Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – When Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, responded to comments by the United States Ambassador suggesting that the Dominican Republic has a problem with corruption by sniping that the diplomat should “go back to his embassy” and “focus on housework,” it brought to an ugly head a conflict that has been brewing for more than two years.
On November 2013, James “Wally” Brewster, who is gay and married to the real estate executive Bob Satawake, was confirmed to the post in Santo Domingo, and it immediately prompted some hand-wringing – and more – in this Catholic, very socially conservative Caribbean nation.
Things have not gotten much better since. Brewster has not been shy about making his sexual orientation known – posting videos introducing him and Satawake to the country and flying the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans- (LGBT) rainbow flag over the U.S. Embassy – and he’s been accused by a number of local commentators of pushing a “gay agenda.”
While ambassadors aren’t supposed to interfere in a host country's internal affairs under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, it isn’t unusual for some level of activism to occur. But some argue that Brewster straddles a line between being vocal and going too far in his activism and pushing an issue he cares strongly about.
Other ambassadors have come under scrutiny for meddling in a country’s politics.
In 1957, the then-ambassador to Cuba, Earl E.T. Smith, came under fire after he criticized Cuban police officers that used excessive force to restrain crowds that turned out to greet him. Another ambassador, Philip Bonsal, who was ambassador to Colombia, was reassigned that same year after he upset that country's dictator, Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinella, because he attended a dinner at which a critic of the regime spoke.
William LeoGrande, a professor in the government department at American University in Washington, D.C., said there is a huge gray area that diplomats need to navigate.
"There is no clear boundary between interference, which is not allowed," LeoGrande told Fox News Latino via email, "and engaging in dialogue with all sectors of the host country, which is explicitly allowed. Sometimes diplomats push the boundaries by providing political support, encouragement and even material resources to non-state sectors."
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, while not commenting specifically on Brewster's actions in the D.R., told FNL, “In any country in which the U.S. has a diplomatic presence, human rights is an important subject of its foreign policy ... The fact that a country is [socially] conservative does not equate to it getting a free pass."
She added, "Discrimination, of any kind, should not be tolerated.”
López Rodríguez’s attack on Brewster came the week after the ambassador, during a speech celebrating Thanksgiving at the American Chamber of Commerce, claimed that police officers had threatened and even assaulted several U.S. investors who were attending a conference organized by the local government.
"Imagine the horror I felt when I got a call from one of them,” Brewster said, “telling me they had been stopped by a uniformed police officer, that they had a weapon pointed at them and that they were forced to turn over their wallets."
On Tuesday, an upset López Rodríguez told a reporter, "That man needs to go back to his embassy. Let him focus on housework, since he's the wife to a man."
In a Thursday night television interview, Brewster described the cardinal’s statement as “noise” that might “hinder the very productive conversation [going on between governments] on key issues – not only for the U.S. but also for the Dominican Republic.”
In the days since the cardinal first spoke out, congressmen, priests and civil activists have joined in on both sides of the war of words.
A Congressman and member of the ruling party, Francisco Matos, told Fox News Latino, “As the cardinal said, [the ambassador], as the wife of a man, should be devoted to him and stop talking so much nonsense. That is not what he's here for."
Pelegrin Castillo, a presidential candidate for the National Progressive Force (FNP), told television reporters that the diplomat has “little authority to address issues of corruption and drug trafficking, because it has been found here – and in much of the world – that the U.S. only raises these issues selectively and insincerely, as appropriate to its interests."
But not everybody has jumped into attack mode.
The Rev. Rogelio Cruz, a well-known priest and social activist with a track record of working with underprivileged sectors, described the comments by the cardinal – his boss – about Brewster, “unfortunate.”
“We live in a pluralistic society, in which we need to respect others,” Father Cruz told FNL. “The statements are machista in nature and extremely inappropriate coming from the cardinal. I'm sure Jesus Christ would not have referred to the U.S. ambassador in that manner.”
And Brewster’s underlying point about corruption in the D.R. is also one that activists like Father Cruz can support.
“Any help and support in challenging corruption should be welcomed no matter where it comes from,” Father Cruz told FNL. “As long as we remain sovereign and can reduce the many cases of politicians and others taking advantage of their position, I look at the assistance [from the ambassador] in a positive light.”
A highly placed official in the Dominican justice system who spoke with FNL on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the few efforts that the government made against corruption have been thanks to the cooperation with the U.S.
“Without the U.S. Embassy's influence and support, we will never get rid of the endemic corruption in our justice system, the private sector and in government in general.”
However, politicians such as Castillo are dismissive of that argument.
“There hasn't been a consistent and serious approach to combating corruption and drug trafficking,” he said. “When it suits [the U.S.] to address corruption as means of blackmail and pressure against the authorities of the other countries, they do it. When it does not suit them to pursue it, they simply bury it."
From Day 1, Brewster’s nomination aroused controversy in the D.R.
Politicians, media outlets with ties to the government, evangelicals and the Catholic leadership all criticized his appointment.
Cardinal López Rodríguez referred to him as a “maricón,” a harshly derogatory term for homosexuals, in 2013.
And the auxiliary bishop, Monsignor Pablo Cedano Cedano, issued a statement shortly after Brewster's confirmation saying, "I hope he does not come to this country, because I know if he comes, he is going to suffer and will have to leave."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
José E. Devarez is a freelancer reporter living in Santo Domingo.