LEONEL FERNÁNDEZ: Former president, pragmatist, book enthusiast

Leonel Fernandez at the OECD.
Leonel Fernandez at the OECD. // Creative Commons

This semester, the Yale Chubb Fellowship — the University’s most prestigious visiting speaker series — invited the former president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Antonio Fernández Reyna, to visit campus to meet and speak with members of the Latino diaspora and the overall Yale community. Timothy Dwight Master Jeffrey Brenzel ’75, in his introduction before Fernández’s conference on Wednesday afternoon, referred to this Chubb fellow as a “pragmatist” — a man who believes in learning through practice. Indeed, during his visit Fernández continually stressed his belief in forging connections between individuals of all stripes, and applying one’s academic knowledge outside of the Yale ivory walls. WEEKEND editor and native Dominican Jordi Gassó sat down for an exclusive one-on-one with Fernández, to discuss and reflect on Fernández’s 12 years in office, his views on the future of Latin America and his expansive reading list.

Q. The first thing you did when you arrived in New Haven was go to the Yale Bookstore. Why was that your first stop? Were you looking for any book in particular?

A. I’ve always had a personal inclination toward books, one that has increased over the years, especially due to the creation of the Juan Bosch Library within the Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo [President Fernández’s nonprofit]. The library was first made up of my own personal collection of books, but it has since expanded from additional purchases. In total, we have around 400,000 individual works in the library, including books, journals, magazines and newspapers, specialized in the social sciences. So I’ve made a habit of buying books wherever I go, particularly ones about economics, political science, international relations, literature; these all end up in our library, free of access, which has become a one-of-a-kind place of reference in the Dominican Republic.

So when I got to New Haven, I wanted to see if I could find specific books from Yale authors — professors, alumni. Of course, within political science, there are the works of Robert Dahl and his theory of polyarchy. Master [Jeffrey] Brenzel said I ended up buying around 60 books! The point is to bring all this knowledge from around the world back to the Dominican Republic.

Q. Master Brenzel heard you say that the world’s best job is that of an ex-president. What are the benefits and drawbacks of this role? What do you think are the responsibilities of an ex-president?

A. It’s almost a figure of speech, to say that being an ex-president is the world’s best job. Here we can visualize what the former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González once said: Ex-presidents are like Chinese vases — everybody appreciates them but they don’t know where to put them! [Laughter.] I think that if you have presided over a democratic political system, at the end of your tenure you have the opportunity to continue to do work based on your own values, and reconnect with your country in a different capacity. For instance, coming to Yale and meeting so many Dominican students studying in different areas, I start to think about how we can establish a more permanent relationship with Dominican youth, through seminars, workshops, service trips and other group-based initiatives. These experiences enrich the lives of everyone involved, by providing fresh perspectives and ways of knowledge. With this kind of foundation, one opens up a myriad of opportunities that one didn’t know existed.

Q. Turning now to some current affairs back home: The second line of the Santo Domingo subway system opened this month. What is your ultimate vision for this project you started? How do you think it has aided in your mission of transforming Santo Domingo into a “little New York City”?

A. In effect, with this second line, the project is now a reality, valued and appreciated by many Dominicans. With the new line, the subway will be able to manage around 300,000 daily users, translating to 5 million nonunique users per month. The greater Santo Domingo area is now a city with over 4 million citizens, akin to many European capital cities, and it has sprawled in a horizontal manner. As such, getting to places will require fast, safe and comfortable means of transportation — a modern system. I think a country’s transportation system says a lot about its development, of how a nation progresses and moves forward. As the population grows, the subway becomes a continuing, ever-evolving project. It never concludes, because new needs will keep arising.

Q. Tell us a little bit about Latin America’s economic development, and what your conference will touch upon.

A. This last decade has been one of great growth for Latin America and the Caribbean; it has been so spectacular that one must now pose the question: Will this growth continue? It will, but not without challenges. The main obstacle is figuring out how to optimize our own natural resources. Right now, we have been mainly an export-based economy, exporting raw materials. If we do not learn how to transform these resources into more elaborate products, we will not be able to make the most out of our circumstances. This is closely linked with training our production capacity, our human capital, to remain competitive in the global market. The region is aware of this challenge; the hard part is knowing how to best implement these changes.

Q. What is the economic sector in the Dominican Republic that holds the most promise for increasing our national income?

A. I think tourism is still a key factor in our economy. Right now, our model for tourism is based on massive, all-inclusive appeal. This is now transitioning into more high-end, niche tourism, with more specific kinds of opportunities and destinations. This brings about a specialization of our tourist offerings, maintaining the Dominican Republic’s allure. It attracts tourists that can spend more, even if it means a lower number of overall tourists. This readjustment will keep tourism relevant as a major player in our economic future. The great importance of free economic zones in our service economy also holds great potential.

Q. Any favorite books? What are you currently reading?

A. I read several things at the same time. But right now, I’m reading a book, keeping in mind the 50th anniversary of Juan Bosch’s government in the Dominican Republic. “Overtaken by Events: The Dominican Crisis from the Fall of Trujillo to the Civil War,” by John Bartlow Martin, the former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic. I plan to write an essay related to the book’s argument. I’m also reading Al Gore’s latest work, “The Future” — quite interesting, he refers to six key elements that will help us reach the “future” he has in mind.

Q.What have you liked the most about your visit to New Haven and Yale’s campus?

A. Mostly, the peace you all seem to breathe in this place. The tranquility, the order, the city’s cleanliness, the civic attitude — we have all been very impressed. The physical structure of the University. The friendliness of its community. The only thing everyone in my team, myself included, seem to lament is the fact that we cannot stay for longer.

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