The Dominican Republic Looks Ahead

Many countries, especially those that have what they believe is a glorious history, tend to look to the past more than to the future. Certainly, the Dominican Republic has a long and honored history, but it also has experienced almost-constant social, political, and economic turbulence. During recent years, however, things have begun to change. Democracy seems to have taken root politically, and because of a more stable government, many social problems are being resolved and the economy is beginning to boom. Dominicans, more so than many of the world’s people, have many reasons to look ahead with considerable confidence and optimism.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Physically, the Dominican Republic has a number of challenges to its development. The tropical country has many miles of splendid beaches and scenic mountainous landscapes. Only recently, however, have reliable access and adequate facilities begun to lure tourists to many of the country’s nonurbanized areas. Both coastal and mountainous areas offer an excellent opportunity for further economic development. This is particularly true in regard to a growing ecotourism industry, in which people pay handsomely to experience nature in its raw state. Crystal-clear waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean also offer many recreational opportunities, as do offshore coral reefs.

A variety of environmental problems also beg serious attention. They include protecting soils from erosion, decreasing water and air pollution, and conserving forested areas. Stands of coastal mangrove must be preserved. These large aquatic shrubs with their stiltlike root system protect the shoreline from erosion and also create a valuable ecosystem for marine life.

When something occurs with great regularity, it is often said that it is like “death and taxes,” two things that can be counted on to happen. For the Dominican Republic, this is true of hurricanes. Over time, many of these potentially treacherous storms have struck the island, often with devastating results. In a relatively poor country, financial resources limit what can be done to protect against such storms. Walls and roofs must be built to withstand storms, but this can be costly. Little can be done to protect crops—sugarcane, coconut palms, mangoes, papayas, and other plants susceptible to wind damage. Unfortunately, like death and taxes, Dominicans will simply have to endure such storms and their destruction as best they can.

PEOPLE AND CULTURE

During recent decades, population growth in the Dominican Republic has followed the trend of Latin America as a whole: The rate of natural increase (RNI) has dropped sharply. Today, the rate of population growth in the Dominican Republic no longer far outstrips economic growth. This means that on a per capita basis, Dominicans are better off financially than in the past. The current RNI of 1.5 percent is higher than the world average but not by a large margin. It is dropping rapidly and is somewhat lower than that of many less-developed countries. Looking to the future, it appears that the country’s population growth does not pose a serious problem.

There is, however, a huge potential population problem lurking over the nearby western horizon. Haiti is the most desperate country in the Western Hemisphere. Its people are the poorest, its population density is one of the highest, and its economy is the weakest in the Americas. Its government is perhaps the most corrupt and ineffective in the hemisphere, and its environment is the most degraded. The country has few resources. It ranks at the bottom among countries of the Americas in the Human Development Index (HDI). For these reasons and others, it is little wonder that so many Haitians desperately want to leave their country. An estimated one million Haitians already have escaped the deplorable conditions of their homeland by migrating—mostly illegally—to the Dominican Republic. Were this trickle of people to become a flood, it would create a huge problem—socially, culturally, economically, and politically—for the country and its future. Human development takes time and money. For example, schools, hospitals, and other social services require facilities and trained personnel. It will take time for the Dominican Republic to increase particularly secondary school attendance and the literacy rate. Both are essential to the country’s future development. Health services, too, can be improved, with a resulting decrease in the country’s infant mortality rate and increase in life expectancy.

The cultural options enjoyed by Dominicans continue to expand. As more and more people make the transition from a traditional, rural, folk culture to urban living, many more options are open to them. Particularly in Santo Domingo, but in other cities as well, people are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. In a traditional society, everyone tends to look, think, dress, eat, and act the same. In contemporary culture, it is much easier for one to be different. Dominicans are becoming more global in their outlook through increased access to various types of media, including satellite television and the Internet, which literally places the world on one’s television screen or computer monitor. Rapid and inexpensive transportation brings tourists to the island, and Dominicans can see the different ways that other people live. Dominicans also can travel to distant destinations, such as Miami or New York City, thereby broadening their global horizons. In a very real sense, a population that not long ago could best be described as being provincial remote islanders has taken its place within the diverse and cosmopolitan global community.

GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMY

Think for a moment about the various things that make your life comfortable, enjoyable, and rewarding. How many of the things on your list would you have if you lived in a country with a corrupt, ineffective government? Would your list be as long if you lived in a land of grinding poverty? There are so many things that we take for granted that many people can only dream about. We turn on the faucet and—voila—there is clean running water, both hot and cold. Used water and sewage disappear into systems where waste is treated. Turn on a power switch and the light, radio, TV, stove, air conditioner, heater, or other appliance works. You receive a public or private education and have access to the world’s best health and medical care. You want to get someplace, and you are able to travel on a marvelous network of routes, whether by land, water, or air. Today, many (although not all) Dominicans for the very first time are beginning to experience many of the things that we accept as being normal.

Only during recent decades has the Dominican Republic had a responsible government that is responsive to the needs of its people. As the government has become increasingly democratic, people have been willing to invest in the economic development of their own land. Hand in hand, good government and economic growth go together. Politically, however, ample room exists for improvement. Cronyism, nepotism, and corruption continue to plague the political system, but conditions are improving. There is little reason to believe, however, that the Dominican Republic will ever revert to the politics of old. Sleazy dictators, government change by coup d’etat, military control, or periodic U.S. intervention appear to be things of the past.

Economically, there also exists ample room for improvement. In this context, however, we must look to the past if we are to project into the future with any certainty. What once was a very weak and shaky economy has grown tremendously during recent decades. There is little reason to believe that such growth will not continue into the future, particularly after the current global economic recession has passed. Today, the Dominican Republics economy is the second strongest within a region that includes not only the Caribbean Basin but also the countries of Central America (Panama northward to Guatemala and Belize). In addition to its relatively new political stability, the Dominican Republic has a large and increasingly skilled workforce. Its proximity to the United States and Canada makes shipping relatively fast and inexpensive. Investment of foreign capital is increasing as potential investors sense that their resources will be safe and show a profit.

Perhaps the greatest potential for economic growth rests with the country’s growing tourist industry. What kinds of things do most tourists expect when they visit a distant land? Pleasant and efficient people who are able to fulfill their travel, visiting, entertainment, and other needs certainly are important. So are adequate facilities, such as efficient local travel, clean and adequate lodging, and clean restaurants. Entertainment, historical sites, cultural amenities also are important. Of greatest importance, people want to feel that they are safe. All of these conditions take time to develop, but the Dominican Republic has taken major steps to ensure that tourists to the country will have a safe and enjoyable experience.

Oh, yes, and during your visit to the Dominican Republic, you certainly will want to catch a baseball game. Who knows, you might be watching several future Hall of Fame inductees.