The United States Has a Key Partner in the Dominican Republic
May 18, 2021
The United States and the Dominican Republic share a long history spanning governance, trade, and familiar post-colonial roots. With 2.2 million people, the Dominican diaspora is the fifth-largest Hispanic population in the United States, with a significant cultural presence throughout the arts, music, sports, and politics. Conversely, the Dominican Republic is the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner in Latin America and the Caribbean and is the sixth-most popular destination in the world for U.S. tourists.
In the past, however, the United States has overlooked this important bilateral relationship. As a result, the Dominican Republic has turned to other partners—particularly mainland China—in search of more fruitful partnerships. In just the past three years, the Dominican Republic has severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and has signed dozens of new economic and cultural agreements with Beijing.
Fortunately, the current Dominican president, Luis Abinader, is overtly pro-United States, with personal ties dating back to his time as a graduate student in Massachusetts. Furthermore, he has taken a harder stance on China than previous administrations. There is a window of opportunity for the Biden administration to reengage with the Dominican Republic along the following five shared priorities.
The Dominican Republic is a keystone in the Caribbean due to its strategic location, relatively powerful economy, and good relations with both CARICOM and Central American countries. It stands as both an important ally and as a model of progress. For instance, while in 1990 the Dominican Republic's GDP per capita was $991, comparable at the time to that of Honduras ($993), El Salvador ($914), and Guatemala ($845), today the comparison is not even close, as GDP per capita in the Dominican Republic has risen to $8,282.
The Dominican Republic's phenomenal growth means it provides both lessons and opportunities for other countries in the region. Other Caribbean Basin countries can learn from the effective implementation of Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, which contributed to a tripling of trade with the United States since the agreement was signed in 2004.
The Biden and Abinader administrations both have a stake in Caribbean security and prosperity and should make this central to their bilateral engagement. As the secretary general of the Organization of American States noted in testimony to the Senate, the Caribbean is the United States' third border and should be treated accordingly as a priority.
The Dominican Republic has increasingly pivoted toward China over the past few years, as exemplified most prominently by its severing of diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2018. This decision came as a surprise to many international observers, who had seen the Dominican Republic as a “safe” ally of Taiwan. To this day, the decision is highly unpopular among the Dominican populace, with 71 percent supporting a restoration of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China pulled the Dominican Republic further into its sphere of influence with its Covid-19 "wolf warrior" diplomacy, leveraging personal protective equipment and vaccines in exchange for diplomatic favors. For example, the Dominican Republic initially excluded Huawei from its 5G networks as part of the Clean Network Initiative but later reversed this decision due to pressure from China.
While the United States awaits authorization for the AstraZeneca vaccine, tens of millions of doses have been held up in U.S. manufacturing facilities. In March, President Abinader implored the Biden administration to share these doses with the Dominican Republic and other less-developed countries that have already authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine. Meanwhile, China filled the gap by sending a shipment of 768,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine to the Dominican Republic in late March. Sinovac presents concerns not only due to its use as a diplomatic tool rather than as a showing of goodwill, but also due to its substandard efficacy rate—estimated to be as low as 50.38 percent depending on the trial—and its high price tag of $29.50 per dose.
Like many countries in the region, the Dominican Republic has an endemic corruption problem, ranking 137th out of 180 total countries on the Global Corruption Index. A recent, striking example was the entanglement of former president Danilo Medina's administration in the multinational Odebrecht scandal, during which the Brazilian construction giant admitted to paying $92 million in bribes to political officials in the Dominican Republic.
Corruption is even more of a concern when considered in the context of China's increasing influence in the Dominican Republic. China has a pattern of investing in and providing loans to corrupt and authoritarian governments without asking for human rights or governance concessions, branding itself as an easier business partner than the United States. China could continue this pattern in the Dominican Republic, undoing years of regional anti-corruption work and exacerbating an already deep corruption problem.
Fortunately, anticorruption is a top priority for both the Biden and Abinader administrations. President Abinader has allowed his attorney general, Miriam Germán, to lead an independent probe into his own administration, which has led to the arrest of at least 10 corrupt officials. Meanwhile, anticorruption is also a core tenet of the Biden administration's foreign policy, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling corruption the "Achilles' heel" of global progress.
The Dominican Republic is one of countries at highest risk for natural disasters in the 2020 World Risk Report and suffered a record-breaking 30 tropical cyclones in 2020. It is particularly vulnerable due to its dependence on agricultural exports, which can be completely decimated by hurricanes, floods, and landslides.
The Dominican Republic has collaborated with the United Nations Environmental Programme to reform its most important economic sectors around sustainability. Furthermore, President Biden highlighted the Caribbean as a priority area for climate financing under his administration's climate plan. Climate change is a key political issue for the U.S. president, and a matter of survival for President Abinader. The two administrations can easily find common ground on this issue.
While engagement between the two presidents should be guided by the shared priorities described above, the outcome should be a tangible goal, like renewing and improving the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) with the Dominican Republic as a key partner. An updated CBI would allow both administrations to pursue their shared interest in development and security in the Caribbean Basin, including the Biden administration's priority region, the Northern Triangle. At the same time, it would send a clear message to the Dominican government that the United States recognizes that it is a valuable partner, solidifying the bilateral relationship.
Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Isaac Parham is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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