Fernandez: ‘Democracy in Latin America needs a bailout’

By
Monday, September 29, 2008

President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic arrived in Salomon 101 to standing ovation from students, faculty, administrators and local Providence citizens who filled the auditorium nearly to capacity on Friday afternoon.

Fernandez spoke at length about the history of his nation since it gained independence from neighboring Haiti more than 100 years ago, but he also addressed the current financial crisis’ effects outside the United States. “Because of what is happening in the U.S., this will create a historical change for us – and the rest of Latin America.”

Unlike previous lectures in the Stephan A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture Series, which have included only the featured speaker, the 80th lecture in this series took a different format. Former President of Chile and Professor at Large Ricardo Lagos participated in what moderator James Green, director of Brown’s Center for Latin American Studies, called an “inter-American dialogue” about the Dominican Republic “in the context of the Caribbean, the Americas and the World.”

Fernandez was elected for his third term as president of the Dominican Republic in May. Born in the capital city of Santo Domingo, he completed secondary school in New York City.

His address, “The Transformation of the Dominican Republic,” included a short description of the nation’s modern history, in which he emphasized the desire of the Dominican people to create a stable democratic government.

In light of the current financial crisis, Lagos and Fernandez both questioned international economic institutions in relation to Latin America.

Lagos criticized the unregulated free markets as showing “arrogance,” insisting instead that the market should focus on improving citizens’ lives by alleviating poverty and bettering education and health care – a premise for which he received rousing applause.

Fernandez agreed. “Globalization needs rules,” he said, pointing to the hyperinflation, debt and deficits that free-market policies caused in his country, which resulted in a distrust of democracy.

He argued the Dominican Republic could not sustain such a market and needed to combine social and economic policies instead.

In the Dominican Republic, Fernandez said, democracy is at risk because of discontentment with the high levels of poverty and unemployment that come from failures of the free market and lack of support from other nations.

He cited the lack of progress on the United Nations Millennium Project, in which developed nations promised to donate less than one percent of their Gross National Product to fund development projects. Less than five nations followed through, Fernandez said.

While the U.S. Congress works on a bailout for its own markets, “democracy in Latin America needs a bailout,” said Fernandez, which he later clarified as a “metaphor, an analogy” rather than a literal cash influx.

Fernandez criticized global financial organizations, such as the World Bank, asking why the president always had to be a U.S. citizen rather than an individual from Latin America or Africa.

“Who better understands poverty?” he said to applause.

But Fernandez did appeal for an economic connection between the United States and the Dominican Republic. “Free trade with the U.S. means having access to the most important market in the world,” Fernandez said. “Trade will not solve all our problems, but it can be part of the solution,” he said.

The discussion also covered the Dominican Republic’s historically tense relationship with Haiti, with which it shares about half of the island of Hispaniola.

Fernandez said that “we are in the best of times now,” highlighting his close relationship with the Haitian president. He still saw room for improvement in the future, saying “current generations have to overcome that (tension).”

The atmosphere became tense, however, when responding to a heated question from a student concerning the nationality of “in-transit” persons, specifically, children born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents.

Fernandez said that children born to Hatian parents in the Dominican Republic will never lack a nationality because the Haitian constitution guarantees them Haitian citizenship.

He emphatically stated that children born in the Dominican Republic to Dominican parents are Dominican and that this policy “represented the sovereignty of the people.”

The audience erupted in applause, in the midst of which the student stood up and responded angrily.

Green, who is an associate professor of history, attempted to quell the discord. “It’s still a problem we’re dealing with today,” he said.

Another audience member questioned Article 18 in the Dominican Constitution, which limits the political activities of Dominicans living abroad.

According to Epodunk.com, a community demographics Web site, 8 percent of Providence’s population can claim Dominican heritage, making the issue locally relevant.

“If it really represents a constraint to political participation, we will stamp it out,” said Fernandez of Article 18, which received acclamation from the crowd.

Fernandez emphasized that the Dominican Republic needed to form a “partnership with the Dominican diaspora,” allowing for the creation of a task force to make human resources from abroad – such as physicians, engineers and teachers – available to benefit the Dominican Republic itself.

Katherine Tineo ’09, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and who translated the Spanish portions of the event, said she didn’t appreciate the contradiction between Fernandez’ willingness to change Article 18 and his staunch defense of Dominican citizenship laws.

But Emely Santiago ’12 appreciated Fernandez speaking to the local Dominican population. “It reached out to the large Dominican community in Providence,” said Santiago, who is of Dominican heritage.

Some topics he addressed have “always been a touchy subject,” and the president “answered the best he could without trying to affect anyone,” she said.

The Ogden Lectures were established in 1965, in the memory of Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60. Past speakers in the series include Tom Brokaw, Ted Turner ’60, Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Noor of Jordan.