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Daily News - Monday, 30 March 2009

Fernandez talks to the people
Though somewhat out of character, President Leonel Fernandez's latest initiative to listen to public concerns is being welcomed with open arms. Fernandez began his newest campaign of "popular dialogue and democratic meetings with the live forces of the nation" in San Pedro de Macoris where he told his audience that he was hoping to listen to people's complaints and help find solutions to the nation's social problems. Immediately after speaking in San Pedro, Fernandez announced that national water authority INAPA would be receiving RD$36 million for a network of water pipes for the local community. Fernandez said that part of his objective is to provide a greater voice for social demands and to tackle citizens' day-to-day concerns. Fernandez quickly flashed the government's propaganda might by announcing the paving of several streets in surrounding communities and ordered the State Sugar Council (CEA) to draw up a plan for creating 1,000 jobs. Fernandez also instructed the Comedores Economicos (subsidized community diners), National Institute for Price Stabilization (INESPRE) and the President's Social Plan to create plans for distributing baskets of basic food products. Fernandez said the future looks promising for the area as a new tourism project that is expected to create 15,000 jobs is being constructed.

US$400 million from IDB
Hacienda Minister Vicente Bengoa and Inter-American Development Bank president Luis Alberto Moreno signed three loans for US$400 million during the Annual Meeting of IDB Governors in Colombia. One 25-year loan for US$40 million will fund work on electricity transmission lines, another for US$300 million on a five-year basis will be used to boost the productive sector, and a third for US$60 million on a 20-year basis is aimed at stimulating productivity and competitiveness. Bengoa said that the government is increasingly concerned about the possibility that the international economic crisis could end up affecting more than just the pocketbooks of Dominicans. Speaking in Medellin, Bengoa said that as the crisis spreads there would be an increase in social unrest, which is already starting to happen. Bengoa said that if no attention is paid to these events it could turn into a crisis of governance. During a press conference at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) meeting Bengoa called for an increase in the bank's minimum capital, which would allow increased levels of loans for countries in the region.

Customs collections down
The Customs Department (DGA) says that its collections decreased by RD$3 billion during the first three months of the year. DGA Minister Miguel Cocco described it as a "dramatic" decrease and said that it could prove problematic for the nation and the government, as it would lead to liquidity problems. However, Cocco did say that the implementation of the DR-CAFTA agreement meant that collections were expected to decrease by RD$5.5 billion. Cocco also pointed to the decline in tariffs due to January's 30% decrease in imports totaling an estimated RD$1.4 billion and a 20% decrease in February, for an RD$850 million decrease in DGA collections for that month.

An expensive reform
Much has been made about the projected cost of the planned constitutional reform process, and Hoy is reporting that it will cost an estimated RD$400 million per month, which will be covered by the government. The newspaper, quoting anonymous sources, reports that the Senate is expected to spend RD$1.48 billion while Congress is expected to spend RD$3.4 billion during the next 12 months. This would total RD$4.88 million over the coming year. Hoy explains that these figures do not include any funds spent on the process to date and do not include money spent on organizing meetings, payment for military personnel or security.

Lots of $$ for politicians
In 2009, the Central Electoral Board (JCE) is due to distribute RD$211 million to the PLD and the PRD, while the PRSC will receive RD$15 million. Overall, the JCE is expected to distribute RD$526,502,169 to politicians. The difference is that the PLD and PRD were the only political parties to receive at least 5% of the vote in the 2008 presidential election.
In March alone, the ruling PLD and the PRD will receive RD$17,550,072. The PRSC will receive RD$1,263,376, the APD RD$697,326.73, BIS RD$549,153, FNP RD$532,308, PQDS RD$485,860, UDC RD$483,768, PUVD RD$442,393, MODA RD$435,344, PTD RD$433,673, PPC RD$386064, PLRD RD$383,351, MIUCA RD$372,429, ASD RD$363,116, PRSD RD$351,311 and PUN RD$344,925.
The political parties are preparing for the 2010 congressional and municipal elections, scheduled for 16 May 2010.

Senator Williams: harassing journalists?
Senator Alejandro Williams (San Pedro de Macoris-PLD), who works full-time as a dentist in New York City, is being questioned for harassing journalists in the Dominican Republic. Maria Isabel Soldevila, editor at Listin Diario, Margarita Cordero, editor of 7dias.com.do and Norma Sheppard, reporter for Radio Mil in San Pedro de Macoris came forward to report that two men, one identified as the senator's bodyguard, had posed as US federal detectives investigating any information they may have about the report that the senator was under investigation for Medicaid fraud. Last January Listin Diario revealed that the Senator lives and works full time in New York, despite having been elected as senator for the province of San Pedro de Macoris on the ruling PLD ticket. The post of senator is a full-time occupation, but despite proof that Williams is not fulfilling his duty, there has not been any correction from the PLD-majority Senate or the PLD party.

Reasons for the protests
There has been a series of protests in a number of towns since the Christmas holidays, as the population tries to call the government's attention to the pressing problems in their communities. The government has blamed opposition parties for stirring up discontent, but writing in Hoy, journalist Juan Bolivar Diaz says that social analysts are attributing the protests to the government's accumulated social debt, the deficiencies in basic services, and the generalized corruption and superfluous spending, as well as the concentration of public spending in Santo Domingo.
He reports on the protests in middle class areas in Santiago, as well as in Bonao, San Jose de las Matas and Salcedo, mentioning that during February and March hardly a day went by without a protest. According to Clave Digital, social anthropologist Tahira Vargas says there were 80 protests in the first 84 days of the year, or more than one a day nationwide. Some 39% of the protests took place in Santiago, capital of the central Cibao region. She said that last year 202 social protests were registered, averaging 17 a month, meaning that protests between January and March were up by about 60%.
Diaz writes that the protestors are asking for improvements in water and electricity services, schools and hospitals, and for street repairs. The protests come after the Fernandez government made many promises while on the campaign trail in 2008. Most of the communities' demands are for small-scale public works.
Diaz writes that the protests are also stimulated by the frustration about continuous corruption scandals, the high wages paid to politicians and government officials, and increasing unemployment.
On Sunday Hoy reported that the Ministry of Public Works cooled off protesters with the announcement last week that it would make RD$400 million available to complete pending projects.
The recent rash of continuous protests has increased levels of insecurity within the country, but the president of the American Chamber of Commerce, Christopher Paniagua, says that of greater concern is the effect that these protests could have on the DR's image. Paniagua is asking the protest organizers to consider the fact that these demonstrations could affect the DR's image as a peaceful, socially and politically stable country. Paniagua added that he accepts that the public has the right to protest and demand their rights, but at the same time he urged the groups to reconsider their methods. He said that the DR has to project an international image of a country that is willing to enter into dialogue.

Big investments in Santo Domingo
Financial crisis or not, Santo Domingo is on its way to becoming the shopping capital of the Caribbean, if it hasn't already made the grade. Construction is well under way for Swedish home furnishing center Ikea, and Grupo CCN will soon be opening its Jumbo supermarket in the Luperon commercial district. La Sirena is also investing in the area. Plaza Lama is working on another mega store on Avenida Maximo Gomez at the intersection with Nicolas de Ovando, and another at Av. Charles de Gaulle in Santo Domingo East. Newly opened in Santo Domingo is the Papa John pizza franchise, and Americana Departmentos is moving fast on its new expansion at JF Kennedy, across the street from Ikea, as reported in Listin Diario.

Exchange rate increases steadily
The dollar-peso exchange rate has seen a steady and gradual increase during the last two months, registering RD$35.90 to 1 last Friday. This news raises concerns about the devaluation of the peso, taking into account that the exchange rate was RD$35.64 at the end of February. The greatest jump in the exchange rate occurred between 2 and 27 March when it went from RD$35.70 to RD$35.90. Observers explain that the government developed its budget based on an exchange rate of RD$37.50 and fear that the exchange rate could balloon to RD$40.00 by the end of the year.

Eight arrested for drugs in Santiago
The National Drug Control Department has carried out an operation in Santiago, arresting eight people for possession of military and DNCD uniforms intended for use in criminal activity. Also confiscated were weapons, a considerable amount of cocaine, two SUVs, a car, a motorcycle, radios and other items. Major General Gilberto Delgado Valdez named the detainees as the brothers Rafael de Jesus, Lirbania Maria and Francisco German Rodriguez Noesi, Mario Pena Brito, Luis Nunez Luciano, Altagracia Gonzalez Delgado, Edwin Antonio Rodriguez Santos and Leonardo Antonio. They were arrested when the DNCD raided a colmado in Santiago's Ensanche Libertad sector. Rafael Rodriguez Noemi has a criminal record dating back to his first arrest for drugs in 2002.

PR's most wanted fugitive arrested
On Saturday on Santo Domingo's 27 de Febrero Avenue, Dominican anti-drug and migration authorities arrested Cruz Roberto Ramos-Gonzalez (aka Robert Belleza), a fugitive from Puerto Rican justice. He was living in the DR with a false identity, and working as a trader. He was taken into custody and will be extradited to Puerto Rico to stand trial for large-scale drug trafficking. He is accused of being a leading distributor of heroin and cocaine in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. An order for his arrest was issued on 3 August 2007. DNCD spokesman Roberto Lebron said that Gonzalez is currently being held at the DNCD.

Interpol catches another one
Criminals can run, but recent evidence shows they can no longer hide in the DR. Diario Libre is reporting that Interpol has caught Italian mobster Martone Mariano in the DR. Colonel Atahualpa Cabrera Sarita, chief of the DR Interpol Office, says that Mariano is wanted for at least 10 Italian bank robberies, making away with an estimated total haul of EUR170 million, equivalent to RD$8.16 billion. Diario Libre reports that Mariano had been working as a taxi driver and lived in Santiago's Cienfuegos neighborhood. Mariano was number 16 on Italy's 'most wanted' list. This is the second high-profile Italian gangster to have been caught in the DR since the beginning of this year. The first was Ciro Mazzarella, who was found in February. Officials also helped catch German con artist Ralf Erwim Waldenmaier.

Another one bites Paya dust
Little by little the pieces associated with the 2008 Paya drug massacre are falling into place and into jail. This time it is Victor Manuel Montas, brother of Jose Luis Montas Vargas, who has been accused of organizing the drug massacre. Bani Judge Rafael Dario Tejeda sent him to jail for three months for having transported the drugs believed to be at the center of the drug-related massacre. Victor Manuel Montas's lawyers say that the legal authorities still do not have any proof of his client's involvement.

In the Navy, honesty does pay
Navy chief Vice Admiral Homero Luis Lajara Sola has announced that the yet-to-be-identified Navy officer who turned down a drug bribe will be promoted for his courageous efforts. The Executive Branch has signed off the young officer's promotion order. The interception of a suspected smuggling ring in the eastern province of La Altagracia was announced on March. The group was apprehended after trying to bribe a member of the navy with RD$300,000 and a 2009 Mitsubishi Montero in return for being allowed to continue with their operations. Lajara Sola says that the individuals arrested for the aborted boat trip are Cuban Raynaldo Vasquez Padron and Dominicans Augusto Montero Montero and Esteban Perez.

Birds lose flight
The post-game statement by junior guard Edgar Sosa said it all, "I think we were a Final Four team, which is what's so interesting about college basketball, you can be a great team, but that one night that you don't come out to play, and it's over. It's not like the best-of-seven in the NBA playoffs. It's one and done." Sosa, who had been a rising star in Rick Pitino's collegiate championship aspirations, is now left wondering if will come back to Louisville for a final championship run or try his luck for the riches of the NBA. The Cardinals, a strong favorite coming into the tournament, was stifled by Michigan State and took control of the game in the second half. Sosa and his team now head back to Louisville to regroup, as MSU heads to the 2009 Final Four.

Fergus wins at Cap Cana
It was Keith Fergus's day. And what a day. Fergus birdied four straight shots and then eagled on par four on the 17th hole to win the Cap Cana Championship. Fergus's late rally helped him card a five-under 67 to win by one shot at 13- under-par 203. Fergus commented, "It's been a great week. It was one of those weeks where I hadn't been playing well all year, but I had a bunch of people behind me." The newly crowned champion now walks away with US$315,000. The win adds another successful tournament at the Jack Nicklaus designed course, which is slowly gaining a reputation for being one of the best golf courses in the region.
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