May 18, 2003 – New York Times
Governments in Denial as AIDS Ravages Caribbean
by David Gonzalez
Guaymate, Dominican Republic – A ragged and exhausted man summoned his dwindling strength to lift himself off a foam rubber mattress on the floor of a stiflingly hot shack. "I drink cold water," he said, haltingly, in this town of sugar cane workers, many of Haitian descent. "And that feels hot. Look at my skin. It burns." Since January, he has wasted away from diarrhea. He insists that the local clinic does not know his illness.
But a health worker confirms what others only whisper: he is dying from AIDS, one of about half a million people with H.I.V. in the Caribbean, where the infection rate is the highest outside Africa. While the sheer scale of Africa’s epidemic has tended to overshadow the problem here, health experts and political leaders warn of the potential for devastation in a region of small, image-conscious countries that depend on a limited pool of labor and resources, as well as tourism.
Some 40,000 adults and children in the Caribbean are believed to have died of the disease in 2001 alone. It is already the leading cause of death among young men. "The overall threat is very simple; it is affecting the most productive population in the most productive age group," said Patricio Marquez, a principal health specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, which is financing a regional response to the disease. "There is the risk that an entire generation could be wiped out."
The epidemic’s full extent is obscured by fear, denial, limited treatment and a lack of public health resources. What is certain, however, is that a social and economic catastrophe is imperiling many countries as infections steadily climb and AIDS spreads in the general population. Some estimates say 2.4 percent of the Caribbean’s adult population is infected with human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS, though rates vary widely. The World Bank estimates that in some urban areas as much as 12 percent of adults carry the virus.
While Haiti, with an infection rate of more than 6 percent, has gained attention as the region’s hardest-hit country, the disease is by no means confined there, officials said. "It has been compared to a volcano that doesn’t stop erupting," Rafael Mazin, a regional adviser on H.I.V. prevention and care for the Pan American Health Organization, said of the epidemic. "It’s there. It’s there. It’s there." The persistent growth in infections has underscored both the special dangers and challenges that AIDS holds for the region. Migration between islands – and to the United States – is common and helps spread the disease. But the possible isolation of islands under separate governments and different languages remains a huge obstacle to cooperation. "Being an island is in a sense a figurative way to think about how things have been planned in an insular fashion," said Dr. Arletty Pinel, Latin America portfolio director at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Political leaders have strongly spoken for prevention, casting AIDS as a development threat that they are trying to confront in order to avoid another Africa-style tragedy. If not, they will end up diverting scant resources to hospitals and clinics that are often hopelessly outmatched by the task of treating the disease. Antiretroviral drugs for those already infected are almost nonexistent. Money, and often political will, is short. Programs that are effective find themselves quickly overrun. A state-of-the-art treatment program started last year in Barbados, for example, has now drawn more than 600 patients from all over the region.
International donors, meanwhile, have mostly ignored the Caribbean in favor of poorer African nations. Money is now beginning to flow in, including some of the $15 billion pledged by President Bush and earmarked for Haiti and Guyana, another of the region’s worst cases. But some leaders, while welcoming the decision, said the effort was insufficient. "Singling out those two we don’t believe is the right approach," said Dr. Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, who is considered among the region’s most knowledgeable leaders about AIDS. "Because of the mobility of people within the Caribbean region," he said, "it is to some extent a demonstration of not understanding the nature of the epidemic."
Indeed, although Hispaniola – the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic – accounts for more than 80 percent of Caribbean AIDS cases, the Bush plan provides nothing for Dominican programs. Dominican officials said any fight against the virus must include joint programs with their Haitian counterparts. "The epidemic in Haiti is a reality, and it is out of control," said Luis Emilio Montalvo, director of the Presidential Commission on AIDS in the Dominican Republic. "It is the poorest country in the hemisphere with AIDS. And we are neighbors." Faced with that threat, Dominican officials have begun to confront the epidemic in ways that donors and policy experts hope could provide a model for the region. In many ways, the country shows both the challenges and advances in the Caribbean.
Dominican officials boast that a recent survey shows infections are 1 percent of the population, or half of what was originally estimated, a decrease they attribute to education and prevention campaigns. But the country needs to tackle the danger posed by migration from Haiti, as well as discrimination, denial and insufficient financing. "I’m not saying all the barriers have been overcome," Mr. Marquez said. "But it is being discussed in the open and seen as something that requires national attention, because of the risk that it could undermine the whole society and have economic repercussions."
A Point of Entry
In a place called Peligro – Danger – the rapid-fire sounds of Creole, the language of Haiti, are more common than Spanish inside the houses of men who earn about $2 for each ton of sugar cane they slash. These bateyes, communities of sugar cane workers of Haitian descent, are among the epidemic’s hot spots. "The bateyes have been the point of entry for the disease," said Dr. JosÈ Alberto Roman, who works with H.I.V.-positive women in a nonprofit clinic in the nearby southeast coastal town of La Romana and supported by Columbia University. "When I first came here in the 1987, it was rare. Not anymore.
Now it is something terrible." But the epidemic is terrible not merely in its presence, but also in the ignorance that surrounds it and in the near total absence of resources to stem the spread of a disease that does not respect borders. As it has in their native country, AIDS has ravaged the bateyes, where superstition, poverty and prejudice conspire against hope. The brother of one AIDS patient recently told Sister Anne Liam Lees, a nun who runs several health and nutrition projects, that the man had died from a spell cast by a creditor. "It’s very difficult to confront reality if you do not think this disease exists," Sister Anne said. "Even if you told someone they were H.I.V. positive, they would not believe it. They would just go off and have sex with the first person they saw."
Although several people in Peligro are dying from AIDS, neighbors insist that they do not have a clue. In the neighboring community of Batey 105, residents who are volunteer health educators insist that no one is infected with the virus, a dubious claim. Hygiene is abysmal in Batey 105, where there is not even a single latrine. One health volunteer attributed an outbreak of fevers to a cold breeze, and many people are sick from diarrhea. Public health workers sometimes come by to hand out antimalaria medicines, when they have them. If Sandy Senatic Feliz, a volunteer health promoter, is a front-line fighter against AIDS, then her arsenal is woefully inadequate. Every few months, she said, she is given a couple of dozen condoms.
She still has five left from her last supply run about half a year ago. "We haven’t had any infections here," she insisted. Sister Anne doubts that, because there is often a lot of traffic in and out of the bateyes, as many men go looking for construction or other jobs after the cane-cutting season ends. When they return ill, and die, she said, their widows often are forced to pair off with another man to secure a place to live. "He comes back and spreads the virus without even knowing," she said. "Then she has to find another man because she cannot live alone in the batey. The houses are for the workers in the industry, and a single woman does not work in the industry."
Working the Clubs A syncopated twang blasts through the open-air bar of Jhonnys Patio, as couples embrace and twirl under a flashing rainbow of lights. There is a forced festiveness to the scene, a payday party where men – single and married alike – dance and drink with prostitutes surrounded by murals of nudes. According to government estimates, as many as 80,000 people earn a living as sex workers in the country, and 4.5 to 13 percent of them may be infected. In Puerto Plata, a north coast resort town, sex is for sale at places from upscale clubs to car washes.
The nonprofit Center for Human Solidarity and Promotion, or Ceprosh, is one of the country’s most successful anti-H.I.V. programs and was founded in Puerto Plata in 1989, to help H.I.V.-positive people find new work, and to provide health care and enlist sex workers to teach each other and their clients about protected sex. Harder to reach are the bisexual gigolos or female massagists who cater to tourists but refuse to consider themselves prostitutes and resist prevention efforts.
The tourist industry has been shy to confront the disease openly for fear of tarnishing its image. But the Punta Cana Group, which developed popular resorts on the island’s eastern tip, recently signed an accord with the government – the first of its kind in the Caribbean – to finance H.I.V. awareness programs, as well as to help improve local health facilities. Other innovative public and private efforts are emerging as well, like that of Ceprosh, whose workers do not use a classroom or clinical terms but take their program to bars and nightclubs using the attitude and language of the street. At Jhonnys, several woman strut past while an emcee asks which one is clean.
Another woman, part of the troupe, strides up to say looks are deceiving. "How do you keep clean?" she asks rhetorically. "With a condom. Remember, no party without a birthday hat!" The prostitutes laugh, and even their clients chuckle. The crowd applauds as the women drift out, distributing pamphlets and comic books with graphic depictions of how to prevent AIDS and other infections. The bar owners – some of whom charge the prostitutes a percentage for cruising for clients – welcome these skits. "It’s good for business, and the client is happier," said JosÈ Antonio Acosta, the owner of El Consulado. "You know the problem, so it’s good to cooperate."
Women who work the clubs said they almost always used condoms with their clients, but they said sexism prevented them from persuading their husbands or pimps to do the same. Most women in the clubs sell themselves to help rear their children. Some work for pimps who have sex with several women, while others have husbands who have affairs. Antonio de Moya, an epidemiologist at the Dominican government’s AIDS commission, said such relations underscored a cultural contradiction common in the Caribbean, where using a condom with your mistress can be considered the same as being faithful to your wife. "The paradox of our culture is we have resolved Hamlet’s dilemma," Mr. de Moya said. "For us it is to be and not to be. The culture is disjointed. We should be talking about fidelity or prostitution, not both."
The women who work in the industry say condom use is perhaps the best and only hope to slow the epidemic, even if programs like those favored by President Bush emphasize abstinence and fidelity as well. Josselina Reyes, a quick-witted woman who became a prostitute three years ago when her husband left her and a newborn child, said those options were fantasies. "Abstinence and fidelity do not exist," she said, laughing. "Neither abstinence nor fidelity will make me any money. Only using a condom." More Patients, but Few Tools Two solemn relatives prop up a skeletal young man as he shuffles past Dr. Ivelisse Garris’s office in the country’s only public clinic offering comprehensive services for AIDS patients. Dr. Garris, a compassionate but overworked physician, frowned. "That patient never should have been sent here," she groused, referring to the man. "In an ideal world he would have been treated closer to his home."
The problem, as on most other islands, is that hospitals and doctors lack the will or the resources to treat H.I.V.-positive patients, bouncing them from clinic to clinic. But the patients keep coming. Even Dr. Garris’s clinic in the capital, Santo Domingo, is hardly enough for the 2,000 patients on its rolls, and it is open only on afternoons. The clinic is not more than a warren of rooms on a second floor that is reached only by stairs, making it a daunting climb for weakened patients. Support-group members, some of whom have lived with the virus for more than a decade, meet regularly to encourage one another. Almost none of them, however, are receiving medication. It was only last year that the government started providing antiretroviral drugs at all, and then only after six patients brought a suit against the government in the Organization of American States’ human rights court to make the drugs available.
This year, the Global Fund has approved a $48 million grant to the country, which officials said would allow them to provide medicines for 6,000 people and set up treatment centers. Advocates and aid officials are hopeful that the money will drive what they feel could be a model program. But for now, medications remain unavailable in many places. Sixty patients at the social security hospital in Santo Domingo – financed by the government, employers and workers – have gone for two months without medications, increasing the risk of drug-resistant viral mutations. "There is no integrated attention in this country," said Felipa Garcia, director of the country’s association for H.I.V.-positive people. "People go to hospitals and don’t get the medicines they need. They might get tranquilizers or antibiotics, but that is not real care."
Doctors complain that they have not had deliveries of critical medicines in a program to prevent mother-to-child H.I.V. transmission, a large part of the epidemic’s spread. Worse yet, some doctors, fearful of infection, have refused to perform Caesarean sections on H.I.V.-positive women, even though the procedure is crucial to reducing the risk of transmission to the child. In Puerto Plata, fear of a personal crisis fills the waiting room at the public hospital each morning as pregnant women await the results of mandatory AIDS tests.
Every week, a couple of people test positive, prompting denials and anger, doctors said. On this morning, a woman tethered to an intravenous unit squirmed in her chair, loudly protesting the suggestion that she was H.I.V. positive. Dr. Sonia RamÌrez ushered her into a consultation room. "I’m ready for whatever," she said defiantly, insisting that she was not infected. Dr. RamÌrez gently repeated the test result. She pushed a slip of paper with it across the desk. The woman tore it into small pieces. "I do not want my mother-in-law to know," the woman said. "My husband said you can live with this virus."
A few blocks away, several dozen members of an H.I.V. and AIDS support group were proving that that was so. Even given the lack of understanding from employers, and sometimes family and friends, increasingly they and many others are dealing openly with the disease and its effects, waiting for medicines and government resources to catch up. Not that long ago, they would have been written off for dead. Now, they spoke about the future as a possibility, not a fantasy. Some have small businesses. Others are rearing children. "This does not take away your dreams," said Elis Consuelo Collado, 31, who received a diagnosis 18 months ago. "You understand life continues."
October 23, 2005 – New York Times
Dancing With the Devils: Carnival Time in La Vega, Dominican Republic
by Seth Kugel
A small, pothole-laden city in the central valley of the Dominican Republic, anchored by a concrete-pillared, irregularly shaped cathedral whose decidedly ugly look takes some time to grow on you, La Vega isn’t high on the to-do list of most travelers. There are no beaches, a few tolerable hotels, some unremarkable restaurants and, for 11 months of the year, no real reason to go there.
But that changes in February, when Carnaval comes to town. Then, the quiet streets of La Vega are crowded with visitors who seem to double the population of 200,000, the clubs fill with deafening music that keeps their customers dancing until almost dawn, and – most notably – grotesquely beautiful, intricately decorated, jingle-bell-draped demons race through the streets of the jam-packed town every Sunday, whipping anyone who dares to get in their way with reinforced cow bladders that carry a surprisingly nasty sting.
It is a month peppered with street concerts that attract the country’s big music stars; of weeks spent with family members who have returned home to relive the traditions of their childhood; of days and nights filled with music – the blaring brass of merengue, the tinny guitar of bachata, both played at absurdly high volumes on huge portable speakers – that acts as a kind of nonstop soundtrack to the surreal events that unfold as Carnaval gathers steam.
Carnaval takes place on each weekend of February, with parades on Sundays, culminating with the largest one, on Feb. 27, Dominican Independence Day. Many Dominican cities and towns have their own Carnaval traditions, usually with some demonic or outrageous character as its symbol and centerpiece. But none rivals that of La Vega, and, in fact, many other cities send representatives there on the 27th to march alongside that town’s famed diablos cojuelos – horned, fanged, winged creatures whose outfits are created in ramshackle workshops by people who have been honing this skill for years.
The legendary Dominican singer Fernandito Villalona summed up the experience in a Spanish-language merengue that you’ll hear repeatedly if you go to La Vega: When February comes, everything is happiness, Dance in the street by night, dance in the street by day …
Historians trace such carnival celebrations (carnaval, in Spanish) as far back as pagan Rome and even ancient Egypt, but the modern incarnation emerged from Catholic traditions that came with colonialism and were deeply influenced by African slaves. The word carnival is said to come from the Latin "carne vale," a farewell to meat, which explains why it was traditionally celebrated in the three days before Lent, ending with Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, festivities preceding Ash Wednesday.
But in the Dominican Republic it has become more closely associated with Independence Day. In La Vega, Carnaval is a decidedly multigenerational event. While local partygoers in their teens and 20’s rule the streets and the clubs – witness the beer-swilling, high-decibel gathering Friday night at the Parque de los Estudiantes, a pocket park at a busy intersection – their parents and grandparents are equally enthusiastic participants in the celebrations. During my visit last February, on the final weekend of the celebrations, one of the best dancers around was Lisa Fernanda Tapia, shaking her hips as she stood on the outskirts of a huge street party late into a Saturday night. The next day, she turned 4.
I arrived in La Vega on a Friday afternoon, and encountered a typical, humming Dominican town, full of boisterous, friendly people – many of whom were gathered in the town square, where some kids shined shoes and others chased pigeons while a nearby vendor sold coconut sweets for 5 pesos apiece. Using my cellphone (a worker at the local Verizon office had helped me temporarily reprogram it with a local number – very convenient), I called Mayobanex Mota, the nephew of an acquaintance of a friend of mine in New York, hoping to get some advice on what to do in La Vega. He turned out to be the head of Los Rebeldes, one of the top local teams – members of which dress in identical diablo cojuelo costumes. That meant he had little time to be a guide, but did give some excellent advice (and some pretty good coffee) in his family’s backyard before I set off to explore La Vega.
I seemed to be one of the few foreigners in town for the celebration. The half-dozen groups of non-Dominicans that I talked to were resort workers, Peace Corps volunteers and artists from places ranging from Kansas to Chile who were all now living in this country. The only other vacationers I met were Dominican-Americans, back home for a visit.
On Friday night, after an unmemorable dinner of shrimp and the fried mashed plantain dish known as mofongo at a drab restaurant that resembled a hospital cafeteria, I set out on my own to the Parque de los Estudiantes, to mix with the locals, and ended up sharing a few big bottles of Presidente beer from a nearby open-air bar with a group of men and women in their 20’s. (The ability to speak Spanish is definitely a plus in La Vega, but visitors will also encounter many Veganos, as the residents are known, who have spent some time or perhaps lived, in the United States, and can help out when language skills falter.)
Later, we all headed to Kafe Klaro, a disco decorated with diablos cojuelos costumes and so popular I had to park my rental car on the grassy median of the road, the only space available. My New York-bred fear of tickets, I was assured, was unfounded.
The next day, Mayobanex rode with me to the Altos de Hatico section of town to see the workshops where the amazing costumes are made. For weeks and months before Carnaval starts, dozens of teams design their own costumes as their public awaits, wondering what they will have come up with this year and sharing any secrets that escape. At over $1,000 a costume, several months’ salary for most, the designs of the elite teams are highly guarded, and in recent years have grown increasingly complex and creative and, alas, often sponsored by corporations. Living in a largely Dominican neighborhood in New York, I had heard a lot about the workmanship that went into these costumes and seen many examples of them at various festivals and at community centers. But to see their humble origins was a shock.
Our first stop was a rusty ramshackle shed, full of industrial sewing machines and littered with scraps of fabric where Ángel Fidelio Jorge, known as Fillo, had workers putting the finishing touches on a costume or two. Fillo, in his early 50’s, works with a team that numbers 35 or so at its peak, working nonstop in the weeks leading up to Carnaval tailoring the multilayered, jingle-bell-heavy suits according to lists of measurements that teams submit. Since it was the last weekend of Carnaval, activity was slow, and Fillo didn’t seem to mind the company. Nearby, in the back of a run-down concrete house, Melvin Marte and his crew turn out papier-mâché masks from molds so intricately twisted and diabolical they could have emerged from a Hollywood costume shop.
By the time we got back to town, the Saturday night festivities were under way, and visitors began to flood the town. Many of the Carnaval costume-making teams – groups with names like the Broncos, the Buddies, the Ants and the Scorpions – set up cuevas, or caves, which serve as gathering places for their friends, staging grounds for the parade on Sunday and ground zero for the after-party. Usually, they are just the equivalent of party tents with bleachers, but in recent years a few groups have begun to outdo the others. I thought Mayobanex was boasting when he declared the Rebels’ cave the talk of the 2005 Carnaval, but he was right: the city was buzzing about the elaborate pirate ship they had set up along the main parade route, complete with a mast, rope ladders and plenty of planks. And admission to the upper level, with its great views, was reserved for friends and family.
Outside their cueva, available to the public, the Rebels had created what may be the first machine in history to measure how hard you can swing a dried bladder. The test-of-strength gadget, called a vejigómetro, or bladder-meter, looks like a cannon. Wind up and bash the back end with your handy cow-bladder whip, and out flies a ball. The farther it goes, the stronger you are. Or, put another way, the more pain you would have inflicted on somebody’s rear end. I stuck around the Rebels’ cave as the parade route began to fill the streets for the Saturday evening festivities. And, in the Dominican Republic, festivity means loud music. By 10 o’clock, a nearly full moon had risen behind a stage that would later feature live bands, and conversation was possible only by direct mouth-to-eardrum shouting. All around me, people were dancing to reggaetón hits like Daddy Yankee’s "Gasolina," which in February was reaching its apogee.
Sunday morning broke and I took off to wander the streets and scout out the best spot to watch the afternoon parade. Signs of preparation were everywhere. Off Parque las Palmas, a square park blocked off by Do Not Enter signs that everyone was ignoring, a teenage boy set up blocks of ice and bottles of syrup for frío-fríos, the local snow cone. A few blocks away, a hollow-cheeked older man, Gil Tineo, hung his stock of colorful, cloth-covered faux vejigas on a clothesline between two posts. He told me he expected to sell 100 or so for 25 or 30 pesos each. (But not everyone was in parade mode: several evangelical churches were conducting energetic services audible from the sidewalk.)
By early afternoon, the streets were packed: sellers of Munchkin Land-like lollipops lugged their wares through the crowd, people sucked ice-cold passion-fruit juice through straws, and among those carving out dance spaces in this mass of humanity was a little girl in a frilly pink dress dancing with a costumed penguin. The best viewing spots were anywhere with barriers separating the street from the crowd, because as the day went on, the crowd elsewhere surged out little by little, occasionally nearly blocking the procession until a few demonic whips got cracking. It was not a place for the claustrophobic.
I could hear the somewhat disorderly parade before I could see it, as cheers rose from the crowd down the street as groups of dancing diablos appeared. Those residents who had taken to rooftops or perched in trees were the first to see the marchers, swinging their vejigas as they swept down the street in somewhat disorderly fashion, eliciting shouts of delight from the crowd. Some teams had stunning costumes, ranging from royal blue and gold to neon green to a rather startling orange. Other traditional (and nutty) Carnaval characters also made an appearance, like Robalagallina, which means "steal the hen" and generally is a man dressed as an ample woman, usually, for some reason, with rollers in her hair and holding an umbrella.
La Vega’s elaborately costumed diablos are, deservedly, the central attraction. With their deeply grooved faces, jutting demonic eyes (usually red), outsize fangs and brilliant colors, they are irresistible – and for many local children, irresistibly scary. The vejigazos, or bladder attacks, don’t help, and many children in the Dominican Republic grow up with a kind of love-fear relationship to Carnaval. In recent years, the Carnaval authorities have tried to restrict the whipping: only on the street, and only on the behind. (The sidewalk, and other parts of the body, are safe zones.)
Many of the visitors dispersed after the parade ended, but for those who stayed, the party had just begun. Freed from their marching orders, devils roamed the streets, doling out freelance vejigazos, and kids whose parents bought them vejigas from vendors joined in. On one street corner, I saw a boy not much older than 3 wielding his yellow and black vejiga like an expert. He did not wear a mask, but the diabolical look in his face as he swatted stranger after stranger showed he didn’t need one. I considered the playground fate of his future classmates and shook my head.
Just before walking over to the final event of the weekend – a massive outdoor concert featuring two of the country’s most beloved merengue stars, Fernandito Villalona and Toño Rosario – I bumped into a hulk of a diablo named Juan Carlos Mota, Mayobanex’s brother, outfitted in a red and gold, gladiator-inspired devil suit. Hearing that I had remained largely unscathed from the vejigazos, he reared back and took a massive swing. It stung badly, but it didn’t hurt as much as I had feared – at least not then.
The next day, as I settled into my seat on the airplane, and flinched at the sensation, I realized I was leaving La Vega with a black-and-blue souvenir of the place. It would be a long three-and-a-half-hour trip back home to New York.
If You Go
How to Get There
JetBlue has daily nonstop flights out of New York to Cibao International Airport, about 15 minutes from La Vega and about the same distance from the center of Santiago. Fares start at about $120 each way. American and Delta also fly nonstop from J.F.K., as does Continental from Newark.
Renting a car is advisable, though there are buses from the airport to La Vega and taxis in town; most major rental companies are represented at Cibao.
You can use one of the many A.T.M.’s in La Vega to get pesos.
Where to Stay
Guidebooks to the Dominican Republic all mention Carnaval in La Vega, but most caution against staying in town, noting that the typical hotel is a dive with missing toilet seats, saggy mattresses and questionable security. True enough, but for some reason few guidebooks mention El Rey, Avenida Antonio Guzmán (formerly Restauración) 3, (809) 573-9797, a 10-minute walk from the square. This small hotel opened four years ago, and, despite its location next to an auto parts shop, could even stretch its way into the "charming" category, with wrought-iron furniture and colorful tile in the lobby, and perfectly decent rooms for 900 pesos ($29, at 31 pesos to $1) a night.
There are also some campy "resorts" off the highway, which for much of the year serve as love nests for romantics with nowhere else to go, but are perfectly respectable hotels for Carnaval, if you don’t mind the occasional piece of erotic art in your room. One, the Atlas Apart-Hotel, Autopista Duarte, kilometer 2, (809) 573-3110, is just outside of town and charges about 1,500 pesos a night.
Where to Eat
Eating and celebrating are Dominican specialties, and in La Vega they don’t do either in a fancy way: beer, rum and loud music for the partying, and rice, beans and meat for the food. My favorite place was El Zaguán, Avenida Pedro A. Rivera, kilometer 2.5, (809) 573-5508, just outside of town. It is an open-air restaurant with the thatched roof common to Dominican throwback restaurants. There is no menu here, but one thing not to miss is a particularly fine rendering of the local speciality, mofongo – mashed fried plantains mixed with pork cracklings (165 pesos).
The food at Macao Grill, Avenida Antonio Guzmán (formerly Restauración) 82, (809) 573-2020, has standard Dominican dishes for between 200 and 300 pesos; it doesn’t quite match up to El Zaguán, but it could hardly be better situated, right across the street from the cathedral. A great place for a quick bite is Villa, Plaza Aspen, Avenida Imbert, (809) 573-9168, where the pressed sandwiches are all under 100 pesos. Those looking for a more down-home spot should try Pollo el Confesor, Avenida Imbert at Calle Colón (no phone), which attracts chicken lovers like flies. Unfortunately, it also attracts lots of chicken-loving flies, but this crowd doesn’t seem to mind sharing. A whole chicken is 200 pesos; a half is 100.
Seth Kugel contributes regularly to the Times Travel section.
June 2006 – From "Jacqueline Polanco"
Publication of book: Musing under the Moon:Voices and Images of Dominican Lesbians"
I would like to take this opportunity to inform you about the recent publication of the book "Divagaciones bajo la Luna/Musing under the Moon: Voces e Imágenes de Lesbianas Dominicanas: Voices and Images of Dominican Lesbians". This small sized (6" x 6", 184 pp) bilingual- book (Spanish-Dominicano & English-Dominicanish) compiles the writings of 24 lesbians from the Dominican Republic and the Diaspora in the United States (including New York and San Francisco), Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. The authors are lesbians from different generations, ethnic-racial, and geographic backgrounds.
The book includes memories, song lyrics, poems, narrative, and essays with illustrations. It has been published thanks to the financial support of ASTRAEA Lesbian Foundation for Justice, GALDE, Las Buenas Amigas, and individuals. It is distributed by FLACSO, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in the Dominican Republic: www.flacso.org.do . The price
is US$15.00 plus shipping and handling, and it could be acquired through sending email to: email@example.com or to <firstname.lastname@example.org> or < email@example.com>.
You could please contact me in the United States for additional information at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sincerely, Jacqueline Jimenez Polanco Ph.D. (Editor)
October 15, 2007 – Ramona Hernández, Ph.D.
Director, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute & Professor of Sociology The City College of New York
Contact: Jay Mwamba
CCNY’S Dominican Archives Wins Top Award For Excellence In Documenting New York State History
The Dominican Archives at The City College of New York (CCNY) is the only one of its kind in the United States . It attracts scholars from all over the world to its unique collection of material related to the U.S. Dominican population. On October 22, the Archives will receive the 2007 Debra E. Bernhardt Annual Archives Award for Excellence in Documenting New York’s History from the New York State Board of Regents and the New York State Archives at a luncheon in Albany . The Archives, which were established in 2002 as part of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute (DSI), are being recognized for “efforts to collect the records of key individuals and organizations in the Dominican community.”
“We are just exhilarated that the New York State Archives has acknowledged all the hard work that the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute has put into this groundbreaking initiative,” said Dr. Ramona Hernández, Director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. Dr. Hernández and Chief Archivist Idilio Gracia Peña will receive the award on behalf of the Dominican Archives at the October 22 luncheon. People “come from as far as Germany and Norway and as close as New Jersey to learn about the history of people of Dominican ancestry in the United States, and particularly in New York City,” Dr. Hernández added. She praised Mr. Gracia Peña, a key figure in its creation, for developing it into a “world-class repository."
“Don Gracia Peña has worked tirelessly since Day One in launching, sustaining and developing the Archives and its staff into an institutional outlet that has earned the respect and appreciation of professional archivists in both the U.S. and overseas,” Dr.
Hernández noted. A 1974 CCNY graduate with over 45 years experience in archives, library and records management, Mr. Gracia Peña is a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (1990-1995). He was director of the New York City Municipal Archives (1978-1989) before that.
Mr. Gracia Peña said the Archives’ mission is to identify, appraise, access, process, preserve and provide access to archival materials that document the contributions and experience of the Dominican community in this country. “It supplements and compliments the efforts of the Dominican Studies Institute’s library and research programs, greatly enriching the supply of primary source materials that it makes available to scholars, students and faculty in the area of Dominican studies,” he added. Previous Bernhardt winners include the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University , the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College and the Marist College Archives and Special Collections.
For more information about the Dominican Archives at City College , please visit: http://www1.ccny.cuny.edu/ci/dsi/archives.cfm .
About The City College of New York
For 160 years, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. Over 14,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Architecture , the School of Education , the Grove School of Engineering and the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education.
An Open Door: Gay Dominicans Seek More Visibility
by Michael K. Lavers, Mid-Atlantic Regional Editor
Santo Domingo — and its Colonial Zone in particular — remain popular destinations for LGBT Dominicans from across the capital and beyond. It was a balmy Friday night late last month as hundreds of gay men, lesbians and transgender people gathered in Parque Duarte in the heart of Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone to meet friends, drink and even cruise. A handful of "bugarrones" or male prostitutes discreetly worked the crowd, but Ariel, a 25-year-old from the northern city of Santiago, described the park as a haven of sorts for the capital’s LGBT residents.
"I come here for peace," he said. "There are many women who are lesbians and many men who are gay who can meet each other." Parque Duarte has become the de facto hub for the capital’s LGBT residents as they slowly become more visible. Homophobia remains pervasive throughout much of the Dominican Republic, but cosmopolitan Santo Domingo attracts LGBT Dominicans from across the country because its residents tend to be more tolerant of homosexuality than others who live in the countryside. "Gay people from across the country come to live in the capital," journalist Glaen Parls Rosario said as he drank a beer with friends in Parque Duarte. "They are less abused and there is less resistance to the movement."
Santo Domingo activists have organized a variety of low key LGBT conferences and even pride marches in recent years, but the city’s gay bars and clubs draw locals and tourists alike on any given weekend. Television personality Chachita Rubio, who also performed at La Escuelita in New York, opened Cha along Santo Domingo’s dramatic oceanfront in February 2007. And hundreds of LGBT Dominicans pack the crowded dance floor each weekend as DJs spin merengue, salsa, American and Latino pop, hip hop, reggaeton and local drag queens, often wearing elaborate costumes, take to the stage. Santo Domingo resident David Baez, his boyfriend Miguel and their friends are regular patrons. He acknowledged many older gay Dominicans remain in the closet because of homophobia or conservative attitudes towards homosexuality from within their families, but Diaz, 25, added he feels these attitudes continue to change.
"At the beginning, a lot of people judged us, but society is more accepting now," he said while having coffee inside a coffee shop along Santo Domingo’s pedestrian-only shopping district near the Colonial Zone. "If people see you walking and holding hands, there is no problem. People may see you, but they won’t judge you. You can do what you want."
Dominicans in New York moderate societal homophobia
Puerto Plata native Alberto Fermin, who is a club promoter in traditionally Dominican-dominated Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, agreed. He suggested the large Dominican diaspora that began to settle in New York in the 1960s have helped to temper homophobic attitudes in his homeland. "People are being more open than before," he said. "People feel free to go down there and to be themselves."
Blogger Anthony Montgomery moved to Santo Domingo from New York in January 2004. He manages a gay-friendly hotel in the Colonial Zone. Montgomery echoed Fermin’s assessment while adding many LGBT Dominicans he meets either deny their sexuality or simply remain in the closet. "I actually feel much more comfortable being gay here than in the States, but it’s still very homophobic and hard to be out," Montgomery said. "There are no [prominent] gay Dominicans. There are rumors about prominent gay people in the government, but there is no one who’s going to come out and say I’m gay."
Church remains hostile towards LGBT Dominicans
Activists have attempted to pressure the Dominican government to enact pro-LGBT legislation, but the Roman Catholic Church and Cardinal Jesús López Rodríguez in particular remain outspoken opponents of any attempts to expand right to LGBT Dominicans or to even give them a more prominent role in society. He described gay men as "maricones" or faggots in an editorial published in a leading Dominican newspaper last October. And Rodríguez criticized gay American and European tourists in the Colonial Zone in an April
2006 interview with the Associated Press.
"Take all of them away," he told the news agency. "We cannot allow that this place, the historical center of Santo Domingo, to be converted into the patrimony of foreign and Dominican degenerates." Rodríguez and other church officials and religious organizations have pressured local police to impose curfews that curtail the hours the capital’s bars and clubs can remain open. The Spanish-owned Arena closed in March 2007 after police ordered it shut down following a raid that reportedly found two 17-year-old boys in the club.
HIV emerges as a new threat
Increasing HIV and AIDS rates in the Dominican Republic is another problem facing the country. The Presidential Council on AIDS (COPRESIDA), a commission former President Hipólito Mejia created in 2001 to combat the epidemic, estimates nearly 80,000 people in the Dominican Republic live with HIV and AIDS and heterosexual sex accounts for 81 percent of all infections.
COPRESIDA has launched a variety of initiatives in recent years aimed at reducing these rates of infection and extending anti retroviral drugs and other treatments to Dominicans living with the virus, but Amigos Siempre Amigos in Santo Domingo seeks to reduce the number of new HIV and AIDS diagnoses among men who have sex with men through education, condom distribution and other outreach initiatives. ASA founder Leonardo Sánchez could not be reached for comment, but Gay & Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization (GALDE) founder Francisco Lazala told EDGE in an interview from his Manhattan office his organization regularly sends condoms and other resources to the capital.
COPRESIDA’s Web site contains links to ASA, other Dominican and international LGBT and AIDS organizations, but Lazala maintains President Leonel Fernández and his administration needs to extend more resources to combat the epidemic among LGBT Dominicans and MSM. "It’s really, really bad," he said. "They don’t have adequate services for anybody." Baez conceded HIV and AIDS remains a threat, but he quickly quipped LGBT Dominican themselves often cause their own problems. "There are a lot of people who don’t accept themselves and go against each other," Baez said. He remains proud, however, of the progress he contends his country has made as it becomes more tolerant of LGBT people. "This country is like any other country," Baez said. "You can find good people and bad people."
Amigos Siempre Amigos
Gay & Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization
Presidential Council on AIDS (in Spanish)
Michael K. Lavers is the Mid-Atlantic editor for EDGE Publications. His blog Boy in Bushwick
November 23, 2008 – blabbeando.blogspot.com
Dominican Republic: Gay beauty pageant to go on despite earlier threats from local governor
by Andrés Duque
LGBT advocates in the Dominican Republic are up in arms over conflicting reports that the Governor of the Santiago province might ban a drag show / beauty pageant scheduled to take place next month. As EFE reported on Thursday, Governor José Izquierdo appeared at a local radio station for an interview and announced that the authorities would not allow the Dec. 27 event to take place because it "undermines the morals and good customs of the Dominican society."
The article says that owners of a local gay bar where the event is scheduled to take place said that only 13 of 27 homosexuals had qualified for the pageant this year after a preliminary swimsuit competition. Owner Denis Gonzalez said that gays and lesbians had the right to live a normal life in society and reminded the Governor that the bar was a private establishment. The bar is no stranger to media attention. Now called Tailú Bar, last year they staged what they promoted as a "gay wedding" under their former name Skrupulus which had Dominican media and local leaders all aflutter [same-sex partnerships have never been recognized in the island].
Online rumors had gossip reporter Francisco Sanchis as a judge and showbiz television personality Brenda Sanchez as the MC but yesterday they both told Diario Digital that this was not the case. Sanchez said that she had been invited but had other commitments. She added that she didn’t have anything against the gay community and would show her support when the time came to do so but also said that she was "a Christian woman and family-oriented"
Sanchis said he was neither in favor nor against the event and would attend if invited but not as a judge. He said that everyone had the right to choose what made them happy. Today, El Caribe reports that LGBT rights advocate Leonardo Sanchez, director of the non-profit organization Friends Always Friends (ASA), said that Governor Izquierdo’s plan to ban the event was discriminatory and threatened to take the issue to the International Court of Human Rights. Izquierdo, for his part, backtracked from the comments made on the radio last week and now says that he has no legal power to stop an event that takes place in a private establishment.
"If they do the pageant in a closed space, respect the time limits for serving of alcohol and do not allow entry to minors under 18 years of age, we have no problems," he stated but also said that if any of these rules were violated he would shut the event down. "They have the right of doing their activity within the legal norms of the Dominican Republic, personally I do not agree," he added. Reporter Sanchis, who is from Santiago, went further in El Caribe than in his statements to Diario Digital yesterday and argued that it was time to end a certain Dominican ‘double-morality.’
"What makes you a better human being are your feelings," he told El Caribe, "It is not your sexual preference nor your religion. I think that we have to end with that double-morality that exists in our country. We are not in agreement with these kind of things happening to us but, perhaps, after the criticism, we do worse things that the ones that will be done there."
March 2010 – Passport Magazine
The Gayer Side Of Quisqueya
It’s no secret that the Caribbean won’t win any awards as the most progressive region when it comes to LGBT rights. Homosexual acts are legal, but rights like same-sex unions, marriage, and adoption are still a ways off. That doesn’t mean that Santo Domingo doesn’t have a lively and vibrant gay community. It has enough, in fact, to attract foreigners like Anthony Montgomery, who moved from his home in the United States to Santo Domingo in 2004. “I moved here because I was looking for a change in my life. Honestly, I didn’t know exactly what the change should be. I came to the Dominican Republic on vacation and liked it very much.”
Since his arrival, Montgomery founded Monaga, a company that maintains an English-language, gay website about the Dominican Republic, and also arranges for short- and long-term apartment rentals in Santo Domingo. “I have seen some tremendous changes since I started visiting the Dominican Republic,” he says. “You can pretty much find whatever you want in Santo Domingo, as long as you have the money. There is a new Metro subway, many new modern high-rise buildings, and a freedom of life that I enjoy.”
2011 March 2 – PubMed.gov
The HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Dominican Republic
by Rojas P, Malow R, Ruffin B, Roth E, Rosenberg R.
This article reviews HIV/AIDS epidemiological data and recent research conducted in the Dominican Republic, with a focus on explaining the variability in estimated seroincidence and prevalence within the country. HIV seroprevalence estimates range from 1.0% (in the general population) to 11.0% among men who have sex with men (MSM). Some have indicated that the highest HIV seroprevalence occurs in Haitian enclaves called bateyes (US Agency for International Development [USAID], 2008), which are migrant worker shantytowns primarily serving the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic. Others report higher or comparable rates to the bateyes in areas related to the tourism and sex industries.
As in other Caribbean and Latin American countries, reported HIV transmission in the Dominican Republic is predominantly due to unprotected heterosexual sex and the infection rate has been increasing disproportionally among women. The Dominican Republic represents two thirds of the Hispaniola island; the western one third is occupied by Haiti, the nation with the highest HIV prevalence in the western hemisphere. Although data is limited, it shows important differences in seroprevalence and incidence between these two countries, but commonalities such as poverty, gender inequalities, and stigma appear to be pivotal factors driving the epidemic. This article will discuss these and other factors that may contribute to the HIV epidemic in the Dominican Republic, as well as highlight the gaps in the literature and provide recommendations to guide further work in this area, particularly in the role of governance in sustainable HIV prevention.