I first visited the Caribbean in 2007 while on vacation in the Dominican Republic. We stayed at the Majestic, an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana on the eastern tip of the island. While some people look down on these kinds of sprawling, isolated resorts that cater to foreigners and have become a staple in the Caribbean, we had a great time. The resort was stunning, the people were friendly, the drinks were tasty and the crystal blue waters were spectacular.
But this past August, that same Majestic Elegance in Punta Cana temporarily shut its doors because of low occupancy following the alleged assault of a Delaware woman by a hotel employee. The closure followed the deaths of 11 American tourists in the tropical paradise in 2019.
Unlike the horrific damage wrought on the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian, it wasn’t 185 mile-an-hour winds that pummeled the Dominican Republic. It was a barrage of grim headlines that have tarnished the country’s all-important tourism industry, which has yet to fully recover from the bad press.
The backlash caught many Dominicans off guard, including the country’s ambassador to the U.S., José Tomás Pérez.
“We were surprised by the way the media really went out to attack the Dominican Republic because with the amount of tourists and visitors to the Dominican Republic, always you will have per-capita a couple of fatalities. It’s something that comes with the statistics,” he told us.
While he offered his condolences to the friends and families of the victims, Pérez stressed that the deaths were isolated incidents that represented a tiny fraction of the 6.6 million visitors who flocked to the country’s beaches last year; this includes 3.2 million Americans.
Dominican officials echoed that message. In June, Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García told reporters, “There is no mystery whatsoever regarding any of these deaths” as he listed the various causes of those deaths, including heart attack, pneumonia and septic shock.
García held another press conference in mid-September to stress that none of the deaths were related and to denounce the damage that the “bombardment” of media coverage has done to his island nation.
García was backed up by Robin Bernstein, the U.S. ambassador to the DR, who implored journalists to “tell the truth about these issues.”
Trouble in Paradise
The truth is that U.S. tourist deaths are relatively low when considering that nearly 60 million Americans traveled abroad last year, although it’s not uncommon for Americans to die of natural causes overseas (heart-related conditions account for roughly half of all American tourist deaths abroad, according to the CDC).
Yet the spate of deaths in the Dominican Republic — and the strange circumstances surrounding some of them — instilled enough fear that hotel bookings plunged in July and August and casted a dark cloud over the country’s safety procedures.
Among the more notable cases was a Maryland couple found dead together in the same room at the Grand Bahia Príncipe hotel on May 30. Days earlier, a Pennsylvania woman died at another Bahia Príncipe resort when she collapsed after getting a drink from the hotel minibar. And in April, a 67-year-old California man died at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, which subsequently removed all liquor dispensers from its guest rooms.
Although autopsy results concluded that the guests died of natural causes, including heart attack, respiratory failure and pulmonary edema, suspicions linger about whether something other than pre-existing conditions and risk factors contributed to the deaths.
Medical experts and families of the victims have questioned whether tainted alcohol may have been involved — a problem other destinations such as Mexico have had to deal with — or, especially in the case of the Maryland couple, whether environmental factors such as exposure to pesticides, commonly used throughout the Caribbean, came into play.
But Pérez, speaking to us in part through a translator, dismissed those theories, pointing out that the victims had previous medical histories and conditions. He added that the resorts where the deaths took place are well-known chains with solid reputations. “For instance, the Hard Rock Hotel in particular cannot place itself in jeopardy by tainted alcohol from sources that are not reputable,” said Pérez.
The ambassador also noted that officials from the State Department “were the ones who informed the public that there had not been anything out of the ordinary [with] these deaths.”
“That being said, the well being and safety of our tourists is our utmost priority and we have very quickly taken measures for the FBI to help us figure out what was going on,” he added.
The FBI is still assisting local authorities with toxicology tests for two of the cases, while autopsies for the remaining deaths concluded they were due to natural causes.
Nevertheless, Dominican authorities came under fire for their initial lack of transparency and confusing accounts given to the public. (One government spokesman claimed that Cynthia Ann Day, the fiancée of Nathaniel Edward Holmes from Maryland, died “from the shock of seeing the person beside her dead.”)
But Pérez defended his government’s response, arguing that it could not reveal any details when the investigations had just begun.
“These were all obviously open cases. During the time, we could not speculate on what was going on. There needed to be a series of situations such as autopsies and whatnot to find conclusive [answers] as to what was really going on before we could actually give a complete and transparent reply as to what had occurred,” Pérez told us. “Behind the scenes, there was work going on with the authorities and that’s not something that was publicly shared until we knew what was happening.”
While the headlines surrounding the deaths have faded, the ambassador conceded that the perception of the DR as an unsafe destination will take longer to erase.
He said that bookings dropped significantly over the summer. “However, the numbers are going to be the same forecasted or equal to what they were last year and we do anticipate the same traffic,” he added, although the government will release a final assessment at the end of the year.
But Pérez is hopeful that the recent incidents won’t do long-term damage to the country’s vital tourism industry, which accounts for 17% of GDP and employs over 300,000 people.
“We had approximately 6 million tourists last year. It has been growing and we expect it to continue to be on a steady incline. We are continuously working on new resorts, so that there’s more availability for hotel rooms,” he said.
Yet even if tourism bounces back in time for the busy winter season, at a minimum, the American deaths have shed light on some of the issues that these behemoth all-inclusive Caribbean resorts need to address, including slow response times to emergencies and lax safety standards.
To that end, the Dominican Ministry of Tourism announced it was introducing new measures to protect travelers, including doubling hotel inspections; increasing compliance with food and beverage protocols and retraining inspectors; requiring information on 911 emergency response services to be posted in each guest room; installing cameras in all public areas of hotels that are connected to the country’s 911 system; and setting up a multilingual emergency center in Punta Cana.
Tourism Minister García said the country has also established a National Committee of Tourism Security, which includes 16 government agencies along with various private entities.
Outside the Headlines
Despite the handful of deaths, experts say the DR remains a popular and safe destination for tourists. But another high-profile incident — the June 9 shooting of former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a bar in Santo Domingo — revealed a problem that average Dominicans, not foreigners, routinely face: crime.
“Violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault, is a concern throughout the Dominican Republic,” a State Department travel advisory says, noting that resort areas tend to have more of a police presence than urban areas such as Santo Domingo. “The wide availability of weapons, the use and trade of illicit drugs and a weak criminal justice system contribute to the high level of criminality on the broader scale.”
The types of crimes range from armed robberies to illegal arms trading to political corruption. But the ambassador says his government has moved to aggressively tackle crime on all fronts — both on an international level by targeting drug trafficking networks (with help from the U.S.), and at the local level with improved policing and other measures.
The effort has shown results. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the DR had a homicide rate of 11.3 per 100,000 people in 2017, a decline of 22.3 per 100,000 in 2012. Pérez says his country now boasts “one of the lowest crime rates in Latin America.”
“But we continue working in trying to reduce the amount of crime. We have a 911 system which helped a lot. We have more than 5,000 cameras in the main cities that target delinquency. So that helped a lot because most crimes that happened in the Dominican Republic are shot by the cameras, and in two or three days, the case is solved because of that,” he said.
But the long-term solution to preventing crime is not cameras, but careers, the ambassador emphasized. “We think that the only way to reduce crime in a sustained way is by employing people,” he said. “In the last four years, we created around 500,000 jobs in the Dominican Republic and it’s increasing every year.”
In fact, for the last 20 years, the Dominican Republic has been one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. According to the World Bank, the country averaged 6.6% growth between 2014 and 2018, which in turn reduced poverty and expanded the middle class.
Pérez credits President Danilo Medina — first elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016 — with instituting a raft of economic reforms. That includes job creation programs, anticorruption measures, fiscal discipline and diversifying the economy away from agriculture by expanding the services sector, which, along with manufacturing, has grown thanks in part to the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement passed in 2007.
While inequality remains a stubborn problem, the ambassador says Medina is working to reduce income disparity in part by focusing on education, noting that 4% of the national budget goes toward education.
As an example, Pérez said the president began a program whereby children go to school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition, students receive breakfast, lunch and snacks throughout the day at school.
“Before that, they would just go to school from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. They would go to school most of the time without eating anything and return to their homes and in many cases they didn’t have anything to eat. So we solved a huge problem by investing in education,” he said, adding that not only did this help the children, it helped the parents by allowing families to work in the afternoons.
The ambassador said Medina’s government has also invested in expanding health care and offering loans to small businesses as part of its long-term National Development Strategy (Vision 2030), which makes promoting more inclusive economic growth a core policy strategy.
In addition to creating a better business environment and other reforms, a key plank of the strategy is improving resilience to disasters and climate-related risks.
That’s especially critical for the Dominican Republic, which, like its Caribbean neighbors, is on the front lines of hurricanes that continue to grow in strength and ferocity because of a rapidly warming planet.
“For us it’s very important because every year we suffer the consequences of climate change,” Pérez said. “In the cases of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, we have had very close encounters with very aggressive hurricanes that have impacted some of our nearest neighbors.”
To that end, the ambassador noted that Medina created a ministry, directed by the president himself, that is solely dedicated to addressing climate change and raising awareness of the issue.
“This will in a very significant way make us able to adhere and comply with the Paris agreement on climate change,” Pérez said, adding that even though President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the landmark deal, “We still trust that the Paris climate change accord is the best course of action. This does not affect our point of view in any way. We can see from the glacial melt, from the higher temperatures and higher carbon emissions that this is a very real issue and we are committed to anything to help [mitigate and prevent] climate change.”
Despite the disagreement over climate change, Pérez said his boss and the U.S. president “get on very well,” with Trump inviting Medina to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this year.
The two leaders have also found unlikely common ground: While Trump has drawn widespread condemnation for his harsh immigration policies, Medina’s government has praised the administration’s immigration crackdown, even though the U.S. is home to nearly 2 million people of Dominican descent — many of whom immigrated here through family reunifications, a practice Trump wants to sharply curtail.
But Pérez sees things differently. “We have been very lucky that the Dominican diaspora that has immigrated to the United States, most of them have come legally,” he said, adding that a majority went on to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
The ambassador also said his government sympathizes with Trump’s predicament.
“We are very sensible regarding immigration because we suffer from the same thing. The Dominican border is very permeable. We understand exactly what the Americans feel regarding illegal immigration. We feel this same problem. We suffer from this same problem.”
The Haitian Divide
That problem is Haiti, a former French colony that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, a former Spanish colony.
Although the two countries share the same island, that’s where the similarities end. “The average Haitian is nearly 10 times poorer than the average Dominican, and much more likely to be unemployed,” according to a report by Vox Media. “And that poverty manifests in drastic disparities in health. The infant mortality rate in Haiti is more than twice the rate in the DR, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is almost double.”
As a result, tens of thousands of Haitians have migrated to neighboring DR (an estimated 500,000 Haitian immigrants now live in the country of 10.7 million). But these impoverished immigrants are ethnically, culturally and religiously distinct from their Dominican counterparts. Many complain of discrimination and harsh working conditions, particularly among migrant sugar cane cutters. Meanwhile, Dominicans lament that even though their economy is much stronger than Haiti’s, it cannot afford to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants competing for jobs, health care and education.
The bad blood between the two countries also stems from a long history of racism and conflict.
“The historical animosity between Haitians and Dominicans is rooted not only in language, but in attitudes toward race,” wrote Aida Alami in an Aug. 13, 2018, article for The New York Review of Books. “Santo Domingo, founded in 1496 by Spaniards, was the first European colony in the Americas. The French settled in the western part of the island, where they made a fortune by using slaves to grow sugar cane. Then, in 1791, a slave rebellion drove out the French, making Haiti the world’s first independent black republic in 1804. In 1822, Haiti occupied its Spanish-speaking neighbor, an episode in that country’s history that has left the image of Haitians as machete-wielding killers in the collective imagination of many Dominicans.
“In 1937, that history of enmity and bigotry resulted in the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Haitians along the border by Dominican soldiers armed with machetes,” Alami added.
But the ambassador scoffed at the notion that Dominicans are racist against Haitians. “This situation of race that has been thrown into this particular [debate] is not real because we are not white. We are Latinos. We are a mix of black as well, so we are not discriminating against a race. We are discriminating against the illegals that are coming into the country,” he insisted.
To that end, President Medina has struggled to control the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the porous 230-mile border. His government has also been criticized for its treatment of Haitians in the DR.
In 2013, a landmark court ruling stripped an estimated 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian migrant descent of their citizenship, sparking fears of mass deportations.
After an international uproar, the Dominican government backtracked on the law and Medina introduced a plan to grant residency to hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants — mostly Haitians — who had been living and working in the DR before 2011.
“President Medina initiated a law which we think is unique to the situation and in the world, where he opened up a channel [for those of Haitian descent] to become legal residents,” Pérez told us. “Everybody who had a birth certificate or any kind of document that would prove their status, they were granted residency and they could work legally in the country.”
But critics say many Dominicans of Haitian migrant descent lack those documents, having struggled for years to obtain birth certificates from a government bureaucracy not keen on granting them rights — even if they were born in the DR.
The ambassador counters that under Medina’s “naturalization” plan, some 300,000 illegal Haitians applied for residency, with the majority of them approved.
Yet Pérez readily admits that his government is prepared to deport any illegal Haitians in an effort to stem the constant flow of migrants across the border. “We’re in the exact same situation that the United States is facing.”
Writing His Own Destiny
While Medina’s track record on Haiti is mixed, he’s enjoyed high approval ratings at home for his handling of the economy. More recently, he earned international praise for his decision not to seek re-election next year after considering a proposal to amend the constitution to run for a third term. The move ensures that the Dominican Republic’s young democracy continues to mature after decades of brutal dictatorship.
Pérez, a political appointee, is a longtime member of Medina’s Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) who was asked by the president to serve in Washington in December 2014. The oldest of 10 children, Pérez joined the PLD in 1978 because he was “inspired by the revolutionary ideas” of the party’s founder, Juan Bosch, who was the country’s first democratically elected president for a brief time in 1963 and who led the exiled opposition against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo for 25 years.
“This led me to a beautiful life of politics,” Pérez said, although he admits that he could’ve done without the door-to-door campaigning he had to do during his run for senator.
The ambassador’s admiration for Bosch extends well beyond politics. In addition to founding the PLD, Bosch is regarded as one of the Dominican Republic’s most prominent writers — a path Pérez might try to emulate as well.
An avid fan of the classics, the ambassador wrote his first book last year detailing the social and economic realities of life in Latin America. He recently completed his second book, which goes in a “totally different direction” than the first. Based on real-life events, the novel tells the story of a boy who witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of his best friend and, when he grows up, embarks on a quest to find the killer and avenge his father’s death.
Pérez laughed when asked if he’d become a full-time writer, saying he wasn’t sure what his next career move would be. But it probably won’t be in diplomacy.
“I’m not a diplomat. I came here because … I’ve had a very close relationship with President Medina for years. One day he asked me, ‘You want to be my ambassador in Washington?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know anything about it.’ But he said, ‘You are a politician. You know how to do it.’”
And so he did. Asked whether he’s enjoyed his posting, the ambassador replied with a diplomatic smile: “I feel happy, but I’m not going to continue with this career.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.