Having seen and understood the horrific atrocities, death, and destruction of major nations during World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created a plan for citizens of all nations to cease the hatred by originating a program called “People to People.” The concept was to encourage citizens of all nationalities to connect with each other one-on-one, become friends, and cooperate in establishing understanding that whatever our differences are, we are all human beings and need to be buddies, not enemies.
From that initiative emerged Sister City International (SCI), an organization that pairs communities from all over the planet with citizens from other nations to collaborate and share the vision of world peace through cultural and business exchange.
The idea flourished and Sarasota jumped on the bandwagon early on. Local community leaders, headed by Dallas Dort founded the Sarasota Sister City Association, strongly supported by Mayor’s Marshall Marable, John Binns, and the Sarasota City Commission.
Our Hispanic heritage played a significant role in the selection of our first partnership in 1961—Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Exchange visits began and as an expression of respect there remains an Avenida Sarasota in the Dominican Republic capital and the Plaza de Santo Domingo running through our cultural center next to the Municipal Auditorium.
However, the connection cooled over the years and in 1989 SCAS President, Julio Claret and I flew to Santo Domingo to meet with the leadership to attempt to resurrect the relationship. Treated with great pomp and circumstance, President (Mayor) Andres Henriquez, Sindico (Vice Mayor) Rafael Subervi Bonilla, and Secretary Ruben Pena Castillo laid out the red carpet and made our visit an extraordinarily astonishing few days.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and the local Rotary Club gathering recognized the U.S. by lunching on turkey, mashed potatoes, Dominican rice and beans, and something similar to pumpkin pie….delicious, but very different from what we were used to at home. In addition to conversing with the government/community leaders, we were provided a chauffeured limousine to explore the countryside.
Coincidently, my Miami son-in-law, Carlos Forment, is the nephew of then DR Vice President Carlos Morales Trancoso during the administration of President Joaquin Balaguer. “Tio” Carlos was also the Dominican representative to the United Nations and was in New York that weekend, but we were driven to Casa de Campo in La Romana where I was able to meet his mother shortly before she passed away—a wonderful, though brief familial get together. (“Tio” Carlos is currently the Dominican Republic Secretary of State.)
Vice Mayor Subervi Bonilla also arranged for us to visit a resort city on the northern coast which took several hours to reach by car. Since our driver actually lived in the hinterlands, he also transported his pet rooster (in the back seat) to deliver to his family. We were serenaded by screeching “cocka-doodle-doo” for the afternoon. Arriving home, his wife and daughter ran out to meet us dressed as if they were going to church in their finery.
Intending to reach Puerto Plata that evening, Julio and I re-entered the limousine to complete the journey. Two hours south of our destination, a rock flew up from the road and completely obliterated the windshield, so the last part of the trip jostled us as if a hurricane had entered the vehicle.
Puerto Plata is the Longboat, Lido, and Siesta Key of the Dominican Republic. Gorgeous beaches, lush landscaping, beautiful hotels, and tons of tourist related activities abound. The next day we attended their city council meeting. I gave a speech in my lousy Spanish explaining our purpose and touting their country. Julio helped me and we were greeted with thunderous applause appreciating not only our message, but the delivery in their language.
Since the limo was in the “hospital,” the government provided tickets to fly back to Santo Domingo. Well, the plane was packed so we had to stand in the aisle for the entire two hour return trip. (Obviously, passenger requirements were different then.)
What an adventure! Julio and I returned home with fantastic memories of exactly what Eisenhower desired—a close face-to-face respect and admiration for our neighbors in the Caribbean and vice versa.
Over the next few years, cultural and commercial projects between our two cities reappeared, but only tentatively. Eventually, Santo Domingo partnered with New York City and Miami with which Sarasota could not compete so the relationship withered. However, we acknowledged the three decade marriage by according them emeritus status in 1992.
As a result, the groundwork was laid for engagements with other cities around the world. As of today Sarasota has eight “sisters” with the latest addition of Merida, Mexico in December 2010, thanks to Mayor Kelly Kirschner and Javier Curiel who have been courting a new Hispanic partner for the last couple of years.
The stories of why we established relationships with these particular cities are quite fascinating.