As we are starting to make friends with the locals, we are finding out more about how the country works. Life is almost suspended here at the moment as the presidential elections loom (Election Day is 20th May). As the election approaches, more “one-issue” candidates or candidates without a big war chest start to throw their hats in the ring but essentially it is a two horse race. The two principal candidates are:
- Danilo Medina who represents the incumbent PLD, (Dominican Liberation Party) very similar in its ideals to the British Conservative party;
- Hipolita Mejia, representing the PRD (Dominican Revolutionary party – similar in principle to the British Labour party) who is the arch nemesis of Medina as these two political titans have done presidential battle before.
They ran against each other in the elections of 2000. Mejia was the winner but by all accounts was the worst president and economist since the days of the dictator Trujillo in the 1930s. The country has been on its financial knees since Mejia’s presidency and yet probably a third of the country will vote for him again. The signs are that Medina will emerge the victor this time but nobody would really want to predict the outcome of an election where both candidates have suffered enough political disgraces to drive them out of politics all together in the developed world but here one of them is sure to be elected president next Sunday.
The locals seem passionate about politics. It is all you can hear people talk of at school and in town and people of all ages (from 5 to 105) regularly stop us in the street and ask who we will be voting for. We think their passion is more about the process of the election than the issues themselves. For this larger than life nation, any excuse to have a party or throw a parade is a good one and the arrival of a new government is as good an excuse as it gets. It is impossible to walk around town without bumping into a crowd of flag wavers (Purple and yellow for Danilo, blue and white for Hipolito) or being deafened by a motorcade of supporters.
Nobody seriously believes that whichever party is elected will bring an end to the corruption which is endemic and openly acknowledged in the government here. First and foremost politicians line their own pockets and take good care of their friends. Only then may they turn they attention and finances to the running of the country. Even those who ardently support Mejia, from the opposition, readily admit that the country will probably be in better hands if Medina, from the incumbent party wins, for one simple reason. The incumbents have had their “snouts in the trough” for four years so their personal appetites are largely sated and they are more likely to have the interests of the country vaguely on their agenda than anyone with new access to treasury funds.
Here are a few examples of issues we wondered if the new government would consider:
We have posted several times about the appalling state of the roads here and the lack of any basic road safety laws (seat belts, crash helmets, car seats for infants, speed limits, drink drive laws, and limits on how many people and washing machines can fit on a motorbike). We did find out recently probably the most startling fact of all – you cannot take your own driving test here! You pay a “professional” to take it for you. For a fixed fee this ensures that you will not fail (even if you have never sat in a car in your life before) and provides a little cottage industry for the country’s professional driving test takers. If you personally arrive to take your own driving test you will be sent away and informed that you must appoint a professional to take the test for you!
Life here is constantly interrupted by power cuts. It is unusual not to have at least one a day. Sometimes they last only a few minutes but sometimes we are without power for most of the day. Being without light and electricity is a little irritating but you soon get used to it. The real problem is that without power the water pump doesn’t work so if we are without power for a few hours we can also be without water which can make life distinctly uncomfortable. We are not without water to drink because that is bottled but we can’t wash hands or flush to the loo.
The main reason for the power cuts is the number of “illegal” taps into the mains supply. 80% of the population of the DR lives in poverty. Electricity is very expensive. When you live on less than a dollar a day you can’t afford it. But this does not prevent lots of people having it. They somehow tap into their neighbours supply. So the electricity company has no real idea how many “customers” it has and often their circuits get overloaded and we have a power cut whilst it is fixed.
The houses which do have an official power supply also have a meter outside their house. About once a month a man from the power company comes and reads the meter. A few days later you get a bill. But the bill has a lot less to do with the numbers on the meter than it does with the electricity company’s perception of your ability to pay. Our friend Massiel told us that when they moved into their home, the electricity bill of the previous tenants had been about 1,000 pesos per month (£20). Massiel’s husband, Grebel Jose, is the manager of an engineering company and is well known in the town. They have two cars and are perceived to have a comfortable life. In the same house with the same appliances (they rent the house furnished) their electricity bill quadrupled to 4,000 pesos per month.
Grebel Jose is currently working on a government sponsored project to lay water pipes to bring clean drinking water to certain areas of Nagua. The project is costing millions of dollars and is a repeat of a project done a few years ago. New pipes were laid all over the town about 6 years ago, the dream being that those who could pay for the supply could have potable water piped to their home. But of course the same thing happened to the water supply that happens now with electricity. Those who can pay do those who cannot/will not pay tap into their neighbour’s pipe for free. Unfortunately now there is no guarantee that contaminants have not entered the water system due to the illegal pipe hacking so nobody trusts that water in the tap is clean enough to drink.
We asked Massiel what measures had been put in place to stop this happening again with the new water pipes. “Oh nothing,” she replied, “the same thing will happen again. People do not think long term here.”
When our Canadian friends, Sharon and Adrian, bought their home in Nueva Nagua, they knew they would pay the cost they agreed with the seller for the house, estate agents fees, solicitor’s fees and property tax. They were quite stunned at how the property tax was calculated. The assessor came round to view the property but he did not go inside, he did not measure anything and he did not have any information about the size of the property, its accommodation or how much the purchase price was. He gave Sharon and Adrian an amount in pesos to pay him which he had basically guessed they could afford looking at where their house is located. They asked how he had arrived at the figure and basically he told them not to argue, just pay up and shut up. He said that officially he has assessed their house as “unfinished” which means that no property tax is due to the government. But the price of this assessment is a whopping great fee to the local solicitor who is employed by the government to assess property taxes. Sharon and Adrian, honest and upstanding Pastors from Canada wanted to pay the property tax but they solicitor wouldn’t change his report and they couldn’t move into their house until they had paid him so eventually they decided that “when in Rome” and paid the solicitor to receive an official report to say their home was exempt from property tax.
Here is a copy and a translation of an advert which went into the local paper at Easter about the school where we work:
Colegio Evangelico Nueva Luz – Servicios a Ofrecer: (Services on Offer):
- Pre-Escolar Bilingue (Bilingual pre-school)
- Area de recreation Infantil (Children’s playground)
- Club de Ingles Basica (English club for lower school)
- Laboratorio de Idiomas (Language lab)
- Laboratorio de Ciencias (Science lab)
- Laboratorio de Informatica (Information Technology lab)
- Salon de Actos (Theatre)
- Biblioteca (Library)
- Energia Permanente (Permanent power supply)
- Canchas Deportivas (Playing fields)
- Transporte (Transport)
There is only the vague sense of truth to this advert. In fact, it is a bit of a “truth sandwich” because there is some truth both ends but the bit in the middle is a complete fabrication!
The pre-school where Katie and Zach attend has two teachers who speak English and three who do not. About half of Katie’s instruction is in English and there are lots of English posters decorating the walls so it is definitely fair to say the pre-school is bilingual.
We begin to part company with the truth here. There is a small fenced off area at the back of the playground that contains 2 broken swings and some old tyres with bits of steel poking out of them. When we first arrived Katie and Zach’s class used to “play” in here for about an hour each day but sometime after Christmas the key was lost and it has not been used for months. The pre-schoolers no longer have an outdoor playtime. After school a few of the smaller children climb through a hole in the fence and play with the broken swings. It takes quite an imagination to think of this area of school as a children’s play area.
Language, Science and IT Labs
Although nowhere near as much imagination as it does to conjure up the language, science and IT labs. They simply do not exist. We have classrooms which are empty save for a few desks and broken chairs (in fact so many of the chairs have now been broken by the children that in most of the classrooms, in the unlikely event of full attendance, some of the children have to stand). There are about six microscopes gathering dust on a shelf in Richard’s office. There were victims of the first flood way back in September so I am not sure whether they work or not. They have not been used since we arrived and they certainly are not in a place that could be called a science lab. The language lab and IT lab are just figments of the imagination – there are only two conputers in the entire school and these belong to the Secretary and the Principal.
There is not one. Wailly has asked me several times to run an English club in the afternoons. I have said that I will not start a club until the chaos of the mornings has been addressed. I think we could be waiting a long time!
Moving in the direction of the truth once again but again using one’s imagination on full power. There has been a lot of building work done at the school this year. A whole new block of classrooms, offices and a cafeteria has been built and one office has been demolished. For several months the playground was full of rubble and it appeared to be a permanent feature until Wailly decided to put it to use and turn it into a seating area to watch basketball games. Somehow between planning and execution something went awry and when it was finished it was not a tiered seating area but simply a raised flat area that did not offer a better view of the court than ground level. It is now called the stage.
There is a large room in the new building which I refer to as the library, although nobody else in the school seems to call it this. At some point the school has had a very generous American benefactor who has sent bags and bags of books to the school. I and one other teacher have spent hours taking the books out of the bags and putting them on two big bookshelves. The books are all in English and are both fiction and non-fiction for all ages. It is quite an impressive collection for a school. Matthew and I sit in the library every break, reading or studying. But more often than not our studies are interrupted by a fight or a basketball game taking place around us. It is a library in the sense that it has books but definitely not in the sense that is a quiet place to read or study. With the exception of my family, I have never seen a child pick up a book from there.
We have power cuts most days so there is nothing very permanent about the energy at school! There is a backup generator, but since we’ve been here it’s never worked – waiting for some new parts, apparently.
Compared to other schools in Nagua, we are situated on a large plot so there is plenty of outdoor space to run around. There is an outdoor basketball court so I think that yes, by DR standards, it is fair to say we have playing fields.
There is no school transport but there have been a few school trips whilst we have been here and transport has been reliably provided by a local bus company so transport certainly isn’t a problem.
The purpose of this article is not to criticise the way of doing things here but rather to reflect on how differently things are done. I cannot imagine the answers that are given to parents of potential students of the school who, attracted by the advert, come for a tour and ask to see the science labs, children’s playground and English club. But the sad fact is that no answers would ever be necessary because the parents don’t take that much interest. If it says it in the advert, that’s good enough.
The problems we have had at the school and the upcoming elections have left another interesting question for us to ponder: is it really in the best interests of a corrupt government to prioritise and invest in education? After all, educated people with well-developed thinking skills might seriously start to challenge the government’s actions and make it much more difficult for them to be totally self- serving.