We love Dominica. There are only 71,000 people here. And unlike other small islands with similar populations (US Virgin Islands, Antigua, etc) there are no major developments: no five star hotels, no high-rises, no major corporations – with one interesting exception that I’ll get into later.
My investigations started while we were being driven along the coast: I saw a beautiful gravestone perched on a hill overlooking the ocean. Upon closer inspection, I noticed it was engraved with the name “Michael Douglas”. You’ve got to ask when you see something like that. My driver explained that Michael Douglas was an illustrious leader of the Dominica Labor Party. And so we got talking about the local politics in the island.
Apparently, in the 1990s, the island was (mis) governed by the United Workers Party, who were more than a little corrupt. The country amassed enormous debt, money was siphoned off by politicians, the national bank was accused of money laundering, and Dominica was blacklisted by international aid agencies. The good news is that Dominica is an active democracy, (became independent from the UK in 1978) and the United Workers Party got booted out of office in 2000 and Roosevelt Douglas – brother of Michael Douglas (of the beautiful grave stone) was elected. However, Mr. Douglas died in office after only 8 months. And his replacement also died in office a couple of years later. And so when it came time to choose the next Prime Minister, they chose the youngest candidate possible, who as a result is currently in power: Roosevelt Skerrit. The United Workers Party has been doing all they can to discredit him and forced him to call a snap election last year. But that only resulted in his party getting 18 of the 21 seats! So now they are accusing him of being a dual national which is illegal according to the constitution as his mother lived in Guadeloupe and registered for a French passport when he was a kid. (Roosevelt has since renounced his French citizenship). So it’s nice to see that no matter where you go, big or small, there’s plenty of mud slinging in the local politics. Hopefully, now that he’s amassed so much power and support, Mr. Skerrit won’t prove that famous law of politics: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There are plenty of other interesting (to my point of view) things about Dominica’s politics:
- Just like Antigua & Barbuda, the Japanese have been investing in fisheries here in order to curry votes in the UN to allow the hunting of whales (see this article). However, this decision was made under the previous party and as Dominica is an eco-tourism destination, the current government have reneged on their promise to vote with Japan and are currently voting against whaling. Interestingly, the Japanese are continuing to invest. I counted at least two different ports funded by the Japanese one of which is currently under construction (in Portsmouth) and have been told of a third.
- China is also a big investor in Dominica (see here). I am told that China doesn’t give money, they give resources (an interesting way to ensure what you give goes where you want it to). In this case, the Chinese are helping to build roads and schools. So when you’re driving around Dominica, you suddenly see a bunch of Chinese construction workers in Orange jump-suits and brand new (Chinese) digging equipment. There are persistent rumors that the men working on the road crews are criminals, but I don’t believe it and put it down to the dirty politics being waged by the United Workers Party. I’m told that there are some decent Chinese restaurants sprouting up around the island which is a pleasant side effect. I have made the assumption that as Dominica doesn’t have natural resources that China wants (oil, minerals, etc) that Dominica is trading in sovereignty on this issue: probably taking aid in exchange for not recognizing Taiwan. This has been backed up by a couple of locals who say that trade with Taiwan has all but dried up.
- Venezuela is another of Dominica’s partners. They helped build the main airport, (Hugo Chavez visited with a fleet of jets when it opened) and are the main supplier of oil to the country. I’m told that they are going to build an oil refinery on the island (see here). One of the side effects of this is that diesel here is the cheapest we’ve ever seen. It cost about $300 to fill up the tanks in Dominica vs. $450 in the USA, $500 in Antigua and $950 in Bermuda. Interestingly, the locals don’t seem to differentiate between Venezuelan aid and Chinese aid. Which can be very confusing when you’re trying to get a story straight. For example, one guy kept insisting that Dominica bought all their oil from China…
- And lastly, there is that major development, the one exception I referred to at the beginning of this article: Medical Tourism has a whole new meaning in Dominica. Due to the incredible rising costs of tuition, medical schools have begun going off-shore. (Who knew? Not me.) Dominica has been one of the lucky recipients of this trend. Ross University is based in Portsmouth and is a large 3,000 student facility with all of the modern conveniences. Right outside the school are a couple of franchise fast food restaurants (KFC and another) but I loved finding a local entrepreneur who has set up a “7-11” store. Clearly not a franchise as it is more of a grocery store and has the wrong logo. But it stocks what homesick American kids would want and I’m sure the proprietor is doing well for him (or her) self. This University must be a HUGE deal for the economy as it represents a boost of about 4% to the population of the country! And if I were a student looking to go to medical school this Ross University deal seems like a great idea!
A final little intrigue are the large number of wrecks that are dotted around Portsmouth Harbor where we are anchored.
They have accumulated as various hurricanes have hit over the years. Dominica has been too poor to do anything about it, but finally got a private party to pay to salvage them all. However, just as they began to cart the wrecks away, the Venezuelan government also offered help. I don’t know which deal is better, or any of the details, but I do know that this has resulted in a stand-off. There is a large salvage vessel that’s been sitting empty in the bay for four or five months while the government dithers about what to do and the wrecks continue to rust away.
I love Dominica. My sister is considering buying a house here. Not sure what the US is doing to help out. It’s probably too small to worry about.