Good afternoon. As always, it is a pleasure to be here today and address this distinguished audience. This annual Thanksgiving lunch is a time-honored tradition here in Santo Domingo and I would like to thank Gustavo, Bill and members of the Board of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic for again giving me the opportunity to be your keynote speaker. I am happy to say that Bob and I will be celebrating our two year anniversary of our arrival in this country tomorrow. It has been quite an experience. As many of you know we asked President Obama to serve here because we had been coming here for many years. When we first arrived we had many personal friends, but it was Maximo, Bill and other members of AmCham in this room that immediately reached out and welcomed us into the business community. Now we call you friends as well. I just want to say thank you.
As you know, Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday in the United States; we were taught in school that it was first observed when the Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims and shared the fruits of their harvest in the New World. Well, I can promise you that Bob and I don’t harvest, and the Pilgrims we know are the Major League baseball players from the U.S. here to play winter ball for Escogido. So, for Bob and me, Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends here in the DR, including those players from the States, to come together and reflect on the accomplishments of the past year, take stock of what more has to be done, and consider what opportunities the following year might offer.
Before I get into the specifics I would like to speak about global competitiveness. As many of you know, I used to work in the corporate strategy world in-house and consulting with large companies. We studied consumer evolution around the globe. I’ve always said, a strong corporation has eight basic elements. First, a strong and progressive leadership team that is transparent, supports innovation and creativity, and has a strategic plan that uses research but doesn’t depend solely on research. A leadership team that is as diverse as its customers. Second, an inclusive and trained workforce that is motivated by their supervisors to be productive. Third, smart, innovative, and modern technology. Fourth, efficiency in financial workflow (that does not mean cutting corners and being cheap. Do not let your CFO be your strategic advisor! Fifth, the best product that can compete in any market. Sixth, strong corporate standards and governance. Seventh, protection by the government of intellectual property rights and trademark infringement. And finally, strong corporate social responsibility. Bob is an expert on this, and speaks around the globe about it. Our modern generation of consumers expect responsibility from a company they work for or buy from, and that’s why I’m glad to see AmCham recognizing these fine companies with awards for Corporate Social Responsibility. Please join me in again congratulating them for their efforts.
I know many are saying “I am doing all of these things – and well!” But I ask you…are you prepared to compete outside of the DR? We are seeing internet sales worldwide continue to increase rapidly, Cuba is opening up, and other new markets are emerging. The Trans Pacific Partnership and other free trade agreements will level the playing field for many other countries. Don’t think companies in other countries will be afraid of coming into the DR and competing against your firms. We are now a global market and to succeed you have to be the best!!! If you are you will be unstoppable. The Dominican Republic, and all of the Dominican companies represented here today, must brand themselves with an eye to a competitive, global marketplace.
Competitive economies create the best products, the most educated and well-trained workforces, and the wealthiest nations. Our aim, as you partner is to help Dominican businesses, NGOs, and government agencies put policies and mechanisms in place that advance these goals. This will improve the lives of the Dominican people while improving business competitiveness.
I will revisit global competition later, but first let’s talk about the movement our two great nations have made in the past year to keep both strong and competitive. Let’s discuss education, the cornerstone of any economy. In my opinion, this country’s greatest comparative advantage is the Dominican people. My trips around this country have shown me, time and time again, that the young people of this nation have incredible promise. President Medina recognizes this too, and we are proud to be able to work with his administration to focus on education in this country. We have been cooperating closely with the Dominican government, NGOs, and business leaders to support youth and education. In cooperation with PUCMM (poo-ka-MY-mah), and now UNIBE (ooh-NEE-bay) we will strive to improve the quality of education for more than 380,000 students in 1,000 elementary schools.
We also work with youth at risk, to encourage them to finish school, access vocational training, and find permanent, productive employment. Statistics indicate that most crime in the D.R. is committed by young people, those who have neither legitimate employment opportunities nor access to education. No child should be without access to education….period! They have been set up to fail. A competitive economy is one that prepares its young people, through school, training, and employment opportunity, to succeed. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, our programs are now helping 86,000 at-risk youth between the ages of 11 and 24 in almost 750 different neighborhoods throughout the country. So far this year we have placed almost 2,000 young people in permanent jobs and financed 169 new micro businesses run by young people.
In addition to working with the Dominican government on basic education, the US Embassy collaborates very closely with the Dominican American Cultural Institute in Santo Domingo and the Dominican American Cultural Center in Santiago in support of English teaching programs attended by over 15,000 students per year. English language skills open the door to a wider world and better jobs. These centers also support entrepreneurship, as I saw first-hand at a presentation at the Cultural Institute last week. A young Dominican entrepreneur named Estefany Marte joined a network of Latin American businesswomen supported by the State Department called We Americas. I was so impressed by her ideas, her dedication, and her passion. Young people are often in the best position to innovate, take advantage of new technologies, and capitalize on the dynamic youth market, but sadly many do not have the access to credit, or other support, to bring their dreams to reality. A great example of leadership in this area by the private sector is the work done by the Corripio Group with their award for innovation, which they use to encourage young people to take risks and be creative. I urge each company represented here to start a program for young people and us old people as well to reward innovation and provide internships and financial support for great ideas. Can you imagine this economy’s growth if every company in the DR did this?
Just as education and entrepreneurship build a competitive economy, so does security. So let’s look at our progress on citizen safety. We know crime continues to be an issue we all are challenged with daily. Countries with low crime rates attract more foreign and domestic investment; therefore, our Embassy has been working with the government to improve citizen security and access to justice. At the national level, we are teaming up with Dominican counterparts to improve the government’s effectiveness in preventing and prosecuting crime. We have worked closely with Attorney General Brito – as you all know we have many private and secretive meetings that according to many go on for days! We have worked with him and the national police to implement systemic reforms, reduce case backlog, improve investigations, and increase the conviction rate. At the local level, we help NGOs open justice centers; this year alone we have provided access to justice for 48,000 individuals who live in poor, high-crime communities.
One of our most significant achievements has been the development and maintenance of the 911 call center. Since the center opened last year, it has responded to 400,000 emergencies and enjoys a more than 90% approval rating. President Medina has requested continued support from our government for the program, and we have plans to provide the same services to Santiago by next year. I recognize Minister Montalvo and his team at the Presidency and Mario Fernandez from our Embassy’s Narcotics and Law Enforcement Office for their leadership in this strong initiative.
In addition to the 911 system, the U.S. and Dominican governments have worked closely in other ways to improve law enforcement. We have recently renovated the Dominican National Police Training Center, and signed agreements to train 600 DNP officers for the third straight year. At the request of President Medina, we have provided biometric scanning devices to help implement the Regularization Plan, insuring that it is carried out as fairly as possible.
To help curb the flow of drugs, we built and supplied a new national canine training facility for the DNCD and we will have donated sixty drug-sniffing dogs by the end of the year. The dogs went right to work; in April of this year, one of these dogs sniffed out 1.2 metric tons of cocaine at a major port!
In addition to our work with police, our two militaries cooperate more closely than ever before on drug interdiction and other issues. By the end of the year we will have reached 93 million dollars in military-to-military assistance in training, communications infrastructure, and donations of boats, helicopters, and other kinds of equipment. The results have paid off; more than 7,000 kilos of cocaine have been interdicted on their way through the Dominican Republic.
Unfortunately drugs are not the only international threat the D.R. faces. The tragedies of the past few week remind us that terrorism and the threat of ISIL are not just a Middle East problem, they are a world problem. Let me echo President Obama in our commitment against international extremism; those who impose, threaten, and terrorize for their religious beliefs will never have a place in a democratic society. Every country needs to be vigilant, and that’s why we’ve helped the D.R. prepare itself by training over 1,000 military personnel over the past five years, and this year we emphasized special forces and hostage rescue training.
Many think our military partnership is solely training and drug interdiction, but we collaborate on humanitarian work as well. 35,000 Dominican patients were treated by American military doctors this year, most during the visit of the U.S.S. Comfort, the largest floating hospital in the world and in March have another large contingency of military doctors coming to the DR to care for 1000’s of Dominicans who need but cannot afford care or need specialized treatment. I want to remind the Dominican people, the politicians and the business community that these are the kinds of initiatives that we can fast-track with strong agreements between our governments and militaries.
In addition, we are helping thousands of farmers learn to grown new sustainable crops with a 21 million dollar program through USAID. We have Peace Corp volunteers across the country working with communities to address basic needs such as water and food production. We have invested heavily in experts and technical support to eliminate the infestation of the fruit fly and get the markets back open.
I have listed just a few of the amazing accomplishments that the U.S. government and the Dominican people have made together throughout the past year. However, there is still work to be done. Competitiveness, a key component of the D.R.’s continued success, depends on a robust trade environment. I was pleased to see that in the 2015 World Bank “Doing Business Report,” the Dominican Republic has improved its ranking in cross-border trade. While the World Bank representatives visited the Dominican Republic during their evaluations, Bob and I personally spent every minute possible with them to ensure that they were provided with every opportunity to see what the Dominican Republic business community has to offer. Dominican industry should follow the example of business leaders like those who have worked on the Quisqueya project; an example of cross-border development that takes advantage of incentives and free trade zones to create smart, viable, and community-supportive business models.
While the Dominican Republic’s economic growth has been the highest in the region, is it sustainable? It masks high levels of inequality that permeate Dominican society. The poor, persons with disabilities, persons living with HIV/AIDS, undocumented Haitians, and members of the LGBTI community suffer extensive, profound discrimination and exclusion from Dominican society. For example, of the top 23 poorest nations on earth, 21 of them either criminalize being LGBTI, or fail to provide proper protections in employment, housing, access to health care or cultural recognition when compared to high-performing democracies. This is not a coincidence. Failure to take full advantage of the collective talents of all Dominicans is a losing strategy. Smart industry leaders know that the most competitive businesses are the ones that take advantage of everyone’s talents, not just a few.
Women in this country continue to see unequal treatment. In addition to weaker emphasis on education and unequal pay, violence against women and girls continues to be a very serious problem. According to an ENDESA study, 35% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 years of age reported violence by an intimate partner. Our Embassy has supported the Attorney General’s efforts to build the D.R.’s first Gender-based Violence Victim’s Assistance Unit. On trafficking of persons, a related and equally serious issue, our Homeland Security Investigations team has been working tirelessly to support Dominican law enforcement, but there is still more work to be done. We raised the issue to public attention during the Santo Domingo premier of the film “8 Days,” a movie about sex trafficking. I know that issues of rape, abuse, incest, and trafficking are difficult to talk about and that’s why I was moved when Dominican business and community leaders contacted us about setting up a screening for the film in Santiago. They recognized that this is a problem for the D.R. and wanted to get the message out. I must thank Mercedes Cappellan for her support and tireless initiative to make this happen early next year. This is a true example of leadership. Women and young girls can no longer here or anywhere be treated with unequal respect in public or private. Schools have to start teaching this and that is why we will press for anti-bullying and sex education in the schools. Your companies also have to step up and lead by example. Set policies that protect and treat all with the same respect. Call out your friends who show a lack of respect for women. What if it was your daughter that you or your friends were talking about, or if it was your son being bullied in school or on the internet, or your daughter that was one of the 22 Dominican girls found a few weeks ago in Trinidad and Tobago, many tied to bedpost and forced to be sex slaves. Companies and society has to step up because these are human beings and deserve to be protected and rescued.
We have worked closely with the Dominican government and NGOs to promote education and justice programs to help these women, but the societal shift we need has to come from the people. It is especially fitting that I have the chance to speak to you about this issue today, as November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The United Nations chose today because on this date in 1960, three incredibly brave women were killed in their country for speaking out against injustice. Those women were the Patria, (PAH-tree-ah) Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal, and that country was the Dominican Republic.
It is clear that these systemic problems must be corrected. A country that discounts the value of women and minorities cannot hope to compete globally. We need politicians to highlight this issue and support NGOs who work with victimized populations. Did you know there are only two shelters for battered women in this country? The law states there should be one in every province. Help us push for the government to adhere to the law and convict those who beat their girlfriend, or wife or abuses their daughter or family member. Dominican business leaders must promote programs to hire and train minorities. Cooperative efforts between the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Tourism to promote LGBTI and Persons with Disabilities-friendly tourism show travelers that the Dominican Republic is an open, progressive country ready for business. More public/private cooperation on these issues can continue to send the rest of the world a positive message. We at the Embassy would be happy to assist with partnering you with companies in the U.S. that have done this. We will also bring the Equality index this year to companies here that are branches or franchises of U.S. firms. This will rank how well these companies adhere to their U.S. parent company’s human rights standards. I hope the same process begins here for Dominican based companies.
Now let’s talk about last year’s topic of corruption. I am proud of AmCham and the business community for continuing to press publically on this issue. Every business person I meet, American or Dominican, mentions corruption as a major problem in this country. Corruption is a cancer; it slows growth, detracts from business, and hinders fair application of the law. As an advocate for bilateral trade, I often hear about the very real fear from potential U.S. investors that they will be treated unfairly, expected to pay bribes, or unjustly pushed from the marketplace. The business leaders in this room know that this perception continues to undermine competitiveness of the Dominican Republic, and I urge each and every one of you to continue to raise corruption as an issue to the highest levels of your government.
Let me share a true story with you; Bob and I , along with YPO and other Dominican business leaders, organized an investors visit to the D.R. earlier this year. These are men and women with whom I have a personal relationship and did everything within my power to ensure their visit was perfect. Imagine my horror when I got a call that night from one of them, telling me they had been pulled over by uniformed police, had a gun pointed in their face, and been forced to empty their wallets. Let me ask you, after an experience like that, would you bring your business to the D.R.? In this story it was the police, but corruption permeates all parts of society. Who here has been asked for a bribe? Who here knows of someone that has received a contract without the appropriate bidding process? Who here know of a politician that has stolen public funds? Who here knows of a judge that has taken a bribe to let someone be released early? And the final question: what have we done about it? It is not enough to complain. We have got to do better.
So on to elections. Boy this one is a doozy of an election season. I am sure doozy doesn’t translate but that is the best word I could use. Both of our countries are entering a very exciting election season; to politicians, I would like to repeat a message I have said often: there is no such thing as clean money from dirty people. Stand up for this country’s people and align yourself with only reputable, trustworthy people who share your values. The United States, along with partner countries and international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations, will continue to talk about these issues at all levels of government and with the private sector.
Along with elections, another hot-button issue the media has been covering is citizenship and status in the Dominican Republic. Dominican citizens need to have their most basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution: to get married, declare their children as Dominican citizens, open a bank account, obtain health care, study beyond high school, and vote. Let’s be clear, this is not a technical issue, this is a human rights issue. Every man, woman, and child who lives in the Dominican Republic should have documentation, status, and certainty. Everybody deserves a place to call home. I do have to commend President Medina, Minister Montalvo, Minister Fadul, General Sem, and those who have been working to facilitate a fair, open and transparent process of deportation. The challenges to a fair process are not precipitated by the Presidency, rather by individuals who have the opportunity to resolve these issues. Our Embassy, along with the EU and UN missions will continue to engage with those in a position of authority on these issues to make sure every Dominican has the rights to which they are entitled. A few should not be able to negatively impact a nation.
Despite these challenges facing the Dominican government and its people, I want to make clear that the connections between the D.R. and the U.S. have never been stronger than they are now. Our most clear example is people. Nearly 1.5 million Americans claim Dominican descent. Our Consular Section continues to break records, with non-immigrant visa applications in the Dominican Republic up almost 50% from last year. 250,000 U.S. citizens live in the D.R. and almost 2 million more will have visited here by the end of the year. That number will only increase with the opening of Carnival’s Amber Cove port near Puerto Plata, a massive investment offering more Americans the chance to visit the pristine North Coast.
As tourism continues to be an important cornerstone of the Dominican economy, this country will have to show that it is a safe and secure destination for foreign visitors. While significant progress has been made, our American Citizen Services section continues to hear about scams, price-gouging, bribery, prostitution, and theft that unfortunately can paint a negative picture of this beautiful country.
For me, the most difficult stories to hear are those of tourists who come to the D.R. and become victims of sexual assault. It is essential that hotels properly vet their staff, contact police if guests report a crime, and provide sufficient information for guests to prosecute their attackers. To leaders in the hospitality industry, of whom there are many here today, I ask you to be proactive in protecting your reputation and the livelihood of the tourist industry.
Dominican hoteliers have long-enjoyed a strong competitive advantage over other countries for American tourists based on a number of factors, including experience, proximity to the U.S., pristine beaches, warm people, and excellent infrastructure. I have spoken with more than a few Dominican business leaders concerned about losing tourism and related business to Cuba. As I mentioned earlier, they will be a competitor, but they are decades behind. Take the chance to push your businesses to be more competitive, more streamlined, and more professional. If you are certain, as I am, that the Dominican Republic has the best infrastructure, the best sights, and the best people working in the tourism sector, competition will make your business stronger and you will succeed.
Similarly, I have heard concerns about the recently-signed Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. Let me reiterate that during the negotiation the United States government took the Dominican Republic into account as a significant trading partner, listening to the concerns of government and business officials, including some of the AMCHAM members here today. For products important to the D.R., such as textiles, tariffs are going to be removed in stages over many years, and strong rules of origin requirements are part of this agreement. So, I encourage Dominican businessmen to take the time to invest, streamline, and make their businesses more competitive. Preferential access under D.R.-CAFTA will continue. I have complete confidence that the strong bilateral trade relationship will prosper unabated for many years to come. Let’s not allow ourselves to become obsessed with what might happen, let’s join together and become obsessed with what will happen through our collective effort and our already success DR-CAFTA agreement.
Speaking of D.R.-CAFTA we now have bilateral trade exceeding $14 billion dollars and growing. I understand some of the concerns about what some perceive as a trade imbalance between our two countries. But growing trade is often key to generating opportunities in the importing country, as well. For example, of the 1.4 billion dollars in U.S. agricultural imports to the D.R., consider that more than 60% are inputs for the Dominican Republic’s growing agro-industrial and construction sector, with wheat to be milled into flour, lumber for construction, and even U.S. tobacco for Dominican cigars.
With two countries as interconnected as ours, an agreement like D.R.-CAFTA serves to boost both of our economies, and cannot be viewed as one-sided, in the spirit of making the D.R. more competitive in the region, we have pledged over 40 million dollars in assistance programming over the next four years to improve food safety practices here and help Dominican producers achieve export success.
This year also marked the completion of the successful Pathways to Prosperity program, which included public/private exchanges, streamlining of the Single Window process for U.S. investors, and training for Dominican trade officials, all with the intention of making the D.R. a more competitive marketplace. We have organized trade missions for more than 200 Dominican business men and women to the U.S., and brought representatives from several U.S. states to show them what a great place this is to do business.
A final area of opportunity in which Dominican businesses can thrive is in environmental sustainability. The Dominican Republic is the eighth-most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. Economic investment and associated jobs along the coastline are threatened from sea level rise, storm surges, destruction of coral reefs, and changing weather threatens agricultural production, tourism, and increases the likelihood of deadly floods and landslides. Earlier this month I met with coffee growers in Jarabacoa (harr-a-bah-CO-ah) and farmers in Moca (MOH-ka) who told me that the climate change threat is real and immediate. From this threat, however, the D.R. has the chance to become a world leader and model for sustainable development in the face of climate change. Just last week I signed a memorandum of understanding with the mayors of Santo Domingo, Las Terrenas, Santiago and San Pedro de Macoris (mah-COH-rees) to provide 21 million dollars in funding to combat climate change. I urge you to invest early in sustainable, environmentally-friendly businesses, to be leaders in the region, and to capitalize on emerging industries while also helping to save our planet. And I must encourage you to work together with each other as you explore these new opportunities in green energy, learn from your fellow business colleagues and share information and knowledge, this is not about only you and your bank account, this is about providing your children and grand-children with planet to live on!
Today, more than ever, the United States is deeply invested in the Dominican Republic, its people, and its future. A few politicians have been criticizing the Embassy and me for being too involved Dominican affairs. They are saying that when I make a speech, when I call for action, when I advocate for reform, I am violating Dominican sovereignty. What gives me the right? Our two countries are interwoven so intricately, at times it is impossible to tell them apart. I have talked a lot about our programs and businesses here today, but the D.R. influences the U.S., too. What happens in this country affects the United States in a very big way, economically, politically, and culturally. Anyone who has been to Washington Heights in New York, or been to a Red Sox game when Big Papi comes to the plate, or seen Romeo Santos sing in San Antonio, in my home state of Texas, knows what I am talking about. Our two countries are so close that I can’t help but cherish our successes, reflect on our failures, and push us to be better for the future. My job is to be President Obama’s representative in the DR with full authority to protect and defend the interest of the U.S., its businesses, and its people, while protecting Human Rights, upholding international law, and forwarding our bilateral relationships. Almost every issue here intersects with U.S. interests in some way, and I say President Medina has been a strong partner in these efforts.
Ultimately, it will be Dominican leaders, both elected officials and influential business men and women such as yourselves, who herald change. To quote the great American entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin, we must “do well by doing good.” Investment in education, security, and a level playing field for women and minorities are not only the right things to do, but they make good business sense.
I want to reemphasize the theme of competitiveness. I urge you all, ladies and gentlemen, Dominican business leaders, to view trade agreements and global interconnectedness as opportunities, not as threats. I started my speech by recalling the first Thanksgiving between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Consider the story of Santo Domingo. This city was founded in fourteen ninety-three by men who had the vision to realize that their fortune was to be made outside of Europe, away from their home. Santo Domingo would not exist today if not for competition that pushed men like Columbus to think beyond his borders.
In their spirit, and the spirit of Thanksgiving, I ask you all to take stock of all the amazing accomplishments we have made together this year, consider what work there is to be done, and look forward to the opportunities for growth, expansion, and competitiveness that the interconnected world offers our two countries.
Thank you and now we have time for questions. I am sure there are a few.