By R. Viswanathan
Yes. Corona is the last name of the winner of the presidential elections of Dominican Republic held on July 5. Full name is Luis Rodolfo Abinader Corona. But he is popularly called as Abinader or Luis Abinader. The last part of the name ‘Corona’ comes from his mother’s side. He had tested positive for the virus on 11 June and spent most of the crucial campaign time in quarantine. His wife also had also tested positive at the same time.
Abinader’s first challenge as President is the Coronavirus pandemic. The Dominican Republic (DR) is one of the worst-affected countries in the Caribbean, with more than 38,000 confirmed cases and over 800 deaths. The election was postponed from May because of the virus. Understandably, the voters’ turnout was less and it was only 49.6%. However, the voters were smart enough to avoid a second-round by giving more than 50% to the winner in the first round itself.
Abinader, who is from the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), won with 53% vote. Gonzalo Castillo, the candidate of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) got 37.7%. PLD has governed for the last sixteen years, having won four consecutive elections since 2004. Castillo was the public works and communications minister in the outgoing government. Former President Leonel Fernández, who left the ruling party and ran for the presidency as a member of the new People’s Force party got just 8.8% of the votes.
But the change of party does not mean any drastic change in the direction or major policies of the country. Abinader’s PRM Party is also centre-left as the outgoing PLD. Abinader, aged 52, is pragmatic and balanced in his politics and avoids controversies and extremes. He is an economist with Masters degrees from US universities. He is a businessman who has never held elected office, although he was the losing candidate in the 2016 elections. He is of Lebanese origin and his business group has interests in hotels and cement besides other sectors. His father was a senator and presidential candidate three times in the eighties and nineties.
Incumbent President Danilo Medina was ineligible to stand for re-election, having served two consecutive terms since 2012. But Mr Medina tried a manoeuvre to get a third term, not allowed under the constitution. It is rumoured that the US Secretary of State Pompeo called and advised Medina strongly to desist. It is believed that Leonel Fernandez was behind this US string-pulling. He was the one who promoted the candidature of Medina in 2012, considering him as a protégé. But the disciple tried to outsmart the mentor and earned the wrath. There are allegations of irregularities in the primaries held in PLD which made Fernandez to quit the party and form a new one. These developments combined with corruption charges against the government were the main reasons for the loss of the ruling party. The voters chose to give the opposition a chance.
The economy of the Dominican Republic with a population of 10.6 million has done very well in the 16 years of the PLD rule from 2004. The cumulative GDP growth is 96.8% meaning an average annual growth of 6%. This is among the highest in the Latin American and Caribbean region. DR’s growth rate of 4.8% in 2019 and 7% in 2018 were the highest among the 19 Latin American countries. Inflation has been low at 2.5% in 2019 and 1.2% in 2018. The other macroeconomic fundamentals of the country are also sound and healthy. However, the country will face its first GDP contraction in 2020, like all the countries of the region. Tourism, a major foreign exchange earner, is being hit hard by the pandemic. The revival of the tourist industry will be a crucial challenge for the new President.
The Dominican Republic is better known in India because of its popular and charismatic ambassador Hans Dannenberg Castellanos. He opened the embassy in 2005 and has been here for the last fifteen years. Initially, he struggled to get Indian business interested in the distant and unknown Caribbean island nation. But the proactive ambassador promoted his country by organizing numerous visits of business delegations, reaching out to chambers of commerce across India and offering fast track business visas. He arranged a successful visit of President Leonel Fernandez in 2010 which opened the eyes of the Indians to the potential for business with the DR. Thanks to his relentless campaign, the exports of DR to India has reached 567 million dollars in 2018-19 (April-March) from an insignificant 2.7 million dollars in 2004-5. Today, India is the third-largest destination of DR’s global exports after the US and Haiti. In fact, India is the largest market for DR’s number one export, gold.
India is also indebted to Ambassador Castellanos for opening DR’s market for Indian business. India’s exports have increased from 24.7 million in 2004-5 to 215 million dollars in 2018-19. Today, India exports are more to this distant (14000 km) island country than its exports of 196 million to the neighbouring (3500 km) market of Cambodia and 143 million to Kazhakstan, just 1600 km away with a population almost double that of DR. Pharmaceuticals and vehicles are the main exports of India to DR.
Indo-Dominican Republic trade has gone up from a mere 24.7 million dollars in 2004-5 to an impressive 782 million in 2018-19 and is all set to hit a billion dollars, the target of Ambassador Castellanos.
The only unfinished agenda of Ambassador Castellanos is to get India to open an embassy in Santo Domingo. He has been trying so hard for this at all levels. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has promised him that the Dominican Republic would figure in the top of the list of new embassies to be opened in Latin America in the not too distant future.
Ambassador Castellanos’s current priority is to organize the visit of his new President to India as soon as the Corona travel restrictions are lifted. He is also keen to put the Dominican Republic in the itinerary of the Indian Prime Minister or President to Latin America during their next visit to the region.
With his long stay, Ambassador Castellanos has become the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Delhi. He is considered as a Guru by new incoming ambassadors who seek his expertise in dealing with the intricacies of Indian bureaucracy, business sector and visa seekers. He is known in the cocktail circuit for his Latino liveliness, inimitable sense of humour and incredible imitation of Indian English accents.
(The author is a Latin America expert. Views expressed are personal.)