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Daily News - Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Ground-breaking for Mets Academy
President Leonel Fernandez and Sports Minister Jay Payano, together with New York Mets' chief operating office Jeff Wilpon, executive vice president Dave Howard and general manager Omar Minaya gave the symbolic first shovel of sand that marked the ground breaking for the construction of the 37-acre New York Mets Training Academy in Boca Chica. The academy will go up near 10 other baseball academies run by other Major League Baseball teams, in order to encourage a competitive schedule. It is ten minutes from Las Americas International Airport. At the ceremony, Minaya promised that the complex would serve not only as a recruiting program for the best talents, but these would also be guided to become great citizens. The design has been entrusted to architect Jose Mella Febles, and construction to Jesus Rodriguez Sandoval. The academy will include three regulation-size baseball playing fields. One of the fields will replicate the asymmetrical dimensions and wall height of Citi Field, the future world-class home of the Mets that is scheduled to open in April 2009. Some 60 players, their managers and coaches and 16 try-out players will be housed at the academy at any time.
With the construction of this US$7.5 million facility, the Mets strengthen their presence in the country. The Mets are looking to find the next Pedro Martinez or Jose Reyes, the Mets' 23-year old All-Star shortstop, who trained at the Mets' baseball academy that operates in San Cristobal. Wilpon forecasts that once the new facility opens, more talent might be flowing to the Mets.

IMF has a hard time with deputies
The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission has had a hard time selling some of its ideas to the leaders of the Chamber of Deputies. The IMF mission, headed by Andy Wolfe, met with chamber president Julio Cesar Valentin and members of the permanent commission on public debt last Monday. The meeting was about the IMF's urgent request to recapitalize the Central Bank, a measure that has to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies. During the meeting, which lasted for more than two hours, the deputies told the IMF officials that a piece of legislation of this magnitude could just not be approved so quickly. Commission chairman Ramon Cabrera told Diario Libre reporters that he is against transferring resources that could be better used in education or public health to the Central Bank. He said "the essence of this project is to transfer RD$220 billion from other institutions to the Central Bank over ten years, which means that resources for education, public health and other social expenditures will be lower." The outcome of the meeting was that the deputies would take their time deliberating the legislation, the deadline for which is 30 May, and which is, among other things, one of the prerequisites for further IMF disbursements totaling as much as US$200 million.

Senate authorizes bond issue
The Dominican Senate has passed three legislative proposals that will re-launch the industrial free zones, repay the government's internal administrative debts and buy back 50% of the 1999 bond issue, as well as removing 17 taxes and tariffs that date from 1941 and produce very little money for the government. Now these three bills go to the Chamber of Deputies for their approval. According to Listin Diario, the 23 senators present passed the "Efficient Collection" proposal unanimously. The bill removes 17 little taxes that generate RD$600 million for the government. When the bill becomes law, there will be a unique 3% tax on real estate transfers and motor vehicle transfers. The legislation is aimed at simplifying the country's fiscal system and facilitating imports and establishing a company. The other legislation of note authorizes the President to issue a financial guarantee for RD$1.2 billion to strengthen the industrial free zones. The senators also voted to authorize the Chief Executive to issue bonds totaling RD$4.4 billion to pay debts accumulated by the government and its dependencies. Originally, the bond issue was for debts incurred up to 31 December 2003, but the senators extended the timeframe to include debts up to 31 December 2005.

Where is RD$141 billion?
The headlines say that RD$141 billion have "evaporated", and that the money belonged to the Social Security fund. Listin Diario writes that 80% of the amounts invoiced as payments for pensions under the Social Security regime have not been collected, according to an audit carried out by the controller of the National Council for Social Security (CNSS) between January 2005 and July 2006. In the final report the auditors point out that invoices for a total of RD$144 billion were canceled and 97.94% of these cancellations lacked the necessary back-up documentation. In spite of the results of the audit, the CNSS has not met to discuss the issue. The non-disbursed funds are currently deposited in the Banco Popular at an interest rate of 5%, which is well below market rates. The bank was chosen by open bidding. According to the paper the system has only collected RD$27 billion, and the audit says that the bank has paid RD$2.878 million in interests and collected RD$2.627 in service fees for handling the money.
For the full story see: www.listindiario.com.do/app/article.aspx?id=13946

President nixes SS changes
President Leonel Fernandez has told reporters that no changes will be made to the current Social Security legislation. At the same time, he said that today's meeting with the different parties involved could determine the start up of the health care program. The controversial Law 87-01, which establishes the nation's social security program, includes the health care program, SFS, which is currently the subject of a very heated debate. According to the President the possibility of modifying the law would not determine whether or not the family health care program enters into effect. The President said "in any case, what we can guarantee right now is that the social security system as seen under Law 87-01 will go into effect... it could be changed sometime later, I don't know, but to start up, it is not necessary to change it, we can go with what we have." In his comments to the press, the President was upbeat and confident that the problem issues were diminishing. He recalled that when these discussions started over a year ago, 14 or 15 major questions were on the table, and now everything has come down to just two or three important issues.

Tough issues re health plan
Monday's meeting to discuss the ailing family health plan (SFS) at the Presidential Palace demonstrated, according to private sector spokespersons, "that we are not ready for the start up and thus not ready to start paying." The president of the employers' confederation (COPARDOM), Maribel Gasso, and the president of the Industrial Association (AIRD), Manuel Diez Cabral, agreed that the meeting proved their point that the nation was just not ready for such an ambitious family health plan. According to Diez Cabral, the industrial sector is at risk due to competitiveness issues and cannot afford, at this time, to pay out money for a service that cannot be guaranteed. Gasso said that, "they (the government) cannot start charging for something that they are not providing." Another business leader, Lisandro Macarrulla, the president of the Private Business Council (CONEP), told reporters that an education campaign was needed to "inform the public about the realities of the situation." All three defined Monday's meeting as "productive" since different parts of the national health care system were able to express their opinions on the start up of the SFS, the Family Health Insurance program. Union leaders agreed that a lot more information was needed to inform the public about the new system. Business leaders will meet with president Fernandez next week to push for guaranteed services for the workers, before the actual start of the program.

Doctors will stay away from SFS
The Dominican Medical Association (CMD) has decided to keeps its affiliates outside the SFS family health care program. The president of the CMD, Enriquillo Matos, told reporters that any return to service would depend upon an open dialogue with government officials. Matos said he would return to the discussion table if Monday's scenario changes. According to Matos, 63 different organizations were present, all of which presented technical issues that did nothing to progress towards a solution of the major issues. According to the CMD spokesperson, the government did not listen to the proposals made by the doctors, partly because 63 other entities were clamoring for a hearing. Matos said, "It was sad to see the government's ambivalent position." The doctors are questioning the honorariums and the consultation fees proposed by the government as well as denying support for the previous health care insurers that will disappear, apparently, after 1 June.

Bridge repair does not halt trade
The bridge over the Massacre River at the frontier town of Dajabon was damaged when two huge, century-old trees fell on it during the recent "tornado." Photos in El Caribe continue to show a desolate landscape around the bridge, but repairs have started under the direction of Pedro Brito, a vice minister at the Ministry of Public Works. Since vehicular traffic has been stopped from using the bridge, traders from Haiti who now have to carry their wares and cross on foot, still continue to stream into the city during market days, every Monday and Friday. According to the report from the Public Works officials, the repairs should be completed in a few days, and normal traffic across the bridge can resume. Public health officials have also announced a fumigation program along both sides of the border to combat a possible dengue outbreak.

Electoral board postpones review
The entire Central Electoral Board (JCE) has voted to postpone a planned review of the rough draft of the proposal for an international bid on a technical and financial audit on the work done by "Soluciones Modernas" (SOMO). At the same time, the Attorney General reaffirmed his authority to investigate the files relating to the contract between the JCE and SOMO. SOMO is supposed to computerize the electoral process, all Civil Registry (vital statistics) records and the electoral rolls. At the end of the five-hour marathon meeting of the entire JCE, magistrate Julio Cesar Castanos Guzman said that the magistrates agreed that the technicians would have to present the rough draft for review and explain the terms of reference in the 115-page document. According to Castanos Guzman, the JCE "left the final decision for our next meeting on 29 May."

Mayor defends his trees
In the face of intense criticism over his plan to replace the city's trees with palm trees, Santo Domingo Mayor Roberto Salcedo defended his plans to reporters from Diario Libre yesterday. Salcedo said that the city council and his office had consulted senior experts when developing a viable plan for beautifying the city. During his visit to the Diario Libre offices, Salcedo said that his work crews are not just planting palm trees, but other native species such as mahogany, "mara" and "gri-gri". While he admitted to planting palm trees, he said that most of the palms were being placed in areas that already had palm trees. Besides that, the mayor admitted that palms had been planted in other areas "as a way of showing the people of Santo Domingo the variety of palms that exist." Salcedo denied, however, that there was any collusion between members of his staff and suppliers. In his usual calm manner, the mayor dismissed the rumor that the trees cost over RD$30,000 each, and said that "the most expensive tree cost just RD$11,000 because of the long distance and the equipment that had to be used." According to the secretary general of the municipal council, Domingo Contreras, two main suppliers are being used and contracts for RD$6.3 million in trees have been drawn up. The mayor faces his most difficult test today, in the shape of a one-on-one interview with the citizens' movement "Santo Domingo somos todos" (We are all Santo Domingo), the plan's most vociferous opponents. The group's principal spokesperson, Amparo Chantada, told Diario Libre reporters that the mayor will have to answer all her questions.

Miamization of Santo Domingo?
The downing of trees along Santo Domingo avenues and in some parks for replacement with adult palm trees is meeting with opposition from city residents. One of the main criticisms is that the municipality has forgotten about pedestrians and is building a hostile environment for people who cannot travel in an air-conditioned vehicle.
Writing in Clave Digital, agronomist Roberto Sanchez says that the downing of trees in Duarte Park in the Colonial City detonated an outrage. Sanchez says that the Santo Domingo Municipality's "Plan Santo Domingo Verde" promotes the planting of diverse endemic species. But he criticizes the fact that so far, the city government is giving priority to replacing shade-bearing trees with mature palm trees. "That is technically incorrect because they are promoting a single plant that will seriously affect the environmental balance, increases the costs and the palm trees have little shade effect. Adult trees are the most costly trees for planting, meaning that these projects end up costing millions.
He says that the money would have been better invested in creating new green areas, requiring that new residential areas comply with the requirement for a park area. He criticizes the fact that the removal and planting has been carried out in the upscale areas of Santo Domingo, with very little being done in the low-income barrios where most of the population lives.
Furthermore, ecologist Amparo Chantada writes in Hoy newspaper saying that the Municipality's decision to replace the shade-bearing trees with palm trees will have a negative impact on the city of Santo Domingo. "With this new whim, the mayor is responsible for the loss of tree cover in the city, and that will create more islands of heat, which will increase the city's average temperature and will make it unbearable for the pedestrian. She points out that the mayor has decided to replace the acacias, mahogany trees and laurels with palms, "gri-gris" and "cana", giving a Miami look to Santo Domingo, a city where large flows of people need to criss-cross the city to get from their dwellings to work areas.

Amnesty International reports
Amnesty International's London headquarters has released its annual report on the human condition for 2006. According to the report, the Dominican Republic still behaves arbitrarily in its deportations of Haitians. Dominican authorities were cited for "stopping people just because of their black skin." According to the Amnesty International report, "discrimination takes place in the Dominican Republic against the Haitian population and Dominicans of Haitian extraction." Gender violence was also mentioned as a serious cause for concern. The AI report added that 70% of people who are HIV+ or who have AIDS are not receiving adequate medicine.

Hurricane signals
United States Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said yesterday that the US authorities are prepared for the worst during the upcoming hurricane season, predicted to be more intense than normal.
For the Dominican Republic, hurricanes are a fact of life, and the official NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) press release says that there is a 75% possibility that this season will be "above the norm." The NOAA scientists said that there could be between 13 and 17 named storms, and between seven and ten could become hurricanes. NOAA officials said that as many as five of these storms could become major hurricanes of Category 3 or more in intensity. Among the preparations that NOAA and the National Security office were urging citizens to take in case of a hurricane warning was the stockpiling of a 72-hour water supply, batteries, flashlights and non-perishable foods. "Above all, citizens should follow the instructions of local Civil Defense authorities." The hurricane season in the Caribbean region begins on 1 June and ends in November. For the Dominican Republic, the most active months have traditionally been late August and September.
For more information on the forecast, see http://www.dhs.gov/xnews/releases/pr_1179922325611.shtm
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