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Daily News - 11 December 2003

US envoy Noriega on economic chaos
"There are no easy solutions to complex problems" was the warning issued by Roger Noriega, United States Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The US envoy is in the country for high-level meetings with government officials in the run-up to the signing of the re-negotiated agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Noriega's verdict on the Dominican economy was that it is in "profound chaos" but, with a more optimistic assessment, he pronounced it "fundamentally healthy". He told Dominican legislators that action needed to be taken against all cases of banking fraud, applying all the legal measures and without regard for the consequences. He promised assistance in this area, saying that the US was not an "indifferent observer" to the Dominican Republic's current economic plight. He added that all sectors appeared to be committed to step in and help. Once the IMF agreement is signed, success will hinge on the combined efforts of government business and civil society, but it is up to the government to make "sacrifices and firm decisions" to benefit the country as a whole. Noriega commented that although debate was healthy, interminable debates could only harm the process. While he acknowledged that many Dominicans are pessimistic, he expressed that it was time to cast such pessimism and cynicism aside. "However, the nation's productive capacity is fundamentally healthy and the Dominicans are a hard-working people who love their country and want to see that the law is adhered to," he encouraged. There is a need to strengthen the law and democratic institutions in order to fight corruption more effectively, said Noriega.

Noriega on politics
Noriega also touched on the importance of clean and transparent Presidential elections. "We look forward to working with the winner of next year's election. The Dominican people expect a clean election and the nation is perfectly capable of achieving this. The US shares these interests". Roger Noriega thanked the Dominican people for having sent troops to Iraq, saying that "their sacrifices and bravery would not be forgotten". An interesting footnote to Noriega's address in the national Congress is that according to Diario Libre's "El Espia" sidebar, two versions of the speech were distributed by the US embassy. The paragraph which appears in one version but is absent from the other, reads as follows: "There is no greater honor than an elected leader who puts the national interest above his own personal concerns. We are confident that you will carry out the responsibilities you have taken on for the sake of your country, because, after all, that is why you are here".

Mixed reaction to FX clampdown
The forced closures of illegal exchange houses by the military authorities will continue, according to statements by President Hipolito Mejia and Armed Forces chief Jose Miguel Soto Jimenez. The President said that he would not allow these illegal outfits to "play with something that is so important for the country". The aim is to force the dollar-peso rate back down to RD$30. It is reported that since the posted rate began to drop, there have been few or no dollars available for purchase. There has been mixed reaction to the government's actions. The association of exchange agents ADOCAMBIO has welcomed the moves. Its president, Augusto Peignand, said that "many of these agencies are operating on the margins of the law, handling significant sums, evading taxes and providing opportunities for money laundering". This, according to Peignand, creates distortions in the exchange market and is beyond the control of the monetary authorities. Jose Alfredo Rizek, president of the National Foundation for Justice and Institutionalism (FINJUS) expressed some reservations about the legality of the procedures, as reported in the Listin Diario. Marisol Vicens of the Young Entrepreneurs Association (ANJE) was critical of the policy, and called on the government to put a halt to the shutdowns. Yesterday the US dollar was being valued at between RD$37 to RD$38 by banks and exchange houses, though it is understood that none were actually available for purchase.

Business consolidates against export tax
CONEP, ASONAHORES and ADOEXPO - three major forces in the Dominican business sector - continue their campaign against the proposed 5% tax on exports being pushed through by the government. Private business association CONEP is suggesting that the government introduce other taxes to breach the quasi-fiscal deficit, as part of the requirements for the agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Hoteliers association ASONAHORES and exporters association ADOEXPO are, for their part, proposing a one-off special contribution as an alternative to the 5% tax, an idea that has been met with stiff opposition from the export sector. In a document released yesterday, CONEP analyzes the export sector in detail and finds that there is no way the tax will succeed in its objective of raising RD$7.6 billion, the sum promised by the government to the IMF. "No country taxes exports. Exports are subsidized and imports are taxed," concludes the CONEP document. JAD, the agricultural business board, also warned that the farming sector would not be able to bear the burden of a 5% tax on top of all the other difficulties it is experiencing. In a written document delivered yesterday at the hearings on the tax in the Chamber of Deputies, CONEP stated: "No country penalizes its exports. Countries penalize imports and subsidize exports."

Only poor to get electric subsidy
El Caribe newspaper gives prominence to a report that says the proposed reform of electricity subsidies would grant subventions to the most disadvantages consumers only. The rest should see their bills increase after January, according to Power Superintendent George Reynoso. It is widely expected that the increase will be 50%, but Reynoso was not able to give an exact figures, saying that such details will depend on the outcome of the IMF negotiations. The determining factor for eligibility for subsidies will be the level of electricity consumption: those using less that 200 kilowatts/hour. The electricity companies are reporting a fall in payment collection over the last couple of months, with an increasing number of consumers defaulting on their bills. On a brighter note, the companies are reported to be achieving close to 100% generating capacity over the last few days, resulting in fewer power outages.

Power collections collapse
Edwin Croes, general manager of the Ede-Norte and Ede-Sur power distributors now under government control, told Hoy newspaper that collections fell RD$1.2 billion in November. He attributed the decline to a mafia operating within the distributors' structure, as well as to the increased blackouts and the suspension of the fraud control police operation (PAEF). Following the buyout, the government cut funding to the PAEF program that was at the service of the companies when under the management of the Spanish company, Union Fenosa. Croes complained employees have not been paid in the two months nor have they received funds for the operation of inspector vehicles. Croes explained he suspects an inside mafia is responsible for the reduced billing. He said that insiders are apparently negotiating billing total reductions with large and middle-sized clients for a fee. Croes threatened that those caught would be treated severely -not just lose their jobs as he said was the practice in the past. He also mentioned that many of those found delinquent in the past latter found jobs in the Superintendence of Power or with the companies they were irregularly assisting. Meanwhile, Ede-Este, which controls a third of the power distribution market and was not bought back by the government, reports that collections only fell RD$60 million, about 5% of total billing. This is attributed to the worsening of the economy and the extended blackouts.

Mejia mocks Hatuey primary
President Hipolito Mejia joked with reporters who asked him for his opinions on last Sunday's PRD primary election. The voting was won by re-election opponent Hatuey De Camps, beating out Ramon Alburquerque and Rafael Abinader. "No-one saw it, it was an abstract affair, held in familiar intimacy," said the President. He added that all the reports he had received cited inconsistencies in the process, and that "votes materialized, like the person who presents statistics but adds on a few zeros for good measure". This coming weekend will see the remaining pre-candidates - Hipolito Mejia, Milagros Ortiz Bosch, Rafael Subervi Bonilla and Enmanuel Esquea Guerrero - locking horns for selection. The newspapers this morning carry full-page paid advertisements with poll results showing Hipolito Mejia with a clear lead of 51.4% over his nearest rival, Fello Subervi, with 30.1%. It shows that even if the other three were to combine their votes, they would only have 46.5%, not enough to strip Mejia of his absolute majority. The poll was carried out using a sample of 1,251 PRD members between 4-6 December, by Alfonso, Cabrera & Asociados.

No hurry at JCE?
Diario Libre reports that the Central Electoral Board (JCE) seems to be taking its sweet time to sort out the PRD dispute in which two primary elections are being held, and which will result in two Presidential candidates both claiming to represent the same party. The newspaper also reveals that the JCE phone lines have been out of action for some days now, forcing employees to make all their calls on their government-issued cellular phones.

The white elephant stomps through
When the government chose to take over large areas of the Mirador del Este park to build Olympic standard facilities for the August 2003 Pan American Games, protests were widespread. Visionaries said that the trees were being torn for what would become a park of white elephants. The critics of the construction pointed to the track record of abandoned sports parks built for the National Sports Games nationwide. Today, the Listin Diario reports that the pessimistic forecast is now reality. The sports pages' main story focuses on complaints of the residents near the park area, who say access to the park is restricted, while sports advocates are decrying the removal of important sporting equipment by unknown persons. Listin Diario reporters say the area has been abandoned, with only half a dozen military were to be found at the entrance door to the center that cost taxpayers over RD$1 billion. The reporters mentioned that no one bothered to rescue the recently planted palm trees that cost RD$15,000-RD$25,000 each and fell due to the strong winds of Tropical Storm Odette last week. Instead, trespassers have chopped the trees to sell the "palmito", an edible vegetable found inside the trunk.

Odette damage: RD$294 million
Tropical storm Odette that lashed the southwest of the country on Saturday night, has caused extensive material damage, reports Listin Diario newspaper. The provinces of Barahona and Baoruco were worst hit, with damage to crops totaling just short of RD$294 million. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that as much as 85% of the plantain crop in the area was devastated, although the final figures are not yet available. Coffee was also affected, on the eve of the harvest season. The ministry announced it would organize farmers' work brigades to rehabilitate the damage.

Aeromar limbo strands thousands
Dominican airline Aeromar, which ceased its operations earlier this month due to severe financial problems, has left 6,000 travelers with paid tickets but no flight home for Christmas. El Caribe reports that many were not given any warning of the predicament and are now unable to obtain alternative flights. With little hope for immediate refunds many lack the resources to purchase an additional airline ticket, many lack the resources to purchase an additional airline ticket. December is the busiest time for air travel between US cities such as New York and the Dominican Republic - routes that were served by the airline. Aeromar had reportedly sold a healthy 5,000 tickets for the period 17-30 December, despite its financial woes. Fernando Jimenez, general director of Aeromar, told the newspaper that the airline had not gone bust but had suspended operations for two months while seeking a solution to its financial crisis. He gave customers a phone number they could call in case of any queries (1-800-755-8028), but said that those seeking a refund should go to their travel agents. For their part, travel agents contacted by reporters claimed that in many cases payments had already been deposited in Aeromar's account.

The bitter cost of sugar
The head of the National Association of Sweets Industries (Asodulces) told Hoy newspaper that the recent 37% increase in the cost of sugar supplied by Dominican manufacturers curtails export possibilities. Atahualpa Dominguez, director of Asodulce, said marmalade producers are no longer competitive. He urged the authorities to revise the disproportionate price increase. Sugar prices are fixed by the government to protect the local private producers. Industrial sugar users have not been allowed to unilaterally import the sugar they need, regardless of the availability of cheaper products abroad. Dominguez commented that the country's gum and candies manufacturers have gone out of business, and the new price increase is a blow on companies that use large amounts of sugar in their production and have managed to survive.

Human rights groups claim 200 killings
The National Human Rights Committee (CNDH) claims that the police have killed 230 people in what they term as "extra-judicial killings", and what the police describe as "exchanges of fire". Chief of Police, Major General Jaime Marte Martinez denies the charge. CNDH president Virgilio Almanzar told journalists that "the police has agents who only know to kill" after laying a memorial wreath on the national monument "Altar de la Patria" in a ceremony to mark the 55th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The CNDH president also spoke about the wider abuse of human rights caused by the current economic crisis, saying that people had a right to eat and work, as well as to health and education. Almanzar urged immediate police reform, so that "the people get the police force they deserve". Almanzar acknowledged there were some rays of hope, citing the educational activities of the police and army's "human unit" (Unidad Humana). On the negative side, he spoke of the alleged "torture center" in the Santo Domingo district of Los Mina, where police are said to use a brutal technique known as "the dummy" (el muneco) to extract confessions out of detainees. It consists of tying the person's arms behind their back, putting an onion in their mouth and a bag over their head before beating them. He named at least three police colonels who are said to engage in such practices and claimed to have video-recordings of torture. Marte Martinez counteracted by saying that the police force does all it can to uphold human dignity and human rights.

Child exploitation in the DR
A report circulating this morning on the child sexual exploitation of children says that 65% of those who exploit minors in this way are Dominican, not foreigners. UNICEF says that although the perception is that tourists are the main culprits, it is mainly local people who exploit children for sexual purposes. Penalties for this offence range from 10 to 20 years in prison. The government is embarking on a national campaign with support from the International Labor Organization, aimed at tackling the problem of child employment. The country has also been invited to share its experiences at an international gathering of the ILO, presenting the successful results of a campaign that managed to get 3,000 children out of exploitative situations. The campaign against childhood sexual exploitation will consist of posters and billboards in specific areas, including Boca Chica, Puerto Plata and Sosua, and television advertisements. The sex industry and agricultural sector are the two areas identified as having the greatest concentrations of child exploitation. An estimated 339,000 children are exploited sexually and commercially in the Dominican Republic, according to the study, but the papers do not break down the figure between the two types of abuse.

Margarita Cordero on Miriam Brito
Margarita Cordero of the Diario Libre editorial team examines the case of abused wife Miriam Brito, whose case hit the headlines last week when she and her family appear to have plotted their tormenter's demise. Cordero writes about the violence of Dominican life, which ranges from "institutional", in that citizens are not treated equally, right down to the domestic level, where the inequalities between the sexes and "the perverted myth of male supremacy" give rise to these situations. Society reacts with hypocrisy, writes Cordero, and the reaction to the Brito case is a prime example. Public opinion is unanimously in agreement that she has done society a favor by killing a beast. The judicial authorities seem to share this view. Nevertheless, argues the journalist, this should have been proven in a court of law, and only then should Miriam Brito have been set free. District Attorney Roberto Faxas' decision "sets a regrettable precedent". However justified the killing, there is no doubt that a crime was committed, and the correct legal procedures should have been observed, concludes the writer. Meanwhile, the newspapers continue to follow developments with interest. It is reported that the family home in San Cristobal has been ransacked, and that Miriam Brito herself, fearing reprisals from the Castro family, has gone into hiding.
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