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Daily News - Thursday, 17 July 2008

Expectations for speech high
Expectations are high for President Leonel Fernandez's speech tonight (Thursday, 17 July) at 9pm. Hacienda Minister Vicente Bengoa said that Fernandez would focus on planned economic and social measures including energy and fuel saving initiatives, a minimum wage increase and food issues. Bengoa says that the complementary budget to implement the new plan, funded from 2008 budgetary surplus, will total RD$30 billion and would be submitted to Congress next week. The interest in Fernandez's speech is partly due to the fact that last week's press conference was met with widespread disappointment. Fernandez spent most of his time speaking about the international pressures that are directly and indirectly affecting the DR, and barely touched on domestic issues in relation to the economic and energy crisis. Father Luis Rosario, quoted in Hoy, said "what the President is going to say, he should say in few words, they should be concrete and should be palpable." The expectation is that Fernandez will once again present the nation with energy saving measures and a plan for responding to the increase in world food prices. Most will remember that last November Fernandez, in response to growing concerns from various sectors, announced a new energy saving plan, but unfortunately few of those measures were implemented.

Picking up a big oil debt
Energy expert lawyer, Marisol Vicens Bello writes today that there is little transparency in the government dealings with PetroCaribe oil financing agreement between Venezuela and the DR. She says the agreement enables the country to pay only 50% of the oil purchased, and finance the remainder to 17 or 25 years with a soft interest rate of 1%. That is, future generations are being indebted by the present consumption of oil. Furthermore, she writes that few know how the "savings" are being used. She explains that during the PetroCaribe Summit held in Venezuela last week, Venezuela agreed to increase to 60% the financing portion. Hacienda Minister Vicente Bengoa has said this will represent US$907 million in "savings" if the country continues to buy 30,000 barrels per day, or US$1.2 billion if the amount is increased to 40,000 barrels per day, or US$1.5 billion, if it is increased to the limit of 50,000. As a result of the PetroCaribe agreement, the debt with Venezuela that before PetroCaribe was US$43 million, as of 2008 has increased to US$835 million.
"That is why it is indispensable that all Dominicans understand it is not a gift, but a loan that increases our foreign debt," she writes.
She observes that Hydrocarbon Law 112-00, that heavily taxes consumers for fuel purchases, had precisely the objective of ensuring the funds would be available for the payment of the foreign debt by way of an automatic indexation procedure. But now, because of PetroCaribe, while the government is collecting more taxes, it is actually paying less, she explains.
The present administration is the winner having secured a significant source of additional funds whose use is not transparent. She speculates that the funds have been used to pay for the production of electricity.
Vicens is also critical of the possibility of selling a percentage or all of the shares of the Dominican Petroleum Refinery to Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). She says that the same arguments of national security the government used to decide to purchase Shell's 50% participation in Refidomsa, should again apply to dealing with the government of Venezuela, "that regardless of solidarity and friendship it may be appear to be showing at this time, responds to its own interests that are not as candid as one would be lead to believe."
She alerts: "PetroCaribe is an instrument of power at the service of Commander Chavez within his particular agenda."
Furthermore, she points out that we should become aware that PetroCaribe feeds a culture of high consumption of fuel, it mortgages the future with a growing foreign debt and increases our dependency not only on a quasi single supplier but on a foreign state, that criticizes Yankee imperialism, but seems in a mind of instating a new imperialism in Latin America."

Final details on OMSA buses
Officials say that 102 new OMSA buses will arrive in the DR by late August or early September. The government had delayed its payment arrangements with Mercedes Benz-Brazil so they were not shipped to the DR as planned. Last week Hacienda Minister Vicente Bengoa announced that the government had approved a line of credit which would permit the OMSA to get the new buses. OMSA director Ignacio Ditren has said that without the new buses, the OMSA system, which gives passengers the cheapest option for public transport, would have collapsed. Ditren said that 80 of the new buses would be used in Santo Domingo and the rest would be used in Santiago.

Congress saves energy
The Chamber of Deputies will do its bit to help conserve energy. Chamber president Julio Cesar Valentin announced that new sensors will be used to regulate the use of water as well as replacing light bulbs as ways of reducing fuel consumption. Valentin said that there was a plan to power the Chamber with solar energy, but added that no decision has yet been made, pending a cost analysis and a feasibility report. Valentin added that these measures and the newly approved Renewable Energy Incentive Law demonstrate that Congress is willing to help lower the nation's fuel and energy consumption.

Genao's proposal for saving
PRSC spokesman at the Chamber of Deputies Ramon Rogelio Genao has submitted a bill aimed at reducing the maximum salary of public officials to RD$300,000 within the next 24 months. Genao submitted his bill to the Chamber yesterday so it could be put on the agenda for today's session. Genao says that this administration must "tighten its belt and stop wasting public funds." Genao says that maximum salary level should be RD$300,000 and called for a 10-20% cut in wages of government officers making more than RD$50,000. The bill would also freeze basic salaries at RD$30,000 or RD$50,000. The bill also stipulates a reduction of current spending by 20% while limiting the use of government-owned vehicles and would also regulate the importation of cars, buses and SUVs. The timing of Genao's proposal is interesting, considering that workers in both the public and private sector are asking for wage increases.

DR depends on tourism
The Dominican Republic has Latin America's highest tourism receipts per GDP. According to the Latin Business Chronicle (LBC), 11.1% of the country's GDP comes from tourism. Costa Rica with 7.5% and Panama with 6.0% are two other countries with high tourism revenues. The report by LBC reveals that Panama has experienced the largest increase in tourist visitors while Uruguay had the largest increase in revenues derived from tourism. The LBC report indicates that Latin America received a record total of 68.6 million international arrivals last year, an increase of 2.9% since 2006.

Small business bill could pass
Representatives of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, the small-scale business sector represented by the Dominican Confederation of the Small and Medium-Sized Companies (Codopyme) and legislators reached an agreement yesterday to pass the small business bill. Industry & Commerce Minister Melanio Paredes and the board of Copdopyme visited the presidents of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies yesterday, and reached an agreement for the passing of the bill with modifications in the next legislature that opens 16 August. Isaachart Burgos, president of Codopyme says that the bill could help reduce unemployment from 14% to 10% because of simplifying the process of conducting business for smaller companies.

Consular worries
The ambassador in charge of Consular Affairs in the United States State Department, Janice L. Jacobs, acknowledged the contributions of Dominican immigrants to the United States, while expressing concern about continued illegal immigration. Jacobs, who was recently sworn in to her new post, said that immigration was a major issue for US citizens and the government, including the President, George W. Bush. In fact, she said, the President has proposed a temporary workers program as a possible solution to the problems. Jacobs said that no matter who wins the next election, the winner will have to deal with the issue since it is so important to so many Americans. Ambassador Jacobs, talking to Hoy reporters and executives, said that the US, like the Dominican Republic, has issues with Haitian immigration, and like the DR, there are issues surrounding the heavy demand for services by illegal immigrants. She said that there was no easy solution to the issues, and since both nations are democracies, the tendency has been to provide the social services that illegal immigrants require.

Studying border poverty
According to the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), unemployment, the lack of development policies and a lack of institutional cooperation are the reasons for the high poverty levels in communities near the Dominican border with Haiti. The report indicates that the lack of a planning process and the absence of efficiency in implementing programs that have been developed are a cause for concern. The JICA report reveals that poverty levels at the border are at 64%. The current situation has led to an increase in poverty as well as increased migration by young people in search of jobs. Listin Diario explains that JICA's goal is to use the report as a guideline for reducing poverty in the border region. JICA hopes to reduce poverty 15% by 2015 and 50% by 2030. "The reduction in the number of inhabitants and the aging of the local population has made the border community lose relevance at national level", says the report. The report also states that it is the part of the country that is most susceptible to migration from Haiti. Also, the cities in the region are small and aren't sufficiently able to function as commercial centers or as access points to other important commerce markets. JICA's report included studies on the provinces of Montecristi, Dajabon, Santiago Rodriguez, Elias Pina, Independencia, Bahoruco and Pedernales. The report calls on the government to provide incentives aimed at helping the region to become economically independent. The study also urges the government to make the region an access point for commerce with Haiti and make the most of the good political relationship the DR and Haiti have developed in recent years.

Justice served in Baninter case
Ramon Baez Figueroa and Marcos Baez Cocco, who were sentenced to 10 years in jail each for their roles in the Baninter banking scandal, entered Najayo jail last night at 8:45pm. El Caribe quotes Baez Figueroa as saying "it's over now," as he arrived at Najayo with family members and lawyers. Prison director Jose Sandoval guaranteed that both would be safe and said that a special area of the jail had been designated for Figueroa and Cocco. The men, however, will have separate cells. The order to send the two men to jail was granted after an appeal request by Baez Figueroa and Baez Cocco's lawyers was denied. The appeal asked for the men to remain free until the case was heard by the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ). Both men are due for release on Saturday 9 December 2017. The judges in the case also ordered the defendants to pay RD$490,000 in fines. A third convict in the banking scandal, Luis Alvarez Renta will appear before judges at the courthouse in Ciudad Nueva and is expected to join Figueroa and Cocco in jail no later than today. As for the fourth person implicated in the Baninter fraud case, Vivian Lubrano, El Caribe writes that the former bank executive's lawyer will submit documents to the courts today proving that Lubrano is in a critical state of health. Lubrano's daughter Katerin Castillo Lubrano says that if her mother could die if removed from the hospital and forced to serve her sentence. Lubrano is a patient at the Abel Gonzalez Advanced Medicine Center, although it is not clear what Lubrano is suffering from.
The conclusion of the trial and the resulting sentences are a big step for the Dominican judicial system. Critics have argued that a blind eye has been turned to multi-million dollar corruption cases, but this case could prove that the Dominican judicial system is willing to prosecute offenders, no matter how rich. It also demonstrates the strength of the system and could result in a favorable reaction from many citizens who have lost faith in the system.

Protests continue in Santiago
Minor riots and protests are continuing in some areas of Santiago as citizens continue to press the authorities to normalize water services, increase power services and fix the streets in their neighborhoods. Listin Diario writes that the day started normally yesterday with a peaceful march by residents of the Hato del Yaque, Villa Bao, Villa Fatima and Barrio Balaguer communities. According to reports, SWAT team members tried to disperse the crowds, provoking a confrontation. Protestors burned tires and began throwing rocks and homemade bombs. SWAT team members tried to use tear gas, but in one instance the tear gas was thrown back into one of their vehicles. No word yet from local officials as to their plan of action in response to the unrest.

Was it an execution?
Family members of four men shot and killed by police on Tuesday in the Villa Duarte area of Santo Domingo East say that police used excessive force and are accusing them of executing the men. Family members say the police shot the four men even after they came out with their hands up. Carmen Batista says that police dragged her grandson Cesar Junior Rijo Batista from the house and shot him in the head. El Caribe reports that tear gas was thrown into the Rijo residence, adding that more than 30 police officers were present during the incident. Listin Diario reports that family members admitted to the victims' criminal behavior, but said that was no reason to shoot them "and throw them in the trunk of a car, as if they were dogs." According to police, Maikel Castillo Reyes, Juan Marino Rivera, Cesar Junior Rijo Batista, Emil Santana and Victor Santos belonged to the "Lince" gang. Santos, the only one who survived the confrontation with police, admitted that he and his friends were part of the gang and sold drugs in the neighborhood.

Horford chosen
Young star Al Horford has been chosen to practice with the US Olympic team that will head to Beijing in August in search of gold. Horford was one of ten players chosen for the US practice squad. Horford will play an important role in helping this version of the Dream Team. Horford is a rising talent in the NBA and his 2007-2008 performance in the regular and post-season consolidated his role as one the league's rising stars. Although Horford wasn't selected to play with the US Olympic team there is no word on whether or not he will compete with the Dominican national team in international competition. Horford has stated his desire to play for the DR, but says that Atlanta Hawks, NBA and FIBA officials will express their opinions that will affect his decision.
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