Speak to the most enthusiastic promoters of the Dominican Republic, inside the government as well as in the private sector, and they will acknowledge that the country has a lot of work to do in order to shed its not-entirely-undeserved reputation as a place with an unusually high level of corruption.

The seriousness of this problem is reflected in the latest figures on corruption published by Transparency International. The agency ranks the Dominican Republic behind countries like Mongolia and Senegal with a score of 2.9, with 10 representing ‘squeaky clean’ and zero ‘highly corrupt’. The Dominican Republic hardly benefits from the influence of Haiti, the country that shares its island, which comes in last on the list of 146 countries, with a score of 1.4.

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Luis Heredia Bonetti, partner at Santo Domingo law firm Russin, Vecchi & Heredia Bonetti – which has represented most major foreign investors in the country – warns his clients, lest they be tempted to dabble in graft: “Fair play is the way to compete. Don’t ignore the laws of the Dominican Republic. You are exposing yourself and poisoning the investment climate.”

The firm more or less vaccinates its clients against corruption. But, Mr Heredia Bonetti acknowledges, “They will be exposed to it and we have lost clients because they felt the environment was [too corrupt].”

Serious about justice

Corruption remains endemic in the Dominican Republic and it might be so for quite some time – after all, old habits die hard. However, there has been a marked improvement in recent months and the government seems at least to be making the right noises. “Our administration of justice is not perfect but it has improved,” Mr Heredia Bonetti says.

Earlier this year, president Leonel Fernández set up by decree a National Commission for Ethics and Corruption to address the problem. This is a mixed agency made up of representatives of the government and the private sector, and authorities from the Catholic Church, a highly influential body in Dominican society. The Commission is headed by secretary of state without portfolio José Joaquín Bidó Medina, with the support of a high-powered governing council made up of César Pina Toribio, legal consultant to the government, and attorney general Francisco Domínguez Brito.

The agency’s technical unit is in charge of formulating proposals and drawing up a plan of action. The unit is headed by government representative Gustavo Montalvo, who will act as co-ordinator. Octavio Líster represents the attorney general’s office, Daniel Omar Camaño is the delegate from the general accounting office and Julio Aníbal Fernández is from the finance ministry. Other members include Father Víctor Masalles as church representative, Celso Marranzini from the National Council for Private Enterprise, Ramón Tejada Holguín from the Coalition for Transparency and Institutions and the Citizens’ Forum, and Cristóbal Cardoza, another church representative.

Political example

In March, a Congress deputy was sentenced to 18 months in prison for drug offences. This was a sobering reminder that the government means business in its anti-corruption drive. The Supreme Court of Justice found Guillermo Radhamés Ramos García guilty of drug trafficking on an international level. He also faced charges of smuggling 16 Asian migrants into the Dominican Republic from neighbouring Haiti while he was serving as consul in Cape Haitian under the previous administration. Mr Ramos has also been deprived of his status as Congress deputy.

President Fernández’s war on corruption is beginning to have a trickle-down effect in opposition political circles as well. In the wake of the formation of the National Commission, the Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) reviewed its statutes to include a bill calling for the immediate expulsion of any member found to have ties with drug trafficking, money laundering and other related criminal activities.

Earlier this year there were allegations that several legislators had been involved in a case of smuggling, in which more than 640 cars were brought into the country illegally – without payment of nearly £10m in import duties. Finance minister Vicente Bengoa strongly denied any government implication in the fraud.

The private sector cannot be exonerated from the corruption culture. Microsoft reports that software piracy in the Dominican Republic was running at 76% among the US multinational’s corporate clients, although this represents a decline from a staggering 95% in 1998.

Despite the government’s determination to stamp out corruption, the arrest of more than 50 members of the armed forces in the first quarter of 2005 illustrates a problem that is deeply ingrained in many strata of Dominican society.

The soldiers involved were brought up on a number of offences, mainly to do with corruption, smuggling, robbery and involvement in the cocaine trade. Late last year the government’s drug control agency seized 1387kg of cocaine linked to a shipment arranged by a former army captain. This is arguably the most dangerous form of corruption for a volatile country trying to rebuild its shattered economy, since it could provoke extremist elements within the armed forces to hold the government to ransom with threats of a military takeover.

Drag on economy

Corruption is not only a demoralising factor in social terms. Having to bribe officials to obtain permits and deal with a top-heavy and highly inefficient bureaucracy is a major obstacle to economic progress. According to a report by USAID, “Overall lack of transparency and confidence in public sector institutions, high levels of corruption, lack of respect for the rule of law, and high transaction costs limit the economy’s competitiveness. The Dominican Republic is being carefully monitored for human rights violations and trafficking in persons.”

The US agency says that law enforcement issues have been very important on the bilateral agenda in recent years. “Our two governments co-operate closely in the fight against narcotics trafficking,” the report says. “The Dominican Republic serves as a major transit country for cocaine. Interdiction of this flow has been hampered by a lack of training and funding for security forces, as well as corruption.”

The key question is whether President Fernández and his team can achieve crucial reforms of the judicial system and weed out corrupt and criminal elements quickly enough to convince foreign investors that the Dominican Republic has indeed turned over a new leaf.