Dominican President Visits, Reaching Out to Diaspora
By NINA BERNSTEIN
Severe problems face Leonel Fernández, a former New Yorker who won the presidency of the Dominican Republic in May with the help of a landslide of votes from Dominicans in the United States. But this afternoon Mr. Fernández will not be in Santo Domingo tackling the public deficits, corruption scandals and daily energy blackouts that mark the economic crisis he was elected to resolve.
Instead, he will be at a public seminar at City College, to address an audience of Dominican-Americans expected to overflow the Great Hall's capacity of 1,000. His purpose, he says, is to listen to the concerns of the Dominican diaspora and to talk about new ways of mutual help, beyond the $1 billion in remittances that 500,000 of the 700,000 Dominicans in the New York area send home every year.
Ideas under discussion include a Dominican Peace Corps that would bring young Dominican-Americans back to their roots, joint health care and research projects on H.I.V. and AIDS, and institutional alliances that would help increase the political profile of Dominicans in New York, where they are rapidly overtaking Puerto Ricans as the city's largest Hispanic group.
Less upbeat topics on the table include the handling of more than 25,000 Dominicans who have been deported by the United States since 1996, many of them New Yorkers sent back as "criminal aliens" after serving sentences for offenses that range from shoplifting and minor drug possession to violent felonies. These reluctant returnees, who often leave struggling families behind, are widely blamed for rising crime rates in the Dominican Republic, which has a population of 8.4 million.
Another concern for both sides is the recent increase in Dominicans so desperate to migrate that they set out in rickety boats, often with dire results. On Friday morning the United States Coast Guard reported the latest disaster: a 40-foot boat carrying more than 90 Dominican migrants capsized in choppy seas off the rocky coast of Puerto Rico. At least eight people drowned, and the accident was caught on videotape by a patrolling Coast Guard jet that threw life rafts to survivors.
There were bound to be ripples of grief in New York, community leaders said.
"There is not a person in the Dominican Republic who does not have a relative in New York," said Moises Perez, executive director of Alianza Dominicana, an advocacy and social service agency.
But such disasters happen too often to justify changing Mr. Fernández's schedule, Maria Elizabeth Rodriguez, the director of his New York-Dominican Republic task force, said yesterday.
On Friday night he was at a gala dinner in the Bronx held by a new association of bodega owners. The organization, Asociacion de Bodegueros de Los Estados Unidos, exemplifies the nascent political empowerment that Mr. Fernández wants to foster among the Dominican New Yorkers who gave him 73 percent of their votes. Tomorrow he is to participate in an energy summit sponsored by the Clinton Foundation at New York University.
Mr. Fernández, 50, is himself an example of the ties between the city and the Dominican Republic. He moved to New York at 7 and went to Brandeis High School before returning to the Dominican Republic, where he became a lawyer and a university professor. First elected president in 1996, he presided over an economic boom linked to New York's boom before his party lost power to a populist businessman, Hipólito Mejía, as both economies soured.
In the last years of the Mejía administration, the Dominican economy unraveled. Bank failures and bailouts led to power failures when the government could no longer pay for energy owned by American companies like Enron, A.E.S. Corporation and Goldman Sachs. Mr. Mejía blamed the first Fernández administration for selling control of the nation's electricity industry to American companies, and called for their executives to be deported to the United States.
Mr. Fernández has taken a different tack. Austerity measures at home and optimism abroad have been part of a program to win back a $600 million aid package suspended last year by the International Monetary Fund.
"The link between the Dominican Republic and its people residing in New York represents a golden opportunity," Mr. Fernández wrote in the prologue of a book to be released at today's seminar.
Called "Building Strategic Partnerships for Development: Dominican Republic - New York State," it is the culmination of a two-year research project on Dominican development sponsored in part by the Dominican Studies Institute at City University of New York.
Ramona Hernández, who directs the institute and helped organize the event at City College, said that before Mr. Fernández spoke he would listen to presentations by community activists, scholars and elected officials.
"The president sees the Dominican people as one people, living in different parts of the globe," she said, adding that she is one of many Dominican New Yorkers who welcome that approach. "I want my son, who is attending Duke University, to continue to be Dominican, and I cannot do that alone."