues and cohorts about their appropriateness, the ball was clearly in Mejía’s court. As a market entry specialist myself, my curiosity was about trade, business incentives, ability to license technology, and cross-cultural difficulties in working with Dominicans. He announced to me that he would like to comment on tourism and agriculture. So, that is exactly what he did.
Mejía expressed that the Dominican Republic is a “poor country with happy people.” He is right – the estimated 9.8 million Dominican people are by nature, friendly and warm-hearted and ranked as 2nd happiest out of 143 countries based on life expectancy, satisfaction levels, and ecological practices as measured by the New Economics Foundations Happiness Index.
While high on the "happy list," much of the nation (± 40%) suffers from marked income inequality with few Western defined necessities like water, electricity, or paved roads. High unemployment and underemployment remains an important long-term challenge for the country.
Although the country has poverty issues, they are hidden well from the tourists who visit this Caribbean paradise. “The sun shines year-round; we have nearly 250 miles of pristine coastlines, and we have 23,000 rooms available for tourists,” Mejía said. As the country tries to lure millions to its beaches, it is ecotourism that is a growing industry. Ecotourism is a form of responsible travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact, while engaging the traveler with the environment and cultural heritage of the area. Mejía expressed that the DR is a “world leader in this new type of tourism.” In fact, the DR is one of just a few countries that has nine distinct ecological zones – each different and exciting – like Duarte Peak which rises 10,560 feet within the Cordillera Central Mountain chain or Lake Enriquillo which is 15 feet below sea level – which bodes well of this sort of tourism. When asked about foreign ownership in tourism and any social or political difficulties that may arise from that, he assured me that 95% of all hotels are owned by foreigners, mostly American, and that there are “no problems.” "The Dominican Republic is one of just a few countries that has nine distinct ecological zones - each different and exciting - like Duarte Peak which rises 10,560 feet within the Cordillera Central Mountain chain or Lake Enriquillo which is 15 feet below sea level." -Hipólito Mejía
Over the last few years, the growing hospitality service sector has overtaken agriculture as the economy's largest employer, but the DR is highly dependent upon the U.S. for its agricultural products. Overall, agricultural exports of sugar, coffee, fruit, and tobacco contribute nearly 12% of GDP, while 60% - 70% of revenues come from the U.S. Other major trading partners include Canada, Japan and countries in Western Europe.
Based on a strong 50 year democracy, Mejía believes that his country needs to be more favorably presented by the media. He stressed the importance of the press to share the breakthroughs in the country’s improving education systems, reduced poverty levels, conservation initiatives, and infrastructure improvements in highways, electricity, and high speed communications. Mejía said, “The quality of the experience will sell itself.”
Mejía’s goodbye to me was when he handed me a card that said “Llego Papa” which translates to “Get Papa.” He explained to me that he was running again. I joked that “Get Papa” can be taken in more than one way. He laughed and patted me on the back and then there was that slight squeeze on the shoulder that served as a handshake.
While there was no audience for my questions on trade and investment, being outflanked by a career politician is nothing to be ashamed of. And the more controversial the country, the more adroit and maneuverable its leader. Whether one agrees with Mejía or not, there is no denying the power of his charm.