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PROFILE: Lludelis Espinal

Sea trade ‘is way forward for our nation'

Maritime lawyer sees better times ahead for Dom. Republic – and for women.

Lludelis (Judy) Espinal is president of Santo Domingo-based E&M International Consulting and one of the Caribbean’s foremost maritime lawyers and policy makers. As well as heading up E&M she is founder and president of the Dominican Republic chapter of the Women International Shipping & Trading Association, professor of law of the sea at the Naval Academy of the Dominican Republic Navy and founder and secretary of the Fundación Tito Mella. She spoke to Caribbean Maritime about her life, her work and her interests outside the maritime and legal sectors.

Lludelis EspinalQ: Your early life? A: I was born in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, and attended the [girls’ school] Colegio San Rafael. My parents were farmers.

Q: Your higher education? A: I obtained my law degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD) and my Master in Maritime Law from the Instituto Europeo de Estudios Marítimos in Spain. I had also a Master in International Law and Diplomacy. Additionally, I had a Master in Port Management from the Valencia Port Foundation in Spain.

Q: Did you have a clear idea of your career path? A: I did not come from a privileged or wealthy background and therefore I always wanted to be able to help those around me as well as my country. I knew that a lot had to be done in the Dominican Republic to help improve the nation and that was my main objective – to leave a legacy of growth and improvement for Dominican society. For this reason I chose to pursue a career that assured me that I would always be in contact with people who need assistance, hence I always wanted to pursue the law career.

Q: Your first job? A: My first job was at the CEDAIL, the Dominican Judicial Investigation and Assessment Center. CEDAIL is a non-profit institution created by the Catholic Church and its main goal is to provide legal assistance to underprivileged people and social classes – that is, people who do not have economical resources to receive legal assistance to protect their human rights, especially women, children, Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, people living in the suburbs and those living in this country who do not have any land to work or live in. My desire was to help people to improve their lives, assisting them to have the same opportunities as others by protecting their human rights.

Q: With your legal background, how did you become involved in the maritime sector? A: Ever since I was a child I was always interested in commerce and, being from the Dominican Republic, I knew that our only land trading partner was Haiti. For everything else we had to rely on maritime transport. With this at mind, I knew I had to further expand my knowledge of maritime commerce and luckily I was blessed with the opportunity to study abroad and obtain my Master in Maritime Law. My university, UASD, did not include maritime law in their law program. That made me frustrated, since the Dominican Republic is an island and we are not teaching classes of maritime law at all. Ninety percent of the import cargo is moved through maritime transport, and the lawyers [who have] graduated from the country’s only public university have no idea about maritime law. Moreover, the little legislation on maritime law is still antique and obsolete. For that reason, I applied to the Spanish government for a scholarship and, thank God, they granted me the opportunity to have a specialization in this career.

Q: The maritime sector still has a reputation as being male-dominated. As a founder and president of the Dominican Republic chapter of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) do you feel more can be done to encourage women to consider a career in shipping? A: I’m a firm believer in the fact that mankind is constantly changing, and always improving, and therefore I will always believe that more can always be done. I am a professor of law of the sea at the Naval Academy and when I started in 1998 I was the first and only woman teaching at this school only for men. Now there are other ladies teaching in this institution. In the same way, the first subcommittee for the participation of women in ports of the Inter-American Committee on Ports of the Organization of American States was created thanks to our commitment to improve and increase the participation of women in port activities. At that time, few women were participating in the sector. Now we see more and more women in important positions in the shipping industry, but this is not enough. We still see difference of salaries and in some ways men get higher positions, even though women may have a better education and qualification. Therefore, I am continuously working to increase the participation of women in the sector; and, in addition to my work in WISTA [Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association] I am assisting the director of the Dominican Port Authority to create a group of women in the maritime and port activities. We have called this group the Community of Women in Ports. We are working on the establishment of the program to increase and improve the participation of women in ports and shipping.

Q: Are there hidden barriers that might deter women from seeking a career in shipping? A: We must work on a daily basis to help change the perceived image of the shipping industry. Most people understand that, to be a part of the industry, one must be a vessel crew member or a captain – when, realistically, a person can work on land within a shipping line or agency. They can also become claim handlers, freight forwarders, cargo underwriters, among other career choices. We need to help others understand that the shipping industry is more than just boats and maritime vessels, which are normally seen as the men’s job. We need governments in the Caribbean region to work on national and regional political strategies to increase the participation of women in the shipping industry through capacitation, giving them scholarships. There is an important lack of schools specialized in maritime studies, and if you find them, they are for men. I had an important participation in the establishment of the first Master in Maritime Law in the Dominican Republic, which was organized by Fundación Tito Mella and the Universidad APEC, but this is not enough if we do not have a clear strategy to insert women in the shipping industry. Recently, the Naval Academy of the Dominican Navy has approved a program of studies for women, but this program is destined for military personnel and not individuals with commercial or business desires. If women are not supported with training and also decent job opportunities, there will be no incentives to have more women in the shipping business. Women have special characteristics, our sensitiveness, our commitment to achieve goals, our natural manner to protect and care, are qualities that are required in the maritime industry; and then, we can add values to improve maritime commerce around the world.

Q: What led you to establish E&M International Consulting? A: I wanted to embark on a new journey and face different challenges. I wanted to experience the shipping industry from a different perspective. I also wanted to fill the void within the Dominican Republic in terms of maritime legal assistance and therefore I decided to establish a specialized law firm for maritime, shipping and port-related matters. I met my partner, Vinicio Mella, and we both realized that in the Dominican Republic there was a lack of maritime consultants that would develop new business opportunities, giving to the maritime sector a fresh breeze through our presence.

Q: What kind of work does E&M undertake as a consultancy? A: E&M International Consulting is a counselling firm established in 2006 to offer legal, maritime, commercial and foreign investment advice. It is the main firm specialized in maritime legal affairs in the Dominican Republic and one of the most important in the Caribbean region.

Q: How does it feel to be the first professor of law of the sea at the Naval Academy in the Dominican Republic? A: It is something I am proud of. At the same time, I feel thankful, since I have the opportunity to share my knowledge with these young gentlemen because this is an important way to be an influence on them and be able to change their perspective of the shipping industry in the Dominican Republic. Now, they are aware of the necessity of a reform of the maritime legal framework, but also the importance to have empowered women within the system, since women add value to the maritime industry. I have many anecdotes of my almost 20 years as a professor in this institution, but I never forget the first time I came into the classroom and they gave me the military salutation with a very strong and loud voice and I got so scared and surprised at the same time that all my books and computers fell down and I punished them for having done so. But then I had to forgive them, since it is mandatory to give this salutation to all professors in the academy.

Q: What progress on reviewing the Dominican Maritime Code? A: The review was completed in 2015 and now the project of law is at the Office of the President’s Legal Counselor. We are positive that soon the same will be formally presented to Congress. This is an important document which will drastically improve the [country’s] maritime commerce, since the main source of maritime legislation in the Dominican Republic is based on the heavily outdated Commercial Code of 1845.

Q: Can you tell us about the Fundación Tito Mella, of which you are general secretary? A: The Fundación Tito Mella was constituted by my partner, Vinicio Mella, and myself in 2010 and is a non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement of the maritime and port sector in the Dominican Republic. Tito Mella was my partner’s grandfather and one of the founders of the [country’s] shipping industry. We wish to continue his legacy towards the improvement of Dominican society as a whole. We are working on some major projects through this organization, such as the first Master in Maritime Law, for which we were finalist at the Lloyd’s List Americas Awards in 2017. This same year, we inaugurated the first Maritime Library. We also provide training courses on port and maritime legislation.

Q: What particular person in the maritime sector has inspired you? A: Tito Mella is an important figure in the Dominican shipping industry. He did not come from a wealthy family and still managed to create one of the first shipping agencies, which served as a school of the most important current entrepreneurs of the industry. He was a simple man, with no higher education, but his interests to improve the sector drove him to promote maritime education to a point that he was honored by local universities and received the highest distinction as citizen not only in the Dominican Republic but also in Chile. He did all this through his persistence, courage, humility and sincere desire to help others.

Q: Your advice to young people looking to a career in the maritime sector? A: My first advice would always be to keep a humble approach towards everything. Secondly, I would remind them that the maritime sector is always changing, growing and improving. There are always new regulations and therefore any person must continue studying and updating their knowledge in order to be ready for any new challenge. The constant change and need to study is one of the most enjoyable characteristics of this career. Two days are never the same and even the same case is not handled in the same manner, hence they will never get bored. Third, the shipping world is very small and all parties tend to know each other very well over time, so they need to be honest, integral, and a trustful person. Lastly, always keep in mind that commerce never sleeps, nor does the maritime sector, and therefore they must always be ready to work at all times, any time.

Q: How do you relax outside of work? A: I enjoy reading and will always be interested in learning about people who have changed our world, such as Einstein or the Mirabal sisters*. In my free time I also practice yoga, but my passion is gardening. Being outside, especially the mountains or beaches through which I get in contact with nature, refills me with energy to go back to what I love most – the shipping world.

*Four Dominican sisters who opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and were involved in clandestine activities against his regime.

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