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Free trade deal with Canada a priority for Dominican Republic’s new ambassador

Embassy, October 17th, 2007

Free Trade Deal with Canada a Priority for Dominican Republic’s New Ambassador

By Jeff Davis

When asked about his country’s relationship with the Bolivarian regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, Luis Arias, the Dominican Republic’s new ambassador to Canada, gives a carefully diplomatic response.

"We have equalitarian relations with every country of the Americas, without exception," he says, "and we take profit of the advantage that each one of them offers with the abstraction of ideological principles.

"We always try to fortify and enhance and foster democracy as a principal that leads our international relationships, without interfering in the internal affairs of other countries."

In the ongoing ideological struggle in Latin America between the Bolivarian socialists and the American-led drive for open market democracies, it appears the Dominican Republic is aligning itself firmly on the side of the free marketers.

In the past few years, the Dominican Republic has aggressively pursued free trade agreements with numerous other countries. In 2004, it joined several other Central American nations and Costa Rica in an agreement with the United States, and Mr. Arias says his country will sign a major trade deal with the European Union in December.

In fact, Mr. Arias will serve as a negotiator on a free trade agreement with Canada, which once completed will be another notch in the belt for a Caribbean nation that already has a large number of such deals.

"Official negotiations have been initiated," Mr. Arias. "The first negotiation round will take place the first week of December when a delegation Canadian will go to the Dominican Republic."

Three more rounds are scheduled after the first round in Santo Domingo. A second will be in the Dominican Republic, a third in Ottawa and a final round in Santo Domingo.

"It is projected that it will be passed by the middle of [2008]," he says, adding that "we have more and bigger FTAs than anyone in region."

The ambassador is charming, professorial and grandfatherly as he speaks his native Spanish with languid and erudite tones.

Mr. Arias says through a translator that the free trade agreement will facilitate the flow of investment from Canada to the Dominican Republic while drumming up investor interest. Cultivating further interest, he says, is one of his top priorities as ambassador

Canada already has a major presence in the DR, Mr. Arias says, particularly in the mining sector. Barrick Gold, which has invested over $1 billion into the country, is mining both gold and nickel.

"Canada is the most important country in terms of foreign investment in the Dominican Republic in the mining business," he says.

SNC-Lavalin and Dessau-Soprin, both Montreal-based engineering and construction firms, are also active in the Dominican, working on government infrastructure development contracts.

Promoting the already booming tourism industry is also a priority for Mr. Arias.

He says that between 600,000 and 700,000 Canadians visit the Dominican Republic annually. This number, he adds, is increasing every year.

The ambassador says his goal is to see tourism numbers reach one million visits per year, which would require around one in 33 Canadians to visit the DR every year.

Mr. Arias is enthusiastic in pointing out the common ground between Canada and his country.

"The relations of the Dominican Republic and Canada are passing through a historic moment because the volume of their relationship and their identification of a common agenda in terms of regional and international issues, in terms of security, international peace, and the fight against terrorism," he says. "The principals of exterior politics of Canada are very similar to those of the Dominican Republic."

In addition to trade, Canada and the Dominican Republic have a special relationship because the Caribbean country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, which is Canada’s second largest recipient of foreign aid after Afghanistan.

Compared to its francophone neighbour, the Dominican Republic is a stable and relatively prosperous country in the process of building its industrial sector and tourism industries.

Unlike Haiti, the Dominican Republic does not receive development aid from Canada.

"We don’t qualify as a country to receive aid," he says. "We’re not in the category."

In 2006, Haiti had a GDP per capita of $1,800 (US) while the Dominican Republic had a comparatively wealthy GDP per capita of $8,400 (US), according to the CIA World Fact Book.

Mr. Arias, whose background is in international law and elections monitoring, has worked with Canada before. He served a stint as vice-president of the international committee to help the electoral process in Haiti, where he was number two to former Elections Canada chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley.

The co-operation between Canada and the Dominican Republic in Haiti goes beyond elections monitoring, he says, noting that the three countries have "tripartite co-operation" on a number of common projects in the domains of health, education and environment.

Mr. Arias says presenting his credentials to Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean on Oct. 2 was special for him.

"It has multiplied my admiration for this country, having that honoured job held by someone whose origins are from Haiti," he says, remembering his meeting with the Haitian-Canadian Ms. Jean.

This is the first diplomatic appointment for the long-time professor of international law, who is accompanied to Canada by his wife. He was appointed to his post by Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who studied law under him at the University of Santo Domingo.

"He was one of my most distinguished students," Mr. Arias says of the sitting president.

Mr. Arias lived abroad for long stretches, including stints in Russia and Poland. His wanderlust satisfied, Mr. Arias said he would never live outside his home country again, with one exception. He said to himself, "If I ever leave again, it will be to Canada."

Mr. Arias takes over the role of ambassador from Eduardo J. Tejera who returned to the Dominican Republic this summer after two years in Ottawa.

 source: Embassy Magazine