He was the youngest president to be elected in the history of the Dominican Republic. But 12 years later, Leonel Fernandez is already referred to as the “oracle of Santo Domingo.”
The 54-year-old has earned that title partly for his economic successes: He reduced poverty in his country by almost 10 per cent and he facilitated unprecedented growth in the Dominican – 9.5 per cent by his second term.
Mr. Fernandez is also admired for opening his country to a wide circle – of foreign investors (including major mining interests) and friends (including leaders with disparate political views).
He credits a childhood in New York, in the heavily Dominican Washington Heights neighbourhood, with sparking his interest in the world around him and giving him insight into the differences between the developed and developing world.
Some say his American-tinted English is an asset in wooing backers too.
Not everyone is convinced that the politician is truly retired. His wife, Margarita Cedeno, is the country’s newest Vice-President. Mr. Fernandez is eligible for a fourth term, and some observers suspect he will run.
For now, he is busy accepting honours and speaking out on everything from poverty to the war on drugs to the seeds of revolution.
The Globe and Mail caught up with him in Toronto this week as he accepted the Statesman of the Year Award from the Canadian Council for the Americas.
Now that you’ve stepped down from leadership, what should the Dominican Republic do to keep reducing poverty?
It will always have to do with sustained economic growth: You need at least 6-per-cent growth for many years – I would say 15 to 20 – to have an impact. You also need policies focused on concrete results. Education, for one. It’s the best social equalizer; it gives you skills to move up the ladder. But it takes time. This is a permanent, long-term struggle. It’s nothing you can really solve in a four-year term, or two. It’s rooted in history.
Mining is an important growth area for your country, and foreign investment has been essential. But can foreign ownership go too far?
I think in this globalized world, we’re not questioning any more the origins of capital. In Latin America, we have been very successful, especially in the last decade, in exporting our natural resources. What we have done up to now is what needed to be done. But I would say it’s only the first generation.
A second wave will be to add value, to transform these natural resources into products, where we can have generally more wealth and create more opportunities for our people.
One of the biggest problems for Latin America is the war on drugs. You have qualified that war as a failure. Why?
I think it was [U.S. president Richard] Nixon that called for a war on drugs. But there’s always been a distinction in the role each country plays.
Colombia, for example, was a producer of coca leaves that were transformed into cocaine. The U.S. and Europe were mainly consumers of the drug. A country like the Dominican Republic was neither a producer nor a consumer, just a place for transshipments.
But over the years these roles have overlapped. A country can be a producer, a springboard and a consumer. Many countries in Latin America, for instance, have increased their consumption. So it’s more complex to deal with drug trafficking and all the illegal activities connected to it. Arms is another issue. They are bought relatively easily in the U.S., and if they stay there, that’s fine. But if they’re transported to our countries, that creates a lot of difficulties for us.
So I think there needs to be a new approach to dealing with these problems. We have failed in the last 30 years in dealing with drug trafficking.
Is foreign military activity the answer? Should they take on narco-traffickers?
I would say surveillance by the military. But it’s not wise to use the military on a daily basis to deal with drug trafficking. They should be used in emergency cases; otherwise, you should use the police, you should use other forces.
You are credited for being a statesman – befriending people and nations that seem irreconcilable. What’s at the root of your diplomatic approach?
I always try to understand history and why things are the way they are. I have learned that there is no uniformity in the world. There are different ways of looking at things.
You cannot export democracy, as you cannot export revolution. It has to come from within, it has to come from your own society. It’s a product of history.
So, in the U.S., you will never have a dictatorship like the one we had under Rafael Trujillo. It could happen in the Dominican Republic, because of our history. And it’s not that a dictator dies today and tomorrow you’ll have democracy.
It takes time, because you need to have democratic values, the democratic attitude, the democratic behaviour. There needs to be a sense of engagement with these values and with this behaviour.
What does that imply about Venezuela or Cuba? Are people there learning there are alternatives, will they move on from where they are now?
Why did Castro come to power in Cuba? Why did a revolution take place in Cuba? Because there was never a democratic system in Cuba.
Fidel Castro was a candidate to become a legislator in 1952 when Fulgencio Batista came with a coup d’état. One always wonders what would have happened if Mr. Batista would not have committed this coup.
Maybe Fidel Castro would have become a member of the Chamber of Deputies and, eventually, because of his talents, his political skills, might have become an elected democratic president and the revolution would have never taken place.
There were many revolutions taking place in Latin America at the time, but because democratic access to power was being obstructed you had no other choice but to make a revolution.
The U.S. is about to go to the polls. If and when the new president calls you for advice on Latin America, what will you suggest?
The main challenge for an incoming American president is the global economic crisis – because if that problem is not solved, it will impact all the Latin American countries. I think this is the most important issue of our time. It is the deepest and most severe global crisis since the Great Depression.
It is a structural problem and if we are not able to solve it, we’ll have a global economic crisis deeper than the one we had in 2008 and this will be unsustainable for the whole world.