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HMA Fisher BRITCHAM Speech: "Reflections on the Dominican Republic"

HMA Steven Fisher's speech at BRITCHAM Breakfast "Reflections on the Dominican Republic" on April 28, 2015

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

HMA Steven Fisher
HMA Steven Fisher during his speech at BRITCHAM Breakfast April 28, 2015

“Lic. Jochy Rodriguez, President of Britcham, Distinguished Britcham ex-Presidents, renown members of the Board of Directors Ladies and Gentlemen

To begin with, let me be very honest. I received the invitation to speak at this event with very mixed feelings. Initially there was a feeling of joy. It is a great honour to receive such a flattering invitation – especially from an institution which is a real friend of Britain and the British Embassy. But joy soon turned to nervousness: what on earth could I find to say which would be interesting to such a distinguished audience as that which I knew Britcham would attract. My sense of nervousness was transformed to outright terror when, to my dismay, I found that guests were expected to pay 2,500 pesos for the dubious privilege of listening to me. This certainly helped to focus my mind. And may I say that if anyone is disappointed or dissatisfied I will personally refund the cost of the event, although obviously minus the cost of the breakfast you have consumed!

Today I want to talk about a subject that is close to all of our hearts. About which you know more than I. About which we all care deeply, for one reason or another. The Dominican Republic. I will need to tread carefully, as is required of a foreign Ambassador. But although I will avoid certain sensitive subjects – such as elections, constitutional amendments and candidates – I will not avoid all sensitive subjects. My remarks will reflect how I see this country after five memorable years here as HM Ambassador. My comments will be personal, although in the most part they can be taken as a reflection of the views of the UK Government. DR’s relations with UK are good, but could be better. Trade is growing, but it could grow more quickly. Most, though not all, UK investments are doing well; and we would like there to be more investment. We have a close dialogue with Government on issues that matter to both countries, from human rights to climate change. We cooperate well in police and defence matters. But as I have said many times, the world’s sixth largest economy and the largest economy in the Caribbean/Central American region could and should be capable of doing more together.
One of the keys to us achieving more together is the level of socio-economic development in DR.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of troops of the US 82nd Airborne Division at San Isidro Airbase during the 1965 Revolution and Civil War. Fascinated by what happened in DR half a century ago, I researched the British National Archives to see what the British Embassy was telling London about those events. I found that my predecessor, Mr Stafford Campbell, who was running the Embassy at the time, maintained a very British sense of humour despite the frightening events going on around him. Here is how he described the situation in a telegram to the Foreign Office on 30th April 1965: “Conditions here appalling…street fighting continues. Reign of Terror prevails in some sectors. All staff now in Embassy with good supply of scotch whisky and other essentials, but could do with some bagpipes”.
The next day, his telegram to the Foreign Office assured them that: “we will evacuate when food and whisky run out”. The very serious replies that Campbell received from London made no reference whatsoever to whisky.

But more seriously, here is how he characterised the Revolution in a telegram to London on 4th May: “What happened here is that the patient beast of burden suddenly turned into a tiger. Beneath the evident Communist exploitation is a spontaneous explosion of rage and frustration. It is hoped that the governing classes have learnt something, but I doubt it”. In a brilliant eight page despatch of 24th May 1965 he praised the courage of those who had defended the revolution and then turned his attention to the Government. “…the governing class of this country bear a heavy responsibility for what has happened: for them the acquisition of a social conscience is now essential to their survival because if these people …revert to their previous manipulation of the Government apparatus for their own exclusive benefit, the most terrible consequences are likely to flow from their bad judgement….The governing class, whose representatives seized power in September 1963 can hardly have realised what they were doing. Now they have had a horrible fright; if they take the real lesson from it, the horror will not have been endured entirely in vain”. Campbell clearly felt strongly that social injustice and corruption were holding back the country. I wonder how he would regard the country fifty years on?

There is clearly no doubt that DR has progressed enormously since those days. Many Dominicans do now possess the social conscience of which Campbell spoke. President Medina is clearly within that number. But I wonder whether the nation as a whole has yet developed sufficient social conscience to really take it forward.
The world and region have also changed. The Communist threat – real or perceived – has receded from the Caribbean. The Chinese and Russian presence is growing, but without an ideological flavour. There is even dialogue between Havana and Washington. But has the issue of basic social inequality in DR, which Campbell identified in 1965, been adequately addressed?

According to World Bank figures, in the past 20 years poverty in Latin America has fallen from 44% to 28%. That regional fall was especially sharp between 2006 and 2013. In those seven years poverty in the Dominican Republic fell from 44% to 41%; in Chile from 29% to 14%, and in Peru from 49% to 25%. I asked my colleagues in Santiago how the Chileans had managed to halve poverty in seven years. They cited: consistent economic growth; increasing salaries – and greater participation by women in the workforce with decent wages; and (I quote): “a generally clean police force and judiciary makes a big difference” Unquote.

The DR has grown economically more than any Latin American country since 1965, including Chile, but this has not helped reduce poverty as dramatically as in many Latin American countries. May I suggest DR society should be concerned by this, and ask itself why? Visitors to DR who go beyond the beaches of Punta Cana are immediately struck by the fact that there are two DRs. DR of the poor; and the rest. Those who stay longer and get to know the country realise that within the “non poor” there are two DRs; the extremely wealthy minority and the middle class. It is a sobering thought that whereas across the Latin American continent the middle class now outnumbers the poor, in the Dominican Republic the middle class is actually smaller than it was 15 years ago. In the DR, as in most of the continent, the poor only meet the non-poor when the latter provides the workforce for the former. Or when politicians need the votes of the 40% who live in poverty.

Apart from mattering on a human and, for those who believe, a Christian level – this should bother us all on a hard-nosed economic level. Whatever you are selling in DR this matters. Whether you are selling high end vehicles, branded medicines, imported foods, clothing, high value added alcoholic beverages, or business and financial services the fact that DR is effectively two societies really matters. For most of the products and services that UK companies sell to DR, the market ranges from 5 million down to a few hundred thousand, depending on the cost of the item in question. Many businesses are simply missing the majority of the 10 million potential customers that live in this country. And the speed with which the missing millions are joining the number of your customers is not sufficient, nor is it up with the rate at which other Latin American countries are bringing their people out of poverty and into the consuming class.

There is another, darker side to poverty, which should also concern all of us that want to do business, live, work, retire or spend holidays in the DR. Poverty breeds crime. This is not the place to dwell on that issue, but suffice to say that crime passing through DR now represents a major threat to the UK. I am referring, primarily, to drug trafficking. But there are also issues of people trafficking, illegal movement of weapons, sexual exploitation of minors, and so-called sex tourism sometimes involving British nationals – all of which concern us. President Medina knows this and may I say publicly, on behalf of the UK Government, that we applaud the work his government has done to address some of the root causes. Through education, promotion of SMEs and the countryside, and other measures he is trying to address the problem of poverty. There is evidence that it is creeping downwards, at last. But still there is no sense … yet … of DR being a country where poverty is really on the retreat, and where the gains are permanent and sustainable. So for now, there is no prospect of the market for your goods and services leaping from 5 million to 8, 9, 10 million in the short or medium term. That is a loss to your bottom line, as well as being a human tragedy. I hope to return many times to DR once my mandate finishes and I hope to see a country in which more and more Dominicans can benefit from the economic growth the country continues to achieve.

Another area which holds back DR from becoming the commercial partner we would all like it to be is justice. The British Embassies files contain details of several cases in which the performance of the Dominican justice system is seen to be woeful. In one case the list of reasons for cases to be adjourned contains excuses so laughable that it is hard to believe they are true. In other cases British citizens have waited literally years, and continue to wait, for their day in court and the chance to obtain justice. The system is slow, frustrating, and unfair. The speech of the President of the Supreme Court on 7th January 2014 gave a brilliant analysis of the problems besetting the system. But for now, British citizens and companies continue to suffer. So too do the citizens of many other countries – above all Dominicans. And as the years pass, and justice is not forthcoming, those individuals and companies that came to the DR in a positive frame of mind, ready to contribute to the development of this country, become cynical, angry and dispirited. Instead of talking positively about the DR they do just the opposite. Access to justice is a basic human right, enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 7 and 8. In my five years here I have become convinced that this right is effectively being denied to many people in this country.

I said at the beginning of this speech that I would not avoid all sensitive subjects. Let me honour that pledge by talking about Haiti. To begin with, let’s debunk a couple of myths. Myth Number One. There is an international plot to force the island of Hispaniola to unite. This is simply not true. An early version of the Haitian Constitution contained such an ambition, but that has long since disappeared. No one – US, France, Canada, UK – has ever for one second considered promoting such an absurd policy. Myth Number Two: The International Community expects DR to bear the burden of “rescuing” Haiti. This too is nonsense. International aid, including British, to Haiti does not count on any direct contribution from the DR. Dominicans’ assistance to Haiti is well recognised and respected by all who follow Haitian affairs. Dominicans were the first to assist Haiti after the earthquake. Dominican investors and engineers are helping Haiti’s development. Dominican businessmen are feeding Haiti by exporting food. And the Dominican Government is working hard to drive forward the bilateral relationship in many important areas through the Binational Mixed Commission. Beyond those highly valuable activities, from some of which Dominicans profit handsomely in the private sector, no one expects DR to carry the burden of supporting Haiti. We urge both countries to work hard and constructively, with openness and good faith, so that both can benefit from a decent, mutually supportive relationship.
Having debunked those two myths, a word about naturalization and regularization. Constitutional Court ruling 168/13 was controversial. I have no right to publicly express an opinion, other than to observe that there was no consensus amongst the judges themselves. No wonder, then, there were differing opinions in society. What has happened since that ruling is of truly historic significance. The social consequences of decades of uncertainty, informality and irregularity over migration are now being dealt with. In this sense, Law 169/14, which was enacted to deal with the consequences of 168/13 and the “Plan Nacional de Regularization de Extranjeros” (National Plan of Foreigner Regularisation), mark a turning point in Dominican social history. The UK Government applauds the Dominican Government for both initiatives. Law 169/14 provides a special naturalization regime for the descendants of non-resident foreigners with an irregular migration status; that is a very significant gesture by the Dominican government. The eyes of the world are on this country to see how that offer is honoured to those who have received it. And the Regularization Plan offers to migrants here the same deal that should be offered them anywhere. If you have legitimate reasons to be in this country and your presence is in line with our regulations then you may remain. If not, then you must leave. For those that must leave, it is vital that the process of leaving is handled with respect for human rights. But leave they surely must. No one, least of all in my country, will criticise the DR for carrying out deportations – provided they are lawful and respectful of human rights. We recognize the historic task that President Medina’s Government has undertaken. We recognise that the Haitian government must also play its part, in providing documentation and assisting with repatriation of deportees in a civilised manner. After the June 15th deadline for entering the Regularization Plan passes, all eyes will focus on the Dominican Republic to see how the authorities deal with the results of the process. I feel confident, having heard the Government speak on this issue, that their actions will be honourable. But it is not just the President and his ministers that count. Every member of CESFRONT, every policeman, every member of the JCE and the Directorate General of Migration – all of their actions are also open to scrutiny. It is in the interests of the DR that they all act in complete accordance with national and international law and respecting human rights at every stage.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my first posting as a diplomat was Singapore. A country which had risen from being a virtually failed state in 1965 to one of the wealthiest countries in the world by 1995 when I arrived there. How did they do it:

  • Political stability

  • An extremely reliable and transparent business environment

  • A hard line on corruption – especially misuse of public funds

  • No impunity for anyone, neither rich nor politically well connected

  • Impeccable race relations, ensuring that Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans respected each other and each other’s traditions.

When I was in Singapore, UK Ministers would regularly visit in order to learn from the Singapore model. How did they organise pensions, how did they ensure high standards of public education, how did they attract inward investment which drove the country’s economy into increasingly high tech and high value added activities? Everyone can learn from others. My wish for the Dominican Republic as I prepare to leave in a few months time, is that it will continue to be the unique, special, beautiful country that it has always been, but that at the same time it will learn from others; from countries like Singapore.

In the future I wish to return to a DR in which the following statements are true:

  • There is one, integrated Dominican society

  • There is fair, affordable access to justice and no impunity

  • Drug trafficking has been defeated and violent crime, including feminicide, has been dramatically reduced

  • Extreme poverty has been eradicated and poverty radically reduced

  • Most people are formally employed and real wages have increased

  • Children are not placed in the streets to beg; and those that place them there now have been severely punished

  • The handicapped are cared for and integrated into society

  • The government does not have to publicly remind students, parents and teachers that school restarts on the Monday after all holidays; and classes of 50 pupils remain a memory of the past

  • The Police are well paid, efficient and respected

  • Migrants are well treated by the authorities at all times; they are never abused, arbitrarily deported or forced to pay “peaje” (toll) when crossing the border. And as workers they are always protected by the state and the law.

On a personal level….I hope to revisit a DR where all the friends and acquaintances that I have made, and whose warmth and advice have helped me to enjoy my time in this great country, are all enjoying prosperity and peace.
And a final wish – that there should be a boom in investment from the UK, and a rapid upswing in UK-DR trade in both directions.

Ladies and Gentleman you have been most patient. Let me now reward that patience by doing what I am sure everyone would now want me to do. End. I will do so with a final thought. A foreign Ambassador can play virtually no part in achieving most of the goals for DR which I have mentioned. They must be achieved by Dominicans, led by whoever occupies the Presidential Palace. I personally know Dominicans who are indeed pushing forward towards those goals. And that’s why I am optimistic. Perhaps the only thing that a foreign Ambassador can offer is a useful perspective and a degree of frankness. That has been my intention this morning. I thank you for your attention, and my offer to refund the disappointed ones remains on the table.”

Published 28 April 2015