August 25, 2004
The images are all too familiar. Desperately poor people from the Dominican Republic climb aboard rickety vessels to try to brave the shark-infested passage to Puerto Rico. Many do not survive the 100-mile trip.
They are the victims not just of hazardous seas but of hazardous economic policies.
Desperation has led thousands of Dominicans to risk their lives at sea. On Aug. 12, a boat was rescued off the coast of Puerto Rico. For the 39 people saved after 12 days lost at sea, the harrowing journey included witnessing the gradual death or suicide of some 55 countrymen who severely dehydrated or threw themselves overboard when all hope seemed lost.
Since last October, more than 7,000 people have been intercepted trying to make the same crossing, according to the Associated Press.
I was in the Dominican Republic at the beginning of August to visit my family and saw the results of the last four years of economic and moral deterioration in the country.
My relatives, most of whom are professional and have relatively stable jobs, live in a constant state of uncertainty, since they don't know how much prices will rise from one week to another. Their paychecks have, however, stayed the same since the last president took office. One of my cousins, a public servant working for a regional courthouse, earns 8,000 pesos a month ($181). By Dominican standards this is a respectable amount.
But when you consider that, on average, a gallon of gasoline costs 210 pesos ($4.77), a half chicken 300 pesos ($6.80) at the supermarket and a soft drink 150 pesos ($3.40), you have to wonder how my cousin and millions like her get to the end of the month.
Fortunately for her, she is single, has no children and has parents to chip in when they can. But countless families are not faring so well.
The Dominican Republic has a 20 percent poverty rate, and the bottom 20 percent of the population has only a 5 percent share of the total annual income, according to an EarthTrends report.
The country owes $7.7 billion, has an unemployment rate of 16 percent and faces inflation of up to 45 percent this year, according to reports by the Associated Press. This year the Dominican peso lost half its value against the dollar, skyrocketing to 44 pesos per dollar this month.
Millions of Dominicans have been living with daily power outages that last up to 20 hours, gas prices that force them to fill their tanks one gallon at a time and food prices so out of reach that proper nutrition is fast becoming a luxury for the impoverished.
For decades now, the Dominican Republic has been following the economic nostrums of the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund. It has opened up its economy to foreign corporations and has shrunk its public sector. The results have been disastrous.
Recently inaugurated Dominican President Leonel Fernandez is bracing himself and the country for more of the same.
"From this instant on, we start a period of austerity," he said at his swearing in, and promised to cut spending by 20 percent.
Unfortunately, a lot more other things need to be done to keep Dominicans from boarding rickety vessels to face an uncertain fate at sea.
Juleyka Lantigua is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She migrated from the Dominican Republic with her family in 1986. She can be reached at email@example.com.