David Jessop, Contributor
If the English-speaking Caribbean is increasing its engagement with China, Brazil, Taiwan, Venezuela, Iran and others, why should it not be doing so with the Dominican Republic?
This and similar questions arose with some frequency during a just completed week-long visit to Santo Domingo to meet with business interests, government and figures close to the two leading candidates for the presidential elections that will take place next year.
More pointedly, a number of interlocutors asked why the Dominican Republic should, as a regional neighbour that is an ACP nation, a co-signatory to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Europe, and a member of Cariforum, be having difficulty in moving forward its relationship with the rest of the region?
Finding ways to bridge the divide that exists between the Dominican Republic and much of the English-speaking Caribbean, let alone finding answers to these questions remain far from easy when the frequency of contact is low and personal relationships and understanding is limited.
At its most obvious, there is a bridge to be crossed in coming to terms with the Dominican Republic's size. Compared with CARICOM's 5.5 million English speakers, the Dominican Republic has some 9.65 million people. It also has a highly diversified economy with economic activity that ranges from mining and agriculture through tourism to manufacturing.
This fundamental difference with every CARICOM economy seems to engender a fear that the Anglophone part of the region may be economically swamped if it were ever to see the Dominican Republic become a full partner in the CARICOM Single Market and Economy. In contrast, the Dominican Republic sees its size as offering advantage in the world to Caricom if there were ever to be full economic integration.
But beyond this economic disparity - a reality that equally applies to CARICOM's relations with much of the rest of the world and other regional neighbours including Cuba - there are a number of other issues that go largely unremarked.
First, many CARICOM nations remain inward looking and nationalistic. This has become more pronounced since the start of the recession and has resulted in unwillingness on the part of some countries to countenance any further deepening of the regional integration process in ways they believe may damage their economic base. This sense is especially strong in the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean, which have not been able to set aside the feeling emerging from the banana wars that the Dominican Republic - and other Latin nations - can outproduce and outnegotiate most CARICOM states.
Lack of information
Second, there is an almost complete lack of information in the CARICOM or Dominican Republic media about what is happening in nations that occupy different parts of the same region.
Third, there is little political or economic contact of the kind that exists between CARICOM states. There is a dialogue at the level of foreign relations and on economic issues and there is a significant trading relationship between some large Dominican Republic and Trinidadian companies, but for the most part, there are few personal encounters, and high-level political visits to the Dominican Republic are rare.
And fourth, there is something deeper and unspoken between both parties that bear some resemblance to the cultural, social and other suspicions that divide some English- speaking nations, and which continue to contribute to the failure to take forward the process of regional integration.
Up to now, much of the blame for the difficult relationship has been related back to personalities, but this should not now be so as there are a number of senior technocrats from CARICOM and the Dominican Republic who have developed close working relationships largely arising out of trade negotiations and promotion. There are also businessmen in both parts of the region who want closer ties, something that the Caricom and Dominican Republic rum industry has proved is achievable and mutually advantageous.
What is odd is that some CARICOM nations, most notably Belize, Guyana and Suriname but also Trinidad and Jamaica, have been actively seeking to improve relations with their Latin American neighbours and are gradually becoming more closely integrated into a range of overlapping economic and other groupings, but not as yet with the Dominican Republic.
During the course of the next year, there will be presidential elections in the Dominican Republic. The two leading candidates are former President Hipolito Meija from the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD), and Danilo Medina from the Partido de la Liberaci— Dominicana (PLD). As far as it is possible to ascertain, virtually no one from the English speaking Caribbean has in recent months met with them or their advisers to discuss their thinking about the rest of the region or to identify where there may be opportunities for cooperation.
There are also real opportunities for high-level private-sector dialogue. A number of larger Dominican companies are actively looking to invest outside the country and have identified the Caribbean and nations in Central and South America that they wish to invest in. Despite this, there is little contact with the larger Caribbean companies that might have an interest in joint ventures either in the hemisphere or elsewhere.
What these two developments suggest is a need for much closer personal relationships between leading political and business figures in the Dominican Republic and the Anglophone Caribbean and an increasing number of visits in both directions to create a basis on which to build long-term friendships. There is also a need for academic exchanges, scholarships and regular media coverage to address the near complete absence of information on current thinking and developments.
Having said this, it is also clear that the Dominican Republic could do much more to engage with the Anglophone Caribbean and to try to understand better the issues of smallness, history and its sometimes very different approach to the world. It might also do more to explain its social structure.
When the Dominican Republic presidential election is over, whoever wins will be in a hurry to take greater advantage of trade relationships such as the EPA with Europe, will want to aggressively promote tourism and related investments as a way to rapidly turn around the Dominican economy, and will seek to encourage investments in the Hemisphere with regional partners.
It would be unfortunate if CARICOM continues to ignore the opportunity that a well-considered and much-improved relationship could offer.
David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. firstname.lastname@example.org