Diplomatic Connections Articles

Beautiful Career

The Honorable Gisselle Castillo-Veremis, Dominican Consul General in Chicago, Shares her Diplomatic Experience
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

The Honorable Gisselle Castillo-Veremis, Dominican Consul General in Chicago, Shares her Diplomatic Experience Few diplomats prepare for their career by training in dentistry, but that is precisely what the Dominican Republic's Consul General in Chicago, Gisselle Castillo-Veremis, did. She is a dentistry graduate of Universidad Iberoamericana in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and did further graduate study in pediatric dentistry in Santiago, Chile.

Consul General Castillo-Veremis recalls she was first attracted to a diplomatic career when she was young "but I was studying dentistry. I loved my dental training and my early dental career," she continues, "but early on I realized that to be locked in a dental office, focused on my patients and their welfare would not allow me to develop my broader interest in global affairs. I wanted to see the world. I like to travel. I like to learn different languages. I like to speak to different people from all over."

Even as she was doing her graduate dental training in Santiago, Castillo-Veremis indulged her global passion by working with the Dominican Embassy to Chile. "I began as something like an intern," she remembers, "but when the internship was over I remained there for several years taking on whatever responsibilities were assigned to me."

In its tourism literature, the Dominican Republic refers to itself as "the island with soul." When Consul General Castillo-Veremis describes diplomacy as a "beautiful career," it is clear that she brings that same "soul" along with great energy and personal verve to the work of representing her country and its people in the American Midwest.

Several members of Castillo-Veremis' family were involved in diplomatic careers, but she counts former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández as her mentor and role model. "President Fernández took our country to a leading role in the hemisphere, and in the world, in a way that showcased not only his leadership but the potential for our country to serve as a mediator in regional disputes," she says.

When she returned to Santo Domingo from Santiago, Castillo-Veremis served as Director of Protocol, Press and Publicity for the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. At the same time she worked with the Global Democracy and Development Foundation, a non-profit non-partisan foundation created and led by President Fernández and dedicated to promoting education.

It was the negotiating process to finalize an educational exchange agreement between the University of Illinois-Chicago and institutions in the Dominican Republic that first brought Consul General Castillo-Veremis to the Windy City, and she fell in love with the place. She would find her husband, restaurateur Peter Veremis, in Chicago. Or, rather, he found her — a story for another time and place.

"The first time I came to Chicago, I saw the lake and said, ‘I want to live in this city. I just love it . . . even when the wind chill is -30°F!'" It is a love that Chicago and her diplomatic counterparts (warmly) reciprocate.

Subsequently, President Fernández appointed her Deputy Director of the Dominican Office of Tourism in Chicago. That was followed by appointment as Deputy Consul General in Chicago and then, in 2007, she was appointed Consul General. "I feel very connected to Chicago," she notes. "My husband and my children are from here, and being able to work in a series of positions has given me the opportunity to develop and accomplish things that have been beneficial to my community and my country."

We are honored that Consul General Castillo-Veremis took time to speak with Diplomatic Connections.

Diplomatic Connections: You have experience working in the Embassy of the Dominican Republic in Santiago, Chile. How would you describe the difference between the work that a regional consulate, like your consulate here in Chicago, does compared to the work of the embassy in Washington, D.C.?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: We have different areas of responsibility. The embassy in D.C. has direct responsibility for the relationship between the two national governments — Santo Domingo and Washington, D.C. — and their heads of state. By contrast, our consulate works more directly with the state governments and the governors in the 12-state region for which we are responsible. We also work to promote foreign investment in the Dominican Republic, but we work in a smaller arena than does the embassy. Often we are dealing with individual companies and investors.

As a regional consulate, we work very closely with the Dominican diaspora. One of my major goals has been to nurture the Dominican communities in our region and to expand the outreach efforts of the consulate to assure that our services are widely available to those who need and would benefit from them. We issue passports and visas and deal with a wide range of documentation ranging from birth certificates to death certificates and all sorts of official paperwork in between.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you tell us a bit about the approximate size of the Dominican community in Chicago? Where else are Dominican populations found within your jurisdiction?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: We have around 1.5 million Dominicans living in the United States. In Illinois we have around 6,000 Dominicans according to the census. About 41 percent of the Dominicans in the United States live in New York City.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize the relationship between the Dominican Republic and the United States today?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: We have an outstanding relationship. The United States has been an outspoken supporter of our country, democracy and economic development.

The United States is the number one commercial partner for the Dominican Republic. We rank 38th in the world as a commercial partner for the United States. We have a free trade agreement [DR-CAFTA] and strong bilateral economic relations. And, we both belong to a number of the same international organizations including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

Diplomatic Connections: How are the current deadlocks over immigration policy and required documentation in the United States impacting the Dominican population living here?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: We feel the debate in Congress and the public sphere has been loud and contentious but not very substantive. At this point, some members of my community feel they have been disappointed. Those members of the community who are in an undocumented situation here were expecting a bigger change in the immigration policies.

Diplomatic Connections: How much of a role do remittances, money earned by Dominicans working in the United States or elsewhere overseas and transferred to family back in the Dominican Republic, play in the economy of your country? What would happen at home if that flow of remittances were to slow down?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: The remittances are an important part of the Dominican economy. Remittances received from Dominicans working overseas constitute about 7 – 8 percent of the Dominican Republic's GDP [$64.5 billion, 2014 est. or roughly $4.5 billion from remittances, the bulk of them from workers in the United States]. The American diaspora is a great asset to the Dominican economy because these people, by their remittances, are helping to generate funds for the country.

Diplomatic Connections: The Dominican Republic is the most visited tourist destination in the Caribbean, and at the same time the Dominican Republic is often near the top of the list of countries with high violence levels in the region. How do those contradictory realities complicate the work of promoting tourism to the Dominican Republic?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: We are one of the top tourist destinations in Latin America. We have sun, water and beautiful stunning beaches. Most importantly, we have outstanding hospitality and friendly people. If you compare other islands, they all have beautiful beaches, but it is the human part of the Dominican Republic that takes us to another level.

In 2014, we had more than 5 million tourists visit the Dominican Republic. Our target is to increase that number by 50 percent in the next several years. We have done a great deal to improve our tourist infrastructure. We have the support of the President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina, and the political will to assure that there is no violence directed against tourists. We have the necessary resources committed to assure the safety of our guests and the destinations they visit. The statistics on violence are definitely improving, and we vow to continue working to eliminate violence entirely.

Diplomatic Connections: The Dominican Republic is sometimes referred to as the "Republic of Baseball." There are large numbers of Dominicans playing professional baseball in the major leagues and their farm clubs in the U.S. What is the importance of baseball to your country's economy as well as to its political and social life?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: For over one hundred years baseball has been the center of our cultural life in the Dominican Republic. Baseball is our national sport. Baseball in the DR is not just talking about Hall of Famers like Pedro Martinez or Juan Marichal. It is much more personal than that because virtually every Dominican family has baseball players, of all ages, in it. Now we have "baseball academies," sponsored and operated by the scouting operations of leading Major League clubs that serve as training facilities for aspiring professional baseball players to hone their skills and learn the intricacies of the game. The whole operation not only generates opportunities for our best players, it broadens the base of the game and it generates substantial economic resources for us.

Diplomatic Connections: The Dominican Republic is sometimes described in tourist literature as the ultimate paradise for cigar lovers. What is the role of the tobacco industry and cigar making in your country's economy?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: Since colonial times tobacco has been one of the most important parts of the Dominican economy. The Dominican makers of cigars are considered among the best in the world. Tobacco production represents about 5.4 percent of the overall exports of the Dominican Republic, which is over $575 million per year. We have 60 percent of the United States' cigar market. Europe and China are also faithful consumers of our cigars.

Diplomatic Connections: What is it that is special about a Dominican cigar?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: The leaf that is produced in the Dominican Republic is milder than many other tobaccos around the world. It produces a mild-bodied cigar. Our climate is excellent for growing tobacco and the soil is extremely fertile. We have outstanding master cigar rollers, and the quality of our cigars is more consistent than anywhere else in the world.

Diplomatic Connections: In addition to your role as Consul General for the Dominican Republic in the Midwest, you have two other interesting diplomatic roles. You are President of the Ibero- American Consular Association in Chicago. You are also Vice Dean of the Chicago Consular Corps, which I assume means that you've been in your post in Chicago almost longer than any other Consul General in Chicago. Could you tell us a bit about each of those roles and those organizations?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: I am in my second term as President of the Ibero-American Consular Association. My Ibero-American colleagues and I work with both the public and the private sector. Our main objective is to fi nd ways to protect and benefi t the Ibero-American community in our jurisdiction. The importance of this organization is that countries with a limited diaspora know that they have the support of the larger countries of the region, like Mexico.

Diplomatic Connections: You are Vice Dean of the Chicago Consular Corps. How large a group is that, and how often does it gather as a working group of Consuls General?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: There are 82 Consuls General in the group as well as Honorary Consuls. We are very active in the Chicago international community. We are very protective of the interests of our countries and our diaspora communities in Chicago and across the upper Midwest. We try to highlight the presence of the many international communities because Chicago is a global city.

Diplomatic Connections: At the very end of your emails you include a quotation from Juan Bosch, a deeply respected author and a leader of the Dominican Republic's left-wing reformist politics. He was briefl y President before he was overthrown in a coup in 1963. Roughly translated, the quotation you include says, "No one who is afraid can accomplish important things." What does the passage you cite mean to you as a diplomat?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: Professor Juan Bosch is considered one of the greatest leaders of the Dominican Republic in the 20th century. Though he was only in office a short time, he made a concerted effort to introduce constitutional reform. He was undoubtedly one of the most prominent writers, politicians and thinkers in my country and across Latin America.

Regarding the quote, to me it means a great deal . . . not only in the diplomatic fi eld but in my personal life. I believe that fear stops us from growing, from moving forward. I don't think fear is a good basis for living life. I believe in respect, but I don't like fear. In anything you attempt to do in life, if you are afraid you cannot accomplish your goals. Fear is paralyzing.

Diplomatic Connections: We always close these interviews with two questions. First, what are your greatest concerns for the future of your country?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: That global economic issues the world has been facing may affect the economic growth that the Dominican Republic has achieved over the last 10 years. I am concerned one day we may not be able to produce enough to provide food, health and education to every Dominican who lives in our country. It doesn't matter who is leading the country. If you don't have resources you can't give anything to the citizens.

Diplomatic Connections: What are your hopes for the future of your country?

Consul General Castillo-Veremis: I want to see the Dominican Republic achieving the goals — social, economic and political — that we have set for ourselves. I hope that democratically we can maintain a sustainable development that improves the lives of all of our people. I hope that every child has the opportunity to obtain a good education, access to technology and access to health care. We must continue to train ourselves in democracy so that we can become one of the countries with the best quality of leadership in the world.

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