Following the recent appointment of Pope Francis, the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church, the region is becoming increasingly important in the sphere of global politics, according to former President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández.

Fernández, who led the Dominican Republic from 1996 to 2000 and from 2004 to 2012, addressed a crowd of roughly 100 students and faculty at the Yale Law School on Tuesday. Fernández spoke about Latin America’s economic growth in recent years and touched on the importance of the Latino community in the United States.

“Latin America is a region of enormous contrasts — it is not wealthy enough to become the center of global financial transactions, but it is not poor enough to produce worldwide pity,” Fernández said. “It is also not dangerous enough to evoke global fear.”

Comprised of 33 sovereign nations, Latin America is a diverse and complex area of the globe, Fernández said. He discussed some of the challenges facing the region, including drug trafficking and the illegal weapons trade. Latin American countries, though, have made significant economic progress in the past decade in areas such as poverty reduction and improved income distribution, he said.

Fernández stressed the importance of education and technology in promoting economic stability in Latin American countries. While he said nations such as the Dominican Republic still have to overcome several obstacles to integrate with the global economy, reflecting on the past decade makes him hopeful about the region’s future.

“For the first time in the region’s history, access to education has broadened,” Fernández said. “In terms of infrastructure, changes in nearly every country have been astounding.”

Though Fernández said Internet and mobile phone access is growing across Latin America, its nations would benefit from investing further in new technologies and innovation. Latin American countries have spent the past decade educating their populations about marketing and finance, he said, but they now need to focus on engineering and sustainable resource development.

With media attention turned to the upcoming election in Venezuela, Fernández said many are questioning the strength of democracy in the region. Most Latin American populations have a new appreciation for the benefits democratic governments have brought to the region, he said, adding that left-wing movements are flourishing and challenging free-market policies.

Fernández named well-known Latinos, such as Jennifer Lopez and Carlos Santana, who have played an important role in American society. He said 52 million Latinos currently live in the United States, though the population will grow to 150 million by 2050. The significance of this numerical growth, he explained, is that Latinos are increasingly wielding influence over U.S. elections — particularly the 2012 presidential election of Barack Obama.

Students and faculty who attended the lecture said Fernández was accessible and they appreciated his optimistic view on Latin American politics.

“I appreciated that he was down-to-earth and catered to a broad range of interests,” said Jean Silk, program manager of Latin American and Iberian Studies. “I think anyone could find something in his presentation to engage with regardless of their areas of expertise.”

School of Medicine professor Aryan Shayegani said she enjoyed Fernández’s speech because he discussed the politics of the entire Latin American region rather than focusing specifically on the Dominican Republic.

Fernández was the 51st and 53rd president of the Dominican Republic.