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Daily News - Monday, 26 May 2008

OMSA buses run on biofuel
The government is testing the alternative fuel model for public transport. A total of 35 government-operated OMSA buses are already running on biofuel and a further 5 operate on natural gas. This amounts to 17.5% of the OMSA fleet of 240 buses, according to a report in Diario Libre. The biofuel is supplied by Ecogreen Dominicana and Combustibles Renovables America that convert cooking oil into biofuel. The natural gas is sold by Linea Clave.
Julio Santana, maintenance manager at OMSA, said that the yield is similar to diesel. "The difference is four pesos less (in price) and it is less harmful to the environment because water is emitted from the muffler instead of smoke. I think the impact of biodiesel is its contribution to the environment," he explained.
OMSA director general Ignacio Ditren says that the goal is to run 155 buses using alternative fuels. The OMSA buses that operate using alternative fuels are identified as such.

Ministry of Energy next?
Radhames Segura, the executive vice-president of the CDEEE, told reporters on Sunday that the government accepts the PRD proposal to open talks on the main energy issues and create a new government energy entity. PRD party president Ramon Alburquerque made the initial proposal over the weekend and suggested that the government create a new bureaucracy, the Ministry of Energy. Segura pointed out that the government already has an integrated plan to solve the energy sector problems, as well as a series of measures aimed at promoting the use of alternative or renewable energy sources.
Numerous workshops on the subject indicate that politics has been at the root of the high cost and lack of reliability of power in the DR. An excess bureaucracy is part of the problem. For instance, when privatization eliminated most of the roles of the CDE, it was not dismantled and to this day harbors hundreds of highly paid executives.

Spike in fuel prices
The Ministry of Industry and Commerce announced increases ranging from RD$8.00 to RD$8.80 per gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel over the weekend. During the two weeks before the elections, the government put a hold on price increases for local fuels. At the same time, oil prices were spiraling towards the US$135 mark. The new prices now put a gallon of 'premium' gasoline at RD$196.20 a gallon, while regular is at RD$184.10. RD$65 in government taxes is part of the RD$196.20 gallon price. Diesel climbed to RD$164.80, an increase of over RD$8 on the pre-election price. Propane for domestic use remains at RD$59.95, and non-subsidized LPG sells at RD$81.71 a gallon.

Unions to discuss fair hikes
The public transport drivers unions, which control passenger services across most of the country, are meeting today to discuss imposing major fare increases in the face of recent events. Sources told El Nuevo Diario that the fare hikes would be in the realm of RD$5 and RD$10, since current fuel prices made less expensive fares impossible. With oil closing in on US$140 a barrel, the government has been forced to increase fuel prices substantially. In addition, there is now an announcement that the government wants to focus the distribution of subsidized propane gas to just some 400,000 or 700,000 of the poorest homes. The head of the Central National Transportation Union (CNTU), Ramon Perez Figuereo, announced that the unions would be meeting this morning to evaluate the impact of the recent price increases. The announcement comes despite the fact that most public transport vehicles use propane gas that is subsidized by the government and not subject to the price increases of gasoline.

Subsidy could be removed
The government and the transport unions are at each other's throats over the proposed changes to the government subsidy on diesel fuel, and the RD$8.40 increase in the price of a gallon of diesel fuel. The drivers are meeting to discuss plans for significant fare increases, and the government is threatening to remove the subsidies if this takes place. According to Melanio Paredes, the Minister of Industry and Commerce, if the unions introduce a new fare increase without government authorization, he will be forced to remove the subsidy on millions of gallons of diesel fuel distributed to these same unions. Drivers' leader Ramon Perez Figuereo told the government in so many words: "Go ahead, take it away, or find some sort of solution by Wednesday..." The head of the government's Land Transport Office (OTTT), Franklin Beltre, warned that any unauthorized fare increase would expose the unions to penalties.

Opposition to focusing LPG subsidy
Different sectors that use LPG (Liquid Propane Gas) on a daily basis have expressed their willingness to picket the Presidential Palace if the government goes ahead with its plans to 'focus' the sale of LPG to the hundreds of thousands of the poorest households. According to El Caribe newspaper, reporters talked to LPG users in a number of locations that fill LPG tanks. A taxi driver said that he could not work if he did not have subsidized propane for his use. An executive salesperson for a cement block factory drives an SUV equipped with propane. He told reporters that he works in the street, and his company produces for the whole nation. "To impede the purchase of subsidized LPG is something we can't accept." The leader of the Housewives Association told reporter Miguel Lugo that her group is willing to march on the Presidential Palace in order to prevent the sale of subsidized LPG only through the Single Benefits System (SIUBEN), a government program.

Electricity subsidy: US$134 million
The superintendent of electricity, Francisco Mendez, says that the Dominican government has spent a staggering total of US$134 million on subsidizing the electric sector this year. He called the situation "worrying" and pointed out the ever-increasing price of a barrel of oil. Mendez said that the government would keep the subsidy program going for as long as possible, and added that the cost of fuel used for generating electricity has gone up by 300% since 2004. This year's budget was drawn up based on fuel prices calculated at an average of US$65 a barrel, but current costs are not pegged at US$82 a barrel. The original budget has US$650 million set aside for the subsidy program in the electricity sector, but reality says that true costs will exceed US$1.05 billion.

Dengue campaign shows results
So far this year there has been one death and three hundred cases of the rightly feared dengue fever in the Dominican Republic. And this is good news. Last year, more cases were reported for the same time period, and Minister of Public Health Bautista Rojas has called on the public to remain alert and to continue employing the preventive measures that have been piped into every house in the DR: Keep it covered and wipe it down with chlorine! The effectiveness of the publicity campaign is reflected in the new figures. There have been four fewer deaths and 1,400 fewer cases so far this year. Dengue fever is carried by mosquitoes that breed in stagnant water, often in water tanks that people in poorer urban and rural areas use to store their drinking water. Minister Rojas said that the preventive campaign would be stepped up in order to minimize the expected increase in cases during the summer months.

Different stories on subsidized foods
Depending on just where the reporters went, subsidized foods were or were not available. Diario Libre reporter Jesus Arias Parra said that food retailers in some parts of Santo Domingo reported that they had never received any of the subsidized foods, like rice, eggs or chicken. One market stall-owner in the Ivan Guzman sector said that he had never received any of the products and that his customers are always asking for rice and beans at the special prices. This was also the case in the areas of Bayona, Villa Juana and Engombe. At the Lluberes market in Villa Juana, stall-owners said that they received subsidized rice before the elections but none since the elections. On the other hand, Jhovanny Leyba, an executive with the Federation of Traders and Food Retailers, told the reporter that they were receiving massive amounts of rice and beans. He said that his federation had distributed foodstuffs in Herrera and Los Alcarrizos. He admitted that the rice does not get to all the markets, and called on market vendors who wanted the rice to approach the federation.

Possible changes in Supreme Court
As President Fernandez's 16 August inaugural speech approaches, the rumor mill is once more gathering pace, and this time the target is the Dominican Supreme Court. Lobbyists for potential candidates for the post of Chief Justice are becoming more active as two possibilities come to the forefront: Either the National Council of Magistrates is called into session, or a Constitutional Assembly is set up. Informed sources told Diario Libre reporters that the process would be defined from now until 16 August. According to these sources, the National Council of Magistrates must be called into session in order to define just what changes are to take place in the court. At the same time the issues surrounding the immobility of the justices, as consecrated in the Constitution as it now stands, could come under revision if there is a Constitutional Convention. Meanwhile, several names are being bandied about as possible Chief Justices, including the incumbent, Jorge Subero Isa.

Opposition to constitutional reform
Both the PRD and the PRSC parties have come out and said that the constitutional reforms proposed by President Fernandez should not be undertaken at the present time. The party spokespersons say that the conditions needed for educating the public about the scope of the reforms do not exist. Monsignor Agripino Nunez Collado, the coordinator of the National Dialogue also said that the constitutional reforms should wait until after the 16 August swearing in of President Fernandez' third term. PRD general secretary Orlando Jorge Mera told El Caribe reporters that his organization does not feel that the timing is right for discussing constitutional reforms. He said that there were other priorities that needed to be tackled first. Even PLD Congress members told reporters that most of the party's deputies are not in favor of a reform at this time.

New style prisons
The new style system of prisons currently caters for some 2,000 inmates across the country. There has been some resistance to the new programs, aimed at rehabilitating the 'inmates' (no longer called 'prisoners') through education programs. Even some of the 'inmates' themselves have resisted being transferred to the new locales. This resistance is because the Dominican Republic's 28 traditional jails still unofficially allow the old system of tiny markets, gambling, stores, and other types of activities. According to information from the National Penitentiary Schools (ENAP), in the ten prisons that do have the new model in place, the interns are under supervision from 6 in the morning until 10 at night. Throughout the day all activity is carefully programmed and supervised. The prisoners are initially put through a brief training process to become 'inmates' and each case is evaluated before transferal. At each new prison, the staff is also trained in their new jobs. Hard case 'inmates' can be placed in 'reflection cells' - isolation, more or less - since corporal punishment is not allowed. New prison guards must be high school graduates at least, and continuation of their education is a must.

The ministers and their worth
At least half of the bureaucrats in the government have not filed the obligatory declaration of their property and net worth. Investigative reporter Minerva Isa filed a report in Hoy newspaper that says that, "some 1,500 state employees were supposed to file their declaration of wealth and have not done it." In fact Isa says that exactly 49 deputies, 138 mayors, 973 city council members and more than a hundred city treasurers have failed to file. A list of 2,982 people on government payrolls are legally obliged to file these declarations, and the paperwork is kept at the national treasury. Isa says that at three years and eight months of the current administration, three hundred employees on the Executive Branch payroll have not yet filed. The law governing the sworn declaration of wealth (DJB) is Law 82-79, but it is widely ignored by many government appointees. Yes, all 32 senators have filed, as well as the 16 Supreme Court judges, in accordance with Law 327-98. Only five members of the Central Electoral Board (JCE), and three from the Chamber of Accounts have filed their DJBs. According to the feisty reporter, this impunity engenders a recurrence. Since nobody has ever been jailed for failing to declare their assets, and since there are no penal clauses, and since the documents sit in a vault with no purpose, nobody looks to see if an official's assets have changed from the beginning of their service to the end of their employ. Minerva Isa says that in the last review carried out by the United States Agency for International Development on ten cases chosen at random, analysis showed that the data contained in the declarations was not close to reality.
The list published in Hoy today, presents the names and posts of dozens of ministers and deputy ministers in the Fernandez government.

Orange explains blackout
Orange Dominicana has explained that its telephone service was interrupted on 3 and 4 May due to a lightening strike that provoked a major system failure. According to Orange spokesperson Jeanette Rodriguez, the blackout occurred in the middle of the thunderstorms that accompanied the tornado that hit several places in the Cibao Valley. According to Rodriguez, Ericsson, the equipment maker, was notified at 7:45 in the morning of 3 May and they attempted to re-start the system remotely, but without success. After repeated attempts, the emergency team had to re-route the entire network, slowly obtaining connections until 100% was restored by 4 May.
Users of Codetel (Claro) have also been affected by telephone blackouts. Interestingly, Claro spent millions to push its "I have signal" advantage over the competition. Thousands of Codetel users, nevertheless, have ironically suffered from lack of signal in recent weeks.

ITLA offers scholarships
The Las Americas Technological Institute (ITLA) is offering 400 scholarships for globally recognized hi-tech degrees. ITLA director Jose A. Tavarez pointed out that the scholarships are for both boys and girls. The scholarships cover room and board at the Pan American Village, and classes begin in August. The program is covered by the Academic Excellence Fund, which was set up by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology and the Dominican Telecommunications Institute (INDOTEL). Students are required to have at least an 80 average throughout their high school career in order to qualify for the program.
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