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Dominican ambassador to US: Don’t take our region for granted

Dominican ambassador to US: Don’t take our region for granted
Sonia Guzmán, the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the United States. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

As Haiti descends deeper into chaos—first from the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7, then from the magnitude-7.2 earthquake that struck the country Aug. 14, killing at least 2,200 people, and most recently from the resulting Haitian migrant crisis on the US-Mexico border—the crisis is sparking widespread concern in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

But the world isn’t really listening, warns Sonía Guzmán, who presented her credentials virtually to President Trump in December 2020 as Santo Domingo’s new ambassador to the United States.

In a recent interview with the Washington Diplomat, Guzmán warned that instability in Haiti could spill over the border into her country, both of which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

“A few months ago, our president, Luís Abinader, made a public declaration offering help to Haiti, and asking powerful friends of Haiti like France, Canada and the United States to help that country have elections and work with its internal institutions,” she said. “But no one answered the call.”

Speaking Sept. 24 to the UN General Assembly, Abinader reiterated his concern that the severe political, economic and institutional crisis shaking Haiti poses a clear danger for his country.

“Haiti is already more than a Haitian problem. The instability of Haiti also affects us. It is already becoming a regional crisis,” the president said. “In the meantime, we are going to take all measures to protect our country.”

Dominican schoolgirls in uniform pose for a group portrait in Santo Domingo. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Guzmán complained that the Biden administration has spent much of 2021 focused on the Middle East, Afghanistan and the pandemic.

“But I think after almost one year, it’s time to turn around and work closely with their friends in Latin America,” she said. “What’s happening with the UN and the OAS? These organizations don’t talk too much about Haiti. I feel that Haiti has been put on the back burner. But for the US, it’s one of the closest neighbors.”

Guzmán added: “I am developing a good relationship with the Central American ambassadors, and also those of Brazil and Colombia. We are jointly holding meetings with members of Congress and top State Department officials to express our concern about the slow response to our urgent needs. We’d be the first to help Haiti, but we cannot do it alone. We are also a poor country, with lots of immigrants.”

D.R. economy recovering despite Haiti unrest

In fact, the two nations have nearly identical populations. Haiti is home to 11.2 million people, while the much larger Dominican Republic has some 10.6 million inhabitants (including more than some 1.5 million undocumented Haitians).

But that’s where the similarities end. Haiti’s official languages are French and Creole, while Dominicans speak Spanish. And while Haiti was the world’s first black republic, established in 1804, it suffers from continual political instability—and its inhabitants earn only one-tenth as much as their more fortunate Dominican neighbors.

That’s why Haitians continue to stream across the porous, mountainous border separating the two countries.

“These people don’t have documentation or ID, and no date of birth. Nevertheless, we welcome them and give them work,” said Guzmán. “No one in the Dominican Republic is rejected from hospitals, even though they don’t have documents. We calculate that 40% of the women who give birth in our hospitals are Haitians.”

Mobile hospital units, a gift of the Dominican Republic, treat patients in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Despite the unrest in Haiti, the Dominican economy is doing relatively well. Guzmán said her country is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic in a strong position, with about 395,000 total infections and some 3,900 deaths.

“Nearly 50% of Dominicans are fully vaccinated,” she said. “We bought eight million vaccines from Pfizer but we’re still waiting for them. The US has been very shy to give us vaccines because they said, ‘America first.’ So we went to China. That’s a sad story. Now we are getting some Pfizer vaccines and giving them to everyone 12 years and older.”

The Dominican economy is highly dependent on tourism, with about five million visitors arriving by plane and cruise ship annually prior to the pandemic,” said Guzmán. “The tourism sector is almost free of covid. That’s why we now have a lot of visitors from the US, Canada and Europe. Lots of Russians are coming too. All the airlines are flying to the Dominican Republic.

Likewise, the free-zone manufacturing sector has recovered totally and is generating employment now, she said. This year, the Dominican economy will grow by 7%, one of the best performances in Latin America.

Perhaps because the pro-American, baseball-loving Dominican Republic—for more than half a century a democracy— rarely makes headlines or suffers political drama, US policymakers tend to forget that it exists.

“They take for granted that you’re a friend, that you don’t need help,” said Guzmán. “But friendship is like a rose. You have to water it, take care of it and give it some love. That’s the kind of friendship we want with the United States.”

Annual ‘Dominican Week’ celebrations now underway

This friendship is the focus of the 29th Dominican Week, a series of events and meetings now taking place in Washington, D.C., and New York to strengthen business ties between the two countries.

As such, the Dominican Embassy has teamed up with the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic (AmCham) to offer the event in a hybrid format and events livestreamed to other AmCham members. A delegation visiting from Santo Domingo is representing key sectors of the D.R. economy such as tourism, free zones and energy, led by Roberto Alvarez, the country’s minister of foreign affairs, who will deliver a keynote address at Georgetown University.

To showcase the country’s potential as a movie production destination, the Dominican Embassy and the Dominican Embassy will jointly host a viewing of the film “Colours”—and on Sept. 28, AmCham will sponsor a cocktail reception to honor three of the estimated 2.1 million Dominicans living in the diaspora who have made outstanding contributions to society: Sabina Matos, the lieutenant-governor of Rhode Island; music video producer Jessy Terrero; and Maj. Marisol Chalas, the first Latina Black Hawk helicopter pilot ever to serve in the National Guard.

Ambassador Sonia Guzman speaks Sept. 27 at the inauguration of Dominican Week. At her side are Roberto Alvarez, the country’s foreign minister; Roberto Herrera, president of AmCham; and William Malamud, vice-president of AmCham. (Photo by Aralis Rodríguez)

Guzmán, 73, is not a career diplomat. An academic most of her professional life, she’s well-known in the Dominican Republic as being the daughter of President Antonio Guzmán, who led his country from 1978 until his death from suicide in 1982, at the age of 71.

For a long time, Dominicans assumed that the elder Guzmán—who had one month left to serve—had shot himself in the bathroom of his office because he was worried about an impending corruption investigation. But his daughter now says otherwise.

“We concluded, after all these years, that he was depressed. And back then, depression wasn’t as known as it is now,” Guzmán told us. “Sometimes he was sad, but we thought it was because he was leaving power. I wouldn’t, for a moment, want anyone else to be in a similar situation.”

Before her current appointment as ambassador, Guzmán has held several notable positions. During the presidency of her father, she served as deputy administrative secretary, and then, when Hipólito Mejía was president, from 2000 to 2004, she was secretary of industry and commerce. In that capacity, she led negotiations for the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).

“That was a huge honor for me. All the economic progress you have seen in my country is because of DR-CAFTA, and today 70% of our foreign investment is from the United States,” she said. “And to be our ambassador to the United States is also a great honor. This is the most important embassy we have, and I want to leave a great legacy.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.


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