For the United States, the Dominican Republic is a strategic cornerstone in the Caribbean.
Joe Biden, president of the United States and Luis Abinader, president of the Dominican Republic.
The United States and the Dominican Republic share a long history that spans governance, commerce, 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 in the arts, music, sports, and politics. Conversely, the Dominican Republic is the fourth-largest U.S. 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 critical bilateral relationship. As a result, the Dominican Republic has turned to other partners, particularly mainland China, for more fruitful partnerships. In just the past three years, the Dominican Republic has severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and signed dozens of new economic and cultural agreements with Beijing.
Fortunately, the current Dominican president, Luis Abinader, is openly pro-U.S., with personal ties dating back to his time as a graduate student in Massachusetts. He has also taken a tougher stance on China than previous administrations. There is a window of opportunity for the Biden administration to re-engage with the Dominican Republic along the following five shared priorities.
The Dominican Republic is a cornerstone in the Caribbean because of its strategic location, relatively robust economy, and good relations with CARICOM and Central American countries. It stands as an essential ally and a model of progress. For example, while in 1990 the Dominican Republic’s GDP per capita was $991, comparable at the time to 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 providing both lessons and opportunities for other countries in the region. Other Caribbean Basin countries can learn from the effective implementation of the 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 have a stake in the security and prosperity of the Caribbean and should make this a central element in their bilateral engagement. As the Organization of American States secretary-general noted in his testimony before the Senate, the Caribbean is the third border of the United States. It should be treated accordingly as a priority.
The Dominican Republic has increasingly pivoted toward China in recent years, most prominently evidenced by the severing of diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2018. This decision surprised many international observers, who had viewed the Dominican Republic as a “Taiwan Ally.” The decision is very unpopular among the Dominican population, with 71 percent supporting the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China pushed the Dominican Republic into its sphere of influence with its Covid-19 “wolf warrior” diplomacy, taking advantage of 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 Grid Initiative but later reversed it due to China’s pressure.
While the United States awaits authorization for the AstraZeneca vaccine, tens of millions of doses have been held up at US 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 licensed the AstraZeneca vaccine. Meanwhile, China filled the gap by shipping a batch of 768,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine to the Dominican Republic in late March. Sinovac raises concerns not only because of its use as a diplomatic tool rather than a show of goodwill but also because of its poor efficacy rate, estimated at 50.38 percent according to the trial, and its high price of $29.50.
Like many countries in the region, the Dominican Republic has an endemic corruption problem, ranking 137th out of 180 countries globally. A recent and 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 US$92 million in bribes to political officials in the Dominican Republic.
The corruption is even more troubling when considered in the context of China’s growing influence in the Dominican Republic. China has a pattern of investing and lending to corrupt and authoritarian governments without asking for concessions on human rights or governance, qualifying as a more accessible trading 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 severe corruption problem.
Fortunately, fighting corruption is a top priority of the Biden and Abinader administrations. President Abinader has allowed his attorney general, Miriam German, to lead an independent investigation into his own administration, which has led to the arrest of at least ten corrupt officials. Meanwhile, the fight against corruption is also a fundamental 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 the countries with the highest risk of natural disasters in the World Risk Report 2020 and suffered a record 30 tropical cyclones in 2020. It is particularly vulnerable due to its dependence on agricultural exports, which hurricanes can completely decimate. It is particularly vulnerable due to its reliance on agricultural exports, which hurricanes, floods, and landslides can completely destroy.
The Dominican Republic has worked with the United Nations Environment Program to reform its vital economic sectors around sustainability. In addition, President Biden highlighted the Caribbean as a priority area for climate finance under his administration’s climate plan. Climate change is a key policy 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, such as renewing and enhancing 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 valued partner, solidifying the bilateral relationship.