Fouling paradise

Coal plant in Dominican Republic built despite “March of the Million”

View of the beach and ocean from above the Punta Catalina coal thermal power plant and port.
View of the beach and ocean from above the Punta Catalina coal thermal power plant and port. PHOTO: Maire Tecnimont.
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On a once pristine Caribbean beach, two huge new coal-fired generators squat, belching planet-heating carbon dioxide. This pollution was produced through the corruption, lies and theft of public money used to build the plant and adjacent coal delivery port at Punta Catalina, DR.

Despite an international financial scandal implicating the Dominican president and two years of massive protests, construction went ahead. Global capitalism has once more chosen profit over humanity’s ultimate survival.

Coal is the wrong solution for a real problem. The country’s electrical system has always been unreliable, with poor service and excessive prices. The state-owned investment company that oversees public power said it built the Punta Catalina plant to stop the country’s frequent blackouts. But according to experts, the problem is not inadequate generation capacity but unreliable delivery.

The project was also justified as a “cleaner” energy source than older, oil-burning generators. This is hogwash. Burning coal releases more carbon dioxide and other planet-heating gases than any other source of electricity.

And a 2001 study by the DR’s own National Energy Commission determined that it had a wind generation potential more than six times its power production. A far better alternative was available.

High finance hijinks. Five major European banks from France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany funded the initial phase of construction. Brazil’s economic development bank was supposed to finance the second half because the main contractor, Odebrecht, is Brazilian.

But in 2015 and 2016, this corporation was exposed in Brazil and throughout Latin America for massive bribery of politicians to get public works contracts and laundering money to hide the fact. The company did it in order to win projects like the Punta Catalina coal plant and to charge inflated prices. Odebrecht admitted in a U.S. court to paying $92 million in kickbacks to Dominican officials between 2001 and 2014.

The scandal stopped the Brazilian bank from making the promised loan. With that funding out of the picture, the Dominican government issued $600 million in bonds to bankroll construction. The increased debt burden fell on the public through increased prices for electricity, already sky high.

Forty percent of Dominicans are poor. One third are hungry. They need public services, jobs and education, not kleptocrat politicians.

Anti-corruption protesters staged many rallies, this one in March 2017. PHOTO: Lorena Espinoza Peña

Massive outrage. The Dominican people went into motion. Environmental groups, workers, social justice and left organizations joined in an immense movement called Marcha Verde (Green March). Throughout 2017 and 2018, this upsurge built its own considerable head of steam. Tens of thousands of protesters turned out repeatedly around the country. On August 12, 2018, the movement held the “March of the Million” in Santo Domingo, the capital. It drew almost that many people — in a nation of 10.77 million. It was one of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history.

People were infuriated over the corruption and impunity of the politicians as well as the crime-in-progress against the climate. Pres. Danilo Medina Sánchez’s campaign strategist João Santana and his wife had been jailed in Brazil for money laundering for Odebrecht. But in the DR, Medina and his cronies were untouched.

In June 2019, Dominican Today reported that according to new leaked documents, Odebrecht paid an additional $39 million in bribes to win the contract for the Punta Catalina project. It paid off. The initial estimate was just over $600 million. But with “cost overruns” the builders made $2.1 billion.

Meanwhile, the suffering caused by climate change is already being felt. Low lying districts of Santo Domingo where the poorest live flood several times a year. Increasing drought threatens water supplies and agriculture.

Green March postponed the coal plant by at least two years but was ultimately unable to stop it. Here as globally, big capital is trying to make humanity go down with its ship. Experience gained in fighting the enemy will be key to marshaling the resistance of working people to build a livable world.

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