Dominican Republic’s ‘empty bottles’ diplomats under scrutiny

SANTO DOMINGO, (Reuters) – Diplomatic postings make for some of the cushiest jobs in many poor countries, but the Dominican Republic’s foreign service appears to have few rivals in the Americas when it comes to political cronyism and wasted taxpayers’ money.

A count of diplomats provided by the government of the small Caribbean country lists 77 people on the payroll for its mission to the United Nations, 63 in New York and 14 in Switzerland. But the U.N. “Blue Book” of accredited personnel shows only 37.

Governments regularly give diplomatic posts to political supporters, yet the number of accredited diplomats for the nation of 10 million people, to the U.N. in New York dwarfs other countries in the region.

For example Colombia, which has more than four times the population and an economy more than six times larger, has 16 U.N. diplomats. Mexico, Latin America’s second-largest country by population and GDP, has 21.

Political patronage is a long-standing gripe in Latin America where “phantom” state sector jobs have been the target of lending institutions such as the World Bank, anxious to cut the burden of bloated bureaucracies.

The issue arose again in the Dominican Republic in March with Dominican media reporting that consuls general in New York and Boston were abruptly replaced after the U.S. State Department refused to accept their credentials because both are U.S. citizens. The ousted consuls, Luis Lathgow and Ana Gratereaux, could not be reached for comment.

The Dominican Republic is unusual in that there are more than 687,000 Dominican-born residents in the United States according to the 2010 U.S. census, accounting for about two percent of the foreign-born population.

One corruption watchdog estimates that more than half of Dominican diplomatic appointments do not work in those jobs but still receive government salaries.

They are locally known as “botellas vacias,” or empty bottles.

“It reflects poorly on the government. It’s a sign of corruption,” said Julio Cesar de la Rosa, president of the Dominican Anti-Corruption Alliance.

Questions about the patronage system extend beyond the foreign service. In the capital, Santo Domingo, two of the largest government office buildings are sarcastically dubbed Huacal and Huacalito, slang for crates used to deliver bottles to stores.

In early April, the administration of President Danilo Medina said it would propose a law to modernize the foreign service, although it did not specify what changes would be made.

Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso said he hoped the law would reduce the payroll. While salaries represent a fraction of the country’s $14 billion in public expenditure this year, they have become a flashpoint for government waste.

“What needs to happen is for the government to comb through every position, evaluate every employee, and figure out which are legitimate,” de la Rosa of the anti-corruption group said.

Besides the U.N., the foreign service lists 97 diplomats in New York, 56 in Miami, 28 in Boston, 14 in New Orleans and 10 in San Francisco. Thirty more are at the Organization of American States in Washington D.C.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it works with the Dominican government “to ensure that appropriate procedures are followed.” A 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, released by the WikiLeaks website, commented on “a large patronage system, whereby dozens of non-accredited ‘vice-consuls’ are appointed and paid by Presidential decree, but act independently of the Foreign Ministry.”

Bernardo Vega, a former Dominican ambassador to Washington, said in countries like Spain and the United States, unaccredited consulate officers outnumber accredited officers by more than two-to-one.

“There are people who receive a paycheck as foreign consulate officers but they have never left the Dominican Republic,” Vega said.

The government said it pays roughly $32 million a year in salaries for foreign service workers. Diplomats earn between $1,800 and $6,000 per month, according to statistics supplied to Reuters under the country’s freedom of information law.

An average office salary ranges between $750 and $1,000 a month in the Dominican Republic, which has an income per capita of about $5,470, according to the World Bank.

One absentee diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “I am a vice consul, yes, but I’ve never worked in that country.” He said his family has ties to the ruling party and “they gave it to me because of my father’s job.”

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