At a news conference on June 21, Tourism Minister Francisco Javier Garcia accused reporters of fueling the furor surrounding his country.
“The Dominican Republic has seen an exaggerated number of Americans in the Dominican Republic who have died,” Garcia said, reported Fox News. “And media have taken it as an avalanche of deaths.”
Two days before Allen died, New Yorker Leyla Cox, 53, passed away while on vacation in the Caribbean country under circumstances her son said were suspicious.
But Garcia downplayed the fatalities.
“The Dominican Republic is a safe country,” he said. “In the Dominican Republic, there are no mysterious deaths.”
He said that officials there have “nothing to hide” even as he dismissed reports that counterfeit alcohol was to blame for at least some of the fatalities and assessments by some medical professionals that victims displayed symptoms consistent with poisoning.
“If there was any ‘poisoning’ because of poor use of pesticides, then more people should have been affected,” he said.
Officials have been working to combat the fear that’s sprung up among prospective visitors that’s been circulated anew with each freshly reported death.
Two days before the press conference, Dominican Ministry of Public Health spokesman Carlos Suero told Fox that the reports on the deaths were part of a plot to harm the tourism to the country.
“It’s all a hysteria against the Dominican Republic, to hurt our tourism, this is a very competitive industry and we get millions of tourists, we are a popular destination. People are taking aim at us,” Suero said.
“The testing results are all negative, everything—the food, the alcohol, the air—is normal, there is no alteration of the alcohol. With all the tourists we get every year, we make sure we comply with international standards for everything.”
Suero said that autopsies show nine tourists died of natural causes. Officials haven’t addressed the three other reported deaths.
Minister of Public Health, Rafael Sánchez Cárdenas told reporters in Santo Domingo earlier in the week that Cox died from cardiac problems.
He said that she was at risk of a heart attack due to a number of health issues and then attacked the media, singling out Fox.
“There is a perverse communication management, particularly by Fox International,” he said, reported El Nuevo Diario “It is clear that the stories are being published with malicious intent to harm the tourist services offered by the country.”
The portrayal of the Dominican Republic as safe came as the U.S. State Department has continued to leave the situation essentially unaddressed, telling ABC in a rare statement on Wednesday that there hasn’t been an increase in deaths in the country.
“We have not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths reported to the Department” in the Dominican Republic, a State Department spokesperson said. Of the more than 2.7 million Americans who visit the country every year, “the overwhelming majority travel without incident,” the spokesperson added.
In addition to the 12 suspicious deaths over the past year, other Americans have passed away—including New York couple Portia Ravenelle, 32, and Orlando Moore, 43, whose bodies were found in April more than a week after they went missing. More recently, an American man died while getting liposuction and an American woman died while from complications from elective procedures.
Two suspicious deaths from before the June 2018-June 2019 time period should also be scrutinized, loved ones said this week.
At least two congressmen have noted the rash of deaths, including a native of the Dominican Republic.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y. said that he was going to visit the Dominican Republic in July seeking answers.
***Breaking News*** As the first and only Dominican-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, I will be traveling to the #DominicanRepublic on July 1st and will sit down with tourism leaders & government officials to discuss the recent deaths of American tourists.
— Adriano Espaillat (@RepEspaillat) June 19, 2019
“As the first and only Dominican-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, I will be traveling to the Dominican Republic on July 1st and will sit down with tourism leaders & government officials to discuss the recent deaths of American tourists,” he said in a statement.
“First of all, I’m concerned about the deaths,” he added to Time magazine. “I will look into them and I’m sure the U.S. authorities, including the FBI and the Dominican authorities, are looking into the causes of them. I will fight for that to happen, for them to get to the bottom of it.”
He said that he thinks it’s safe to travel to the country and was also going to be a tourist, visiting Punta Cana, where several of the deaths have occurred.
“I’m concerned about any death and my condolences go out to the families,” he said. “I will do everything possible to ensure that the FBI looks at what happened, but you know I’m going as a tourist, and my message is not only am I going to celebrate July 4th but also to do as I’ve always done every year, and that is visiting the Dominican Republic.”
I’m extremely saddened by the deaths of 9 Americans in the #DominicanRepublic. One of the victims was from my district in New Jersey. Today, I wrote the @StateDept & @FBI calling for a reassessment of the travel advisory. The families deserve timely updates on the investigation. pic.twitter.com/jpTZVDfEJh
— Rep. Frank Pallone (@FrankPallone) June 19, 2019
And Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) wrote to the U.S. State Department and the FBI calling for a reassessment of the current travel advisory to the Dominican Republic, which is at a level 2 and was issued in April, and for officials to communicate with family members of the deceased.
“Reports ranging back to June 2018 indicate that several American tourists to the Dominican Republic have contracted life-threatening illnesses and survived. Unfortunately, at least nine American tourists without pre-existing illnesses experienced similar symptoms, including pulmonary edema, bleeding, and vomiting blood, and death during their visits,” Pallone wrote in the letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of the FBI Christopher Wray.
“The circumstances surrounding the untimely deaths of nine Americans is heartbreaking, and I ask that you immediately take steps to update the bereaved families and ensure they are given all information on the cause of their loved one’s death as the investigation continues,” he added.
“I also urge you to expedite a reassessment of the travel advisory for the Dominican Republic to make sure American travelers have a full understanding of travel risks.”