Dominicans: 'US has responsibility to us'
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
''We are in a worse position than any other country in the Caribbean Basin,'' says Francisco Pena Gomez, general-secretary of the Dominican Republic's ruling Dominican Revolutionary Party.
''Every other country has its godfather. The English and French islands have the European community, which helps them out with preferential markets for their exports. Puerto Rico receives more than $2 billion each year from the United States, and Cuba has the Soviet Union.
''The US,'' he says, ''has a responsibility to act as a great power and to assist us.''
Today the Dominican Republic is on the edge of an economic precipice. It is in a major foreign-exchange crisis -- the result of plummeting sugar prices and soaring oil prices. Payment on credit is some eight months in arrears, while financial reserves have fallen to $24.5 million, less than a month's imports.
Three years ago, the Dominican Republic completed its first peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected government to another. That was a feat in a country that has been the victim of military coups and a dictatorship and into whose civil war the US interceded in 1965 by sending in the Marines.
Today, however, few are optimistic about the future. ''The future is like the night, but without the moon,'' says one of the country's leading journalists.
The reasons for pessimism: Unemployment is 24 percent and another 20-25 percent of Dominicans are underemployed. Each year 55,000 more people enter the job market.
What had been a substantial capital inflow a few years ago has essentially dried up. Inflation is down slightly from last year's 20 percent, but that's little comfort to anyone.
The crisis arose despite the government's pursuit of austere economic measures and encouragement of the private sector.
A World Bank source notes: ''The Dominicans did everything the IMF (International Monetary Fund) would have ordered. They controlled wages and pursued an effective devaluation through development of a legalized black market for dollars.''
Three problems defeated the government's economy moves: sugar, oil, and debt.
Sugar is the backbone of the economy, andprovides about half of the country's foreign-exchange earnings. Last year, the Dominican Republic sold its sugar for 30 cents a pound. The price now is 13 cents, well below the cost of production. Low prices are expected to continue for several years. Worse, a recent State Department study predicts that by 1990 the US will no longer import sugar.
Oil, the biggest import item, absorbs almost every cent the country earns from sugar. Oil imports rose from about $60 million in 1977 to an estimated $600 million this year.
The external debt has risen as oil costs rise and export revenues fall. The nation owes over $1.5 billion, which cost over $300 million a year in service payments.
This situation has led to an eight-month lag in commercial import payments -- tantamount to default. The central bank had tocut imports by 30 percent.
All of this is quite disturbing to Dominicans, who are proud of their economic achievements. Jose Antonio Nejre, president of the National Association of Importers, says, ''We have great agricultural potential. But here we are importing rice, beans, and even fruit juices. We are importing over $300 million of food each year.''
Dominicans are looking to the Caribbean Basin initiative, announced yesterday by President Reagan, to stimulate the flow of private foreign investment into the region.
The Dominican Republic believes it needs at least $400 million this year. However, the government has been told that only about $300 million in is earmarked to be shared by 20-odd countries in the region.
As for private foreign investment, there is little optimism that it will materialize in the quantities needed. According to the US Embassy, ''Foreign investment this year in the Dominican Republic is nil.''
Dominicans' other hope for the Caribbean Basin initiative is increased trade. But they wonder whether US markets for Caribbean exports will really materialize.
''We went heavily into textile exports and even created a free trade zone,'' Mr. Nejre says. ''We were the No. 3 exporter of brassieres to the US. Then what happened. The American government imposed quota restrictions to protect the domestic industry in North Carolina and that was the end of that.''
The Reagan plan excludes textiles from the unlimited access to US markets planned for most products.
''Nothing will happen overnight,'' says a State Department source . ''Whatever happens will take several years.''
Meanwhile, a US Embassy staff member in the Dominican Republic confided, ''We all fear that this initiative will be a public relations program without real consequences.''
Dominicans are concerned that if there is no economic improvement before the May election, the people will grow restless.
''The problem is that solutions are needed now, not in 1985,'' says Jose Nejre. ''We are going to have a rough, rough 1982.''