DOMINICANS have been encouraged to ‘think American’ for so long that they measure social status in trips to Miami. The Dominican Republic holds two dubious distinctions in the Caribbean: it is the region’s largest importer of US products and it plays host to its largest US embassy. The wide avenues of its capital Santo Domingo are fringed with US style supermarkets and shopping complexes, US style hotels and US style condominiums.
But there is another side to Santo Domingo. Downtown, there are rickety stalls on pavements and the syncopated merengue beat pours out of tinny loudspeakers on street corners. Slum homes are shacks made of cardboard and plywood; the roads are piled high with rubbish.
And in the countryside conditions are even worse. The country’s major export to the US is people. Unable to make a living at home, over a million Dominicans shine shoes, wash dishes and sweep roads in New York to send back precious US dollars. New York is now the Dominican Republic’s ‘second city’.
The next major export is sugar, which brings in half the country’s foreign exchange. One third of sugar production is in the hands of the US multinational Gulf and Western. G & W is known as ‘El Pulpo’ — the octopus — because it owns one seventh of cultivated land and has tentacles in all sectors of the economy. The expanding sugar kingdom and cattle ranching business have engulfed land previously used for food crops. Now, 75 per cent of peasants are landless or live on below-subsistence plots.
The country’s destiny has been shaped by US business interests ever since 1916, when US marines invaded to ‘stabilize’ the turbulent political situation which was endangering the early US investments. Its most notorious intervention came in 1964, when left-of-centre democrat Juan Bosch was allowed only seven months of constitutional government before the US sponsored a right wing coup.
In the past four years, though, since the election of the Social Democrats, there have been some improvements. Peasants and workers now have some room to organise. Salvador Jorge Blanco, elected president this year, promises more freedom. But it will take more than promises to shake off the republic’s long history of economic and cultural dependence.
Foreign intervention began centuries ago with the Spanish conquistadors who wiped out the original inhabitants, the Taina Indians. The bloody history of the country is recorded in the name of the river that divides it from Haiti in the north: the Massacre River. The present population is a mixture of descendants from black slaves masters. But the current dependency is not on Spain: the Dominican Republic’s overlord, this century, has come from the New World.