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Daily News - Friday, 20 July 2007

Fernandez in Constanza
President Leonel Fernandez has inaugurated Constanza's newly remodeled airport. The airfield will operate for domestic flights and will also serve as an international airport for the export of cargo at a cost of RD$90 million. The airport has a 7,000-foot long runway, taxiway, hangar, control tower, buildings for offices and passengers, and a parking area for 80 vehicles. It will be known as the 14 de Junio Airport, commemorating the heroes who fought against former Dominican dictator Trujillo. The fertile valley is a major agricultural production center. Farmers have suffered from years of deterioration of Constanza's 51-km access road, despite the hundreds of millions of pesos that governments have poured into repairing it over the years.
At the inaugural event, the president of the Constanza Cluster, Rafael Collado Abreu complained about what he described as the indifference of Public Works Minister Freddy Perez to the repair of the road. Perez had argued in an interview with Diario Libre that the road had received normal maintenance efforts from his department. President Fernandez announced that he would set up a separate commission to look into the road and resolve the situation. In the meantime, the airport provides relief to the area's vegetable, fruit and flower producers. The government also inaugurated a 48-apartment public housing complex built by the National Housing Institute at a cost of RD$38 million.

Energy law changes on hold
Congress has postponed changes to the General Energy Law for another month. The International Monetary Fund had requested that electricity theft should be criminalized in order to reduce the hefty government electricity subsidy. The IMF has made its review of the stand by arrangement letter of intent conditional to the passing of the provisions for the criminalization of power theft. Treasury (Hacienda) Minister Vicente Bengoa says that the review has now been postponed until September, as the IMF will be taking vacation time in the summer.
The business sector has lobbied against the approval of the bill sent by the Executive Branch. They claim that the actual bill that was sent to Congress was padded with other changes that would set the country years back in energy sector reform. Among the changes disputed is one that would allocate roles back to the state power company (CDEEE) that are now the responsibility of the Superintendence of Energy. The business sector is also describing the penalties as discriminatory, as they should also be levied on those consuming under 1,000 kWh, and that these could be used for arbitrary abuse by the government. The business sector is against the change in the energy law that seeks to practically remove the category of non-regulated consumer for businesses. For many businesses, being able to access power through unregulated transmission lines has made the difference between being in business or not. The government has consistently favored the distributors, releasing them from responsibility for various items included in the General Electricity Law. As a result, consumers and businesses in the DR have to endure some of the highest power costs in the world. International consultants say that the root of the problem is a lack of government will to remove politics from the energy situation.
Diario Libre says that it is likely that the Executive Branch will send revised energy changes to Congress, in an effort to secure the law's timely approval.

Big money in city government
The Dominican Municipalities Federation (FEDODIM) is alleging that the dismissal of 60 municipal officials is part of a corrupt business scheme in which posts have been sold to interested parties, forcing post holders to be fired in order to free up the positions. According to FEDODIM, some posts have been sold for between RD$400,000 and RD$500,000. FEDODIM president Julian Flete and many of the officials who were dismissed have come out and denounced the firings. Fired officials from Puerto Plata and Villa Isabela have said that their positions have already been filled, that a third position is on the verge of being filled and that replacements are determined according to whoever pays the most. The firing of municipal officials has become a hot topic recently. Last week the Chamber of Deputies voted to convert the Dominican Municipal League (LMD) in an advisory organization and many municipal officials then began to be fired. The move comes because the new law fixes municipal officials in their posts until 2010 and grants them ample decision making power over considerable resources previously handled by the LMD, making these very lucrative posts.

Health officials will monitor Chinese milk
Dominican health officials will be monitoring a shipment of powdered milk from China that is expected to arrive in the DR within the next few days. The concern over the powdered milk comes in response to the recent problems associated with "Mr. Cool" and "Excel" toothpaste. In May 2007 these brands of toothpaste, which are also made in China, proved to have high levels of the toxic chemical Diethylene Glycol and 100 deaths were linked to its use in Panama. This led Dominican officials to impound much of the generic toothpaste stocks around the country.
Environment Health director Luis Felix Roa said that the goal is to determine whether the milk is suitable for human consumption. Roa, quoted in Diario Libre, said that he didn't know the name of the company importing the milk. The Customs Department (DGA) has sent out warnings to all the ports in the country. Customs officials are suspicious of the Chinese milk because it is not one of the products China normally exports.
Customs director Miguel Cocco has the department on alert to inspect the product once it arrives suspecting the low prices being quoted for the imported milk, especially as China is known as an importer of milk and not a producer for export, as reported in El Dia.

Deputies just as rich
Earlier this week the fortunes reported to government by several government officials were published. Today's El Caribe reveals the reported fortunes of some of the Chamber of Deputies members. According to El Caribe, Sergio Pascual Vargas has the largest fortune valued at RD$76,335,000. Also on the list were Miguel Vasquez from Salcedo with RD$67,003,160.00 and Altagracia Herrera from Monte Plata with RD$58,021,624. Next is Rafael Santana from Monte Plata with RD$52,168,274, Pedro Flores from Moca with RD$50,543,380, Pablo Santana from Independencia with RD$43,371,00 and Julio Romero from Santo Domingo with RD$41,600,000.

Transparency for congressional funds
Today's issue of Hoy newspaper focuses on the Social Assistance Fund that grants RD$400,000 - RD$900,000 a month in funds for senators to use at their discretion. The Fund replaced the numerous non-governmental organizations that senators and deputies traditionally managed without accountability. The funds are earmarked for health, education and social welfare projects, but senators have never been accountable to taxpayers for the use of the money. Now, Francisco Cruz Pascual, administrative secretary of the Senate, says that efforts are under way to make the use of the funds transparent. Information on the handling of the funds will be available online to the general public as of this August.

CMD and others threaten SFS
The Dominican Medical Association (CMD), the National Association of Hospitals and Clinics (ANDECLIP) and the National Laboratories Association (ANDELAB) have threatened to break off talks with the government about the state health care plan, SFS, claiming that the government has broken Law 8701. This latest threat has put the SFS in further jeopardy. At a press conference the group said that on the one hand the government is trying to find a solution to the impasse but on the other hand the ARS (private insurance providers) are canceling contracts with clinics, doctors and laboratories. CMD head Enriquillo Matos said that these actions are putting the SFS in danger. Yesterday Labor Minister Jose Ramon Fadul said that the SFS still faces many challenges, but seemed optimistic that the SFS would be ready for September.

Barrick Gold explores mine
Canada's Barrick Gold Corporation, one of the largest mining companies in the world, is completing feasibility studies on the gold mine in Pueblo Viejo. The project has a budget of US$2.3 billion. In addition to gold, the company has reportedly also identified 2.6 billion pounds of zinc, 358 million pounds of copper and 88 million ounces of silver. Diario Libre writes that one of the obstacles Barrick needs to overcome is the low quality of energy services in the DR. The mine at Pueblo Viejo is the oldest in the Americas and was first opened by the Spanish colonizers in 1505.

Eligio is cleared
Eligio Jaquez, who served as Agriculture Minister during the Hipolito Mejia presidency, and seven other former government employees have been found innocent of charges of irregular allocations of greenhouses during the Mejia administration. Listin Diario writes that the legal authorities were not able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Jaquez and former government employees Antonio Fabelo Medina, Sergio Uribe Castro, Andres Escarraman Hernandez, Porfirio Escarraman, Jose Sanchez Reina, Regino Valera de los Santos and Leonardo Francisco Sosa were guilty.
The greenhouse case went to court in 2005 after the Ministry of Agriculture reported that at least 55 of the 200 greenhouses built at government expense were distributed to officials in the Mejia administration and accused these people of violating the Penal Code and the rules on the Law of Civil Service and the Administrative Career. In a press conference, the deputy minister of agriculture and director of the programs that deal with marketing and frozen foods (PROFRIN), Eusebio Guzman said that a brother of former Agriculture Minister Eligio Jaquez and many of his friends received greenhouses at the government's expense. Jaquez responded by saying that officials in the current administration also received greenhouses, but he did not identify them. As reported in Hoy newspaper, according to Guzman other beneficiaries of the greenhouses, which are valued at US$292,000, were former Agriculture Minister Jose Fabelo; Carlos Baez and Sergio Uribe, former directors of PROFRIN; Leonidas Batista, the former head of the Dominican Coffee Council (CODOCAFE), former deputy minister of Environment, Andres Rafael Escarraman; Jose Rafael Escarraman, an assistant at the National Forestry School; Ramon Urena Torres, another deputy minister of Environment; the former governor of San Jose de Ocoa, Leovigildo Bello Guerrero. Even the former Presidential Press Secretary, Luis Gonzalez Fabra got one, according to Guzman. The whole thing is "a national embarrassment", with one family getting as many as three or four greenhouses and others using fronts to obtain the installations, as reported.

Colonial Zone patrols increased
The Police have assigned 100 new officers to patrol the Colonial Zone, increasing the number of personnel on duty to 512. The new agents are university students. The security reinforcement comes on the heels of a recent robbery at the American Airlines offices in El Conde. Robbers left with RD$60,000 in cash, cell phones and watches belonging to employees.

The DR is getting old
Women in the DR are having fewer babies at a time when the population is aging. Thus in percentages, the DR is getting old. For example between 1920 and 1935 the growth rate was at 3.5%. For every 1,000 people, 35 new people were added to the population. But between 1993 and 2002 the birth rate has fluctuated between 2% and 1.8%, representing only 20 and 18 new people. The cause of the decrease can be attributed to the fact that after the 1960s women, who used to have an average of eight children, started having fewer babies. Today the average is 2.8 children per mother.

Chinese man freed
A Chinese man who was found to have pieces of a stolen bust of founding father Gregorio Luperon in his possession, as well as 15 sacks of copper wiring and other bronze objects, was released from police custody on a legal technicality. Chi Keung Fung was apprehended on 13 July in the Villa Juana section of Santo Domingo. As a result of consistent robberies, the DR is now a considerable copper exporter.

Pan Am update
The DR delegation has had a poor showing at the Rio de Janeiro Pan American Games. The DR has won only seven medals (2 gold, 1 silver and 4 bronze). Earlier this week the women's volleyball team was eliminated and so was the strongly favored baseball team. There is still hope that there could be medals in track, boxing and table tennis.
This poor performance comes just four years after a record-breaking Dominican win of 48 medals in the 2003 Pan Am Games, which were held in Santo Domingo.

COE raises alerts to green
The Emergency Operations Center (COE) raised its emergency alert for the National District, Santo Domingo Province and nine other provinces to green yesterday due to a storm that is making its way through the Caribbean. Weather reports are forecasting heavy rainfall with thunder and lightning for the weekend.
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