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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Caribbean Neighbors Face Crises Together

Leaders Make Unlikely Duo At Miami Meeting

By Doreen Hemlock

December 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved. 

They're as different as oil and vinegar. He's macho, slang- talking and full of hyperbole, running his country like a plantation. She's polished, bilingual and a stickler for detail, managing her island like a corporation.

Yet the Dominican Republic's president, Hipolito Mejia, and Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Maria Calderon, are forging a strong bond in the Caribbean to confront common problems, from sometimes deadly migration to the fallout from Sept. 11 attacks for their vital tourism and manufacturing industries.

Both newly elected leaders traveled to Miami on Tuesday for the annual Miami Conference on the Caribbean and Latin America, and both will spend today and Thursday in Santo Domingo seeking ways to cooperate more in tourism, education and other areas.

The unlikely pair reflect a trend among small Caribbean nations to join forces amid rising challenges from a global recession. They are striving to lure more tourists and foreign investment, modernize and fight corruption, and to end poverty that afflicts millions and prompts mass migration.

Mejia's approach is rife with back-slapping bravado and unbridled optimism.

"To lead in a crisis is harder than to lead in a boom, and I'm a man for crisis," said the 60-year-old agronomist speaking in colloquial Spanish in an interview Wednesday. "My role is to be a promoter, to smooth out the situation."

He won't dwell on the impact of Sept. 11 or the U.S. recession on his nation of 8.5 million people: the steep drop in hotel occupancy, layoffs at factories that sew clothes for U.S. sale or the shift in Washington's attention to other world regions.

"I'm convinced the U.S. economy will recover quickly. It'll pick up in March," said Mejia confidently. "And clothing, I don't think the U.S. consumer is so cheap he won't buy pants or underwear."

Mejia said his government has plans to spend $30 million more to promote tourism overseas, but "we hope we won't have to use it all." The country welcomed about 3 million visitors last year, mainly from Europe, to more than 52,000 hotel rooms, the largest hotel inventory of any Caribbean island nation.

Calderon's approach instead is focused, precise and full of detail.

Addressing a luncheon audience in fluent English, she specified four short-term strategies to boost the economy of the U.S. commonwealth of 3.8 million people. She is adding local tax breaks, streamlining the permit process for construction projects, passing on fuel cost-savings to business and lobbying Washington for new federal tax breaks to lure U.S. investment to the island.

"We are injecting $1.5 billion into our economy right away by accelerating new public works projects put out to bid between September and December this year," said the 59-year-old governor.

Calderon answers directly when asked how she copes with Washington's shift in focus to other world regions. "With great difficulty," she said at a news conference in Spanish, urging "sensitivity and understanding that the people of the United States are going through a difficult time" and also offering solidarity, collaboration and moral support.

"The world obviously has changed since Sept. 11," she said realistically. "We have to be more aggressive, more creative and more proactive and more innovative in finding new approaches."

That includes redefining Puerto Rico's role in the Caribbean, engaging more with its island neighbors, Calderon said. Her government is seeking, for example, to join the Association of Caribbean States, a forum for cooperation among dozens of nations, including Cuba, for hurricane preparedness and more.

Still, Puerto Rico's greatest offshore push is aimed at the Dominican Republic, its top Caribbean trade partner and the source of tens of thousands of migrants, including many who risk their lives on overcrowded boats seeking jobs in the U.S. commonwealth, the Caribbean's industrial powerhouse.

Puerto Rico, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, has average household buying power topping $19,000 a year, nearly triple Dominican levels, according to studies by Miami-based Strategy Research Corp.

Calderon said her friendship with Mejia already has helped stem illegal migration, as Dominican authorities better patrol their coasts. The neighbors also seek ways to boost trade in goods beyond current levels of roughly $1.6 billion a year, and to expand education exchanges, among other programs.

"As the world economy's becomes increasingly competitive and globalized, we need to look to each other to strengthen our prospects for progress," she told participants at the Miami conference.

The moves carry special weight for South Florida, because the Caribbean is a major business partner and source of immigration. Puerto Ricans are the largest Hispanic group in Broward County, No. 2 in Miami-Dade and No. 3 in Palm Beach. The Dominican Republic is the second largest foreign trade partner for South Florida after Brazil, accounting for $4.3 billion in goods directly traded last year.

The 25th annual Miami Conference on the Caribbean concludes today with featured speakers to include El Salvador President Francisco Flores and Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur.

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