More than 500 members of the Fordham community—many of them students of Dominican ancestry—greeted Leonel Fernández, president of the Dominican Republic, with wild applause on Sept. 24 at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus and welcomed him back to his old New York City turf.
Fernández, who spent 14 of his formative years in the city’s Dominican enclave of Washington Heights, reciprocated by inviting Fordham’s students to join him on his mission to make his small nation a model of democracy in the Latin American world.
“We don’t look at you as Dominicans living abroad,” he told the standing-room-only crowd in Keating Hall. “This is a fence of transnationalism, geography doesn’t play the same role as before. If you happen to live in a barrio in New York called Washington Heights, it’s still Dominican. You [still]play an important role in the future of the Dominican Republic.”
Fernández enjoys a reputation as a reformer and was elected to his third presidential term in May, having shored up the economy and inspired near double-digit economic growth in the Caribbean nation during his last term. The president’s visit coincided with his appearance the same day before the United Nations’ General Assembly to speak on social and economic strategies, and energy issues in oil-poor nations.
The visit also coincides with the release of Caribbean Crusader: Leonel Fernández and the Transformation of the Dominican Republic (Dorrance, 2008), an authorized biography by Ronald Schneider, Ph.D., professor emeritus of political science at Queens College. Schneider said that, under Fernández’ rule, the nation had moved completely beyond its string of 20th-century authoritarian governments into a modern, socially responsible democracy that is a model for developing countries.
Students from Fordham’s graduate program in International Political Economy and Development (IPED) questioned Fernández on his attention to social programs now that the nation has become the largest economy in the Central American and Caribbean region. Fernández’ government recently completed construction of the first subway line in the capitol of Santo Domingo, a $700 million project that drew some criticism from advocates for health, education and anti-poverty programs.
“Why did we focus on building a subway? I think we must become more independent from fossil fuels,” Fernández said. “Oil will peak in terms of its production, and the price will only increase. We need a system that is less dependent on the family vehicle. . . and a modern country needs to have infrastructure.”
Strong social programs, Fernández added, only can be achieved through economic growth over a sustained period of time. “My aspiration is to continue our economic progress with modernization—but within a democracy that respects human rights, political plurality and promotes diversity through free and fair elections.”
In honor of the president’s visit, Henry Schwalbenberg, Ph.D., director of IPED, announced the creation of the Juan Pablo Duarte Fellowship in Public Service award, to be given by Fordham annually to a student of Dominican ancestry to attend the IPED program. Duarte, one of the Dominican Republic’s national heroes, was credited with leading the nation to independence from Haitian rule in 1844.