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Dominican Republic keen to strengthen friendship with UK

From 6-11 November 2016 I was pleased to lead a group of Parliamentarians to the Dominican Republic on behalf of the BGIPU. It was a knowledgeable, diverse group including Sir David Amess MP, Yvonne Forvargue MP, Rosie Cooper MP, Rt Hon Lord Bruce, Baroness Hooper and myself. Lauren Tait from the BGIPU accompanied the delegation.

From the moment we landed in Santo Domingo, our hosts from the Dominican Republic Embassy in London were on hand to assist us and to showcase the huge potential of the country. The following five days impressed upon us a country with huge charm and a growing economy but faced with challenges from its Haitian neighbours and concerns over Brexit.

On the first day we travelled to the Haitian border to a region called Dajabon to witness the challenges ourselves. Haiti has suffered a catalogue of both natural and man-made problems in recent years. Hurricane Matthew had devastated much of the southern part of Haiti just a short while before our visit and this had compounded the difficulties they were already facing.  The helicopter ride there gave us the opportunity to see the fertile, rich vegetation covering much of the country. At least I am told that’s what it was like but my hatred of flying prevented me from opening my eyes for most of the journey!

The border with Haiti showed very clearly the challenges faced by the Dominican Republic in dealing with Haitians crossing the border, in large numbers, for work purposes or to obtain medical treatment. There was a genuine desire from everyone we met during the visit for the Haitian economy to improve to help the situation. The Dominican Republic has limited wealth itself yet supports many of the migrants from across the border which places extra tension on its own financial situation and availability of public services for its people. Visiting the local market and hospital gave us the opportunity to witness the way the Haitians rely quite heavily on their more affluent neighbour.

We then travelled to a large banana plantation which produces thousands of bananas for consumption in Britain. We watched as the bananas were carefully cut, washed and packaged for British supermarkets. The Agriculture Minister was very proud of the Dominican Republic’s agricultural industry and keen to see the strong trading links between our two countries continue after Brexit. I hope that we were able to allay many of his fears and to convince him that our desire to consume their produce would continue beyond us leaving the EU.

The following day enabled us to meet with both Government Ministers and the private sector to discuss the consequences of Brexit, tourism and the situation with Haiti. We also visited the Punta Caucedo Port which is a huge container port that enables the country to be a crucial hub for exports and imports in the region.

Education and health issues dominated the next day with visits to the respective Ministries. We were also able to visit the Constitutional Court and the Ministry of Justice. The Prisons Minister was able to brief us on the modernisation programme that is currently taking place and has led to a drastic reduction in re-offending from the 30% of inmates who are so far housed in one of their new style of prisons.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to the National Palace to meet the President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina Sanchez. He was extremely keen to develop the strong friendship between our two countries and I think we were all really impressed by this man and his professional but welcoming approach.

A debate at the local University was organised in the evening by the Dominican Republic Ambassador to the UK. The panel consisted of our group, whilst the audience was made up of local students who impressed us greatly with their internationalist outlook on life. The debate was of course dominated by Brexit. Sir David Amess and I, as ‘Brexiteers’, were outnumbered by the ‘Remainers’ in our group and a largely sceptical audience. I do like to believe though that we argued our case valiantly in the face of the opposition!

It was off to the Parliament on the Thursday to meet with both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. We met with the newly created Friendship Group to the UK which was established as a result of our visit and will hopefully allow for even greater links between our two countries. We were also able to visit the Supreme Court on Thursday.

The final day gave me the opportunity to appear on the Dominican Republic’s equivalent of ‘Good Morning Britain’! The show was dominated by political discussion and of course it was the issue of Brexit that I was asked about. This was the day after the American Presidential elections and so
I was also asked about Donald Trump’s surprise victory.

I genuinely believe the trip was a success. The Dominican Republic Government certainly welcomed us enthusiastically and are keen to develop the already strong trade relationship between our two countries. The Dominican Republic is a significant ally for the UK in the region and is modernising its economy in challenging circumstances. There are strong opportunities for increased commerce and tourism to the country and these are opportunities our hosts are keen to exploit.

Gareth Johnson MP