This week, the White House convenes the inaugural meeting of the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP) Leaders summit. The meeting will bring together the leaders of the United States, Canada, and ten countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic.
Yet the meeting comes as the Dominican Republic continues to grapple with human rights violations on several fronts: problems with forced labor practices, human trafficking, and an endemic preventive detention crisis that has includes U.S. nationals.
The Biden administration continues to praise the DR as a “democratic bright spot” and ignores his own State Department’s investment climate report that describes systemic problems within the Dominican justice system, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and other government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; arbitrary interference with privacy.”
APEP was launched ostensibly to “address concerns about economic development, inequality, and the fate of the hemisphere’s democracies.” Yet the Biden administration has clearly indicated it is not interested in having a frank conversation about the future of democracy in the Dominican Republic.
APEP’s Failure to Launch
Even before this week’s summit, criticism of APEP came from within President Biden’s own party. In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Trade Ambassador Katherine Tai, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) criticized the Biden administration’s moving goalposts for APEP’s participant countries.
Senator Kaine noted that a year into the APEP effort, the Administration has changed the structure of the potential partnership. While APEP was originally supposed to have written agreements with binding commitments, it is now a “forum” where leaders will broadly discuss areas of “mutual interest and shared goals.”
As Senator Kaine notes, this is a troubling development for an effort that has barely gotten off the ground. A one day meeting does not reflect the binding commitments that we expect from our strategic partners and fails to “establish the highroad standards that the United States and other countries in the partnership expect as a prerequisite for closer economic ties.”
President Abinader’s visit to the White House is therefore clearly a press event disguised as an important leadership summit and will not be a forum where the difficult conversation about his country’s humanitarian crises can be discussed.
While Abinader Visits DC, Americans Languish in Dominican Prison
The extensive pattern of human rights violations in the Dominican Republic has raised the ire of members of Congress. In August, Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Michael McCaul sent a letter to Secretary Blinken inquiring as to the number and status of Americans who are among the thousands languishing in Dominican prison, under abhorrent conditions and without knowing the charge against them.
Shortly thereafter, Representative Troy Nehls urged the Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate whether or not U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent on criminal justice training programs in the Dominican Republic, where prosecutors like Yeni Berenice and Wilson Camacho continue to defend the excessive use of preventive detention.
The Biden administration has yet to respond to either of these inquiries. If President Biden is going to host President Abinader at the White House, shouldn’t the first item on the agenda be to ascertain the safety and well-being of the Americans who continue to be wrongfully detained in the Dominican Republic?
The DR Continues to Disrespect the Rights of Its Own People
As President Biden noted his speech at 2022 Summit of the Americas when he announced APEP, the partnership is meant to “help governments deliver for their own people” by building communities where “individuals know their rights will be respected.”
In the Dominican Republic, 70 percent of the people behind bars are being held under “preventive detention” – spending months, if not years, in jail without being charged with a crime, under abhorrent conditions and often without seeing the inside of a courtroom.
This pattern of abuse shows its head throughout Dominican society, where a 2023 Investigation found that the use of forced labor-type practices in the country were widespread, particularly against Haitian migrants, and equated these practices to a form of “modern-day slavery.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also placed a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on certain products produced with forced labor emanating from the DR.
Under President Abinader’s watch, the DR was downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Departments 2023 Trafficking in Persons report. Justifying the downgrade, the U.S. State Department noted the Abinader government “investigated and prosecuted fewer traffickers” and “systematically and persistently failed to equitably screen vulnerable migrant or undocumented populations and refer identified victims to services and did not provide these groups justice in trafficking crimes.”
While the ink is still drying on APEP, President Biden should listen to what DHS, the State Department, and others are saying and ask why he continues to hold up the DR as a “bright spot for democracy.”