Building local and global links
When Leonel Fernandez leaves the presidency of the Dominican Republic in August next year, he can do so with a high degree of pride. He has radically transformed the Caribbean nation of 9.2 million people.
When Fernandez first assumed the presidency in 1996, he quickly set his stamp in three areas that would charactarize his three terms as the nation’s leader: Efficient economic management, major infrastructure works and strong international links.
In addition to Fernandez’ first four-year term (1996-2000), he became president in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008 for another four-year term.
Fernandez, 57, can best be characterized as a tropical mixture of Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Like Kennedy, he has inspired and appealed to his nation’s best and brightest. Also, like Kennedy, he holds the honor of being his country’s youngest elected president.
Like Clinton, Fernandez can boast of having presided — during his last term as president — over his country’s fastest economic growth in recent memory. Also, like Clinton, he is considered a brilliant orator with no need to read from written speeches.
In 1996, the Dominican Republic had been going through several decades of international isolation, partly because of its own priorities. In stark contrast to his predecessors, Fernandez routinely made appearances at the UN General Assembly and took foreign trips that initially included places as far away as Japan and Singapore.
Part of Fernandez’s international interest can be traced to his childhood. When he was 9 years old, his family moved to New York, where the future president picked up many ideas he would later import into the Dominican Republic, such as a Metro subway system.
Today, Fernandez is one of the few presidents in the world who can boast cordial relations with a broad group of contentious political leaders. It is no accident that Fernandez was instrumental in brokering a 2008 peace deal between Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his then-counterpart in Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, after Colombian troops had entered Ecuador to attack the base of a Colombian terrorist group and Ecuador ally Chavez had retaliated with threats of war.
Fernandez not only maintained good relations with Chavez and Uribe at the same time, but has also in recent years managed to do so with then-presidents George W. Bush of the United States and Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Fernandez’ recent proposal to halt speculation with international prices in foods and crude oil has been garnering support from prominent international leaders, including Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Julia Gillard of Australia.
Meanwhile, at home, Fernandez has been able to provide his citizens with two concrete results that have made life easier: A stable macroeconomic environment and extensive infrastructure projects.
As late as 2004, when Fernandez regained the presidency after a four-year absence, he had to confront hyperinflation and a weak economy. The contrasts couldn’t be clearer: In 2004 the Dominican economy grew by a mere 1.3 percent. In 2005 — the first full year of Fernandez’s second term — it expanded by 9.3 percent. Inflation went from 51.5 percent in 2004 to 4.2 percent in 2005.
In the years since, the GDP has grown at respectable-to-impressive levels, while inflation has been relatively small. Meanwhile, his generally pro-business policies have helped boost foreign investment.
“According to the model for economic development that we envision, the private sector has the role of being the locomotive of the train of progress and the state the simple mechanic that puts it in motion on the rails,” Fernandez said in his inaugural speech in August 2004.
At a time when most of Latin America’s leaders have been criticized for spending too little on infrastructure, Fernandez has instead earned the nickname, “The Infrastructure President.”
To best illustrate Fernandez’ vast infrastructure spending, a visitor can arrive in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, and, within minutes of leaving the airport, use a well-paved road linking it to Santo Domingo, then cross a floating bridge between the eastern and western parts of the city, then take a detour through the tunnel at the February 27 Avenue (one of the city’s major thoroughfares), then end up at a Metro station — all courtesy of the three presidencies of Fernandez.
He also has initiated major road projects linking Santo Domingo with key tourist areas on the northern coast and eastern part of the country. Those roads benefit not just drivers and passengers, but also sectors ranging from ports to tourism and real estate.
One challenge Fernandez has not been able to resolve is the Dominican Republic’s electricity problems (blackouts have been frequent long before Fernandez even entered politics). However, experts say there has been some progress under the three terms of Fernandez.
After his presidential term ends in August 2012, Fernandez will likely keep busy with international projects as well as his own foundation, Funglode, which he founded in 2000 and has contributed world-class research to the Dominican Republic by many acclaimed international experts.
Whatever he does, one thing is certain: Fernandez will continue to leave his mark inside and outside the Dominican Republic.
Filed Under: BRAVO 2011
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