The Caribbean 04/03/2012

Dominican Republic celebrates Independence Day; controversy continues in Puerto Rico over Ferrer scandal; a report identifies women as the group most vulnerable to HIV.

Dominican Republic celebrates National Independence Day

On 27 February the Dominican Republic celebrated its 168th anniversary of national independence.

The occasion was marked with a speech by President Leonel Fernández, who encouraged the Dominican public to take inspiration from their nation’s founders and participate actively in today’s issues of justice, development and freedom.

National Independence Day also presented the opportunity for Dominican politicians and pundits to comment upon the current state of affairs in the Dominican Republic.

In a two hour speech to the National Assembly, Fernández named some of the accomplishments made by his government during his two terms in power, while recognizing that the country is still affected by multiple shortfalls and necessities.

Among the positive achievements of his administration, the president cited increased revenues in tourism and mining, as well as the philanthropic work of the First Lady, Margarita Cedeño de Fernández. President Fernández also called attention to the new high rise buildings in the capital Santo Domingo, which he dubbed ‘little New York’.

The state leader went on to say: ‘I recognize […] that there are still families who suffer. That there are still destroyed homes. That there are still malnourished people. That there are still young people adrift from opportunities and old people lacking the attention they deserve’.

Fernández nevertheless concluded: ‘The fact is today, in the Dominican Republic, we’re better off than we were eight years ago’.

The ex-president and head of the opposition Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party – PRD), Hipólito Mejía, later criticized Fernández for using his address to give a political speech to the National Assembly, rather than presenting the highlights of 2011.

The opposition leader alleged that Fernández’s speech constituted a violation of the national constitution, saying that he believed the president’s intentions had been to outline his aspirations for the future, rather than giving the customary rundown on the year’s events.

Mejía also questioned the veracity of the statistics given by Fernández as signs of the country’s development since 2004, saying ‘no one knows where he got [the statistics] from, since the reality that the Dominican public is living through is completely different’.

Debate continues over politician’s involvement in ‘domestic violence’ incident

Controversy continued to rage in Puerto Rico this week, surrounding allegations about the personal life of Héctor Ferrer of the opposition Partido Popular Democrático (People’s Democratic Party – PPD).

Last week, Ferrer, an aspiring candidate for the mayorship of the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, became the subject of intense media scrutiny after he turned himself in to the police following what the press have called an incident of ‘domestic violence’.

The episode evolved out of an argument between Ferrer and his wife, who were undergoing separation. It is unclear whether any violent actions were actually committed during the dispute.

The leader of the PPD, Alejandro García Padilla, came under fire at the start of the week from the island’s governor, Luis Fortuño, for having waited several days before taking an official position regarding Ferrer’s case.

Fortuño stated: ‘It is deplorable that it should have taken a week for senator García Padilla to pronounce his position on such a fundamental issue as gender violence’.

García Padilla, however, insisted that he did not want to be coerced into making a statement before he had heard a full account of the incident, saying: ‘As President [of the PPD] I will act according to reason and justice, not to string-pulling and political pressure’.

On Wednesday Ferrer announced his resignation from all political and legislative responsibilities, including his candidacy for the San Juan mayorship, with effect from 15 March 2012.

Despite declaring a day earlier that he would not quit his position, Ferrer stated that his decision to resign was caused by his desire to cease being ‘a distraction to the real problems of the country’.

Ferrer’s resignation was supported by several legislators as being the correct political choice, given the circumstances.

So far, no replacement has been announced to fill Ferrer’s spot for the PPD mayorship candidate. Ex-governor Sila María Calderón gave the press a blunt rebuttal when asked if she was interested in taking the position, while it is speculated that another ex-governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá may be a likely candidate.

Representative Carmen Yulín Ortiz and senator Eduardo Bathia have also been mentioned as potential contenders for the role.

Meanwhile, on Friday Ferrer was referred to the Board of the Puerto Rican Special Independent Attorney (Fiscal Especial Independiente – FEI) in relation to allegations that he violated the Domestic Violence Law and the Minors Law during the dispute last week with his partner, Elisa Hernández Negrón.

The Attorney has 90 days to determine whether or not to bring charges against Ferrer.

Women identified as group most vulnerable to HIV

A report released this week revealed that adult women are the group most vulnerable to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the Dominican Republic.

The report, funded by a United Nations project on HIV and AIDS, found that 60 per cent of the people currently living with HIV in the Dominican Republic are women, while researchers identified older women as the group at highest risk of contracting the infection.

There are currently 57,540 people living with HIV in the country; 34,630 of these are women, and 22,910 are men.

Alina Ramírez and Elizabeth Conklin, the two researchers who carried out the studies upon which the report is based, found that education and gender were the two factors which increased the risk of contracting HIV. Incidence of the virus was greater in both sexes where individuals have a lower level of education.

The study showed that among people with no formal education 3.7 per cent of women were HIV positive, compared to 1.6 per cent of men.

Exposure to gender violence was another factor which increased the risk of HIV infection. A study by the Encuesta Demográfica y de Salud  (Demographic and Health Survey – ENDESA) found that women who are victims of violence are twice as likely to contract the disease as those who have not suffered from violence.

In Puerto Rico a similar study found that currently 11,000 women in the island are HIV positive.

Magdaline Rodríguez, of the grassroots organization Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS (CoNCRA), stated that the past few years have marked an ‘alarming’ increase in the incidence of the virus in heterosexual women between the ages of 25 to 44.

Rodríguez is in charge of organizing National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which will take place on 10 March in Puerto Rico and the USA. The community leader stated that she hoped to bring the issue to the attention of groups who are not normally associated with the virus:

‘It is almost always sex workers or certain types of women who are identified as being at risk because of their sexual practices. However, we are thinking about those women who do not feel threatened by HIV. The reality is that if you have sex, you are at risk of contagion’.

Juan Carlos Espinosa, coordinator for the Programme for Honours Students (Programa para Estudiantes de Alto Honor – PROGRESAH) by the organization Community Initiative (Iniciativa Comunitaria) recognized that general access to healthcare is still one of the principal limitations for women in Puerto Rico.

‘There are many women who do not know about methods of prevention, or are unable to take control of their health and negotiate the use of a condom. The majority of these women are heads of households with scant economic resources. For this reason, rather than carrying out HIV tests, we want to incorporate gender perspectives into all aspects of women’s healthcare’.

The alterations proposed by Espinosa would include reviewing the questions asked during healthcare procedures, and potentially modifying the approaches taken towards dealing with victims of domestic violence and sexual aggression.