The Miami Herald
April 7, 2008

Successful Dominican leader has some critics


Coming this summer to Santo Domingo: the familiar underground roar of a subway, a $725 million urban transit system that has come to embody the best and worst of the man who made it happen -- President Leonel Fernández.

The nine-mile train promises to ease congestion in this traffic-snarled city and at the same time become a legacy of a president who grew up in New York City and moved back to the Dominican Republic as a teen with dreams of bringing Manhattan home.

But as the mild-mannered gifted orator stumps for a third term in office, the train has come to epitomize his administration: massive infrastructure projects, a tourist real estate boom and economic growth that came as the country still struggled with power outages and poverty.

He rescued a tanking economy. Economic figures and foreign investment are up. Unemployment is down. Yet critics say the president's push for major public works has not been felt in the average Dominican's pocketbook.

''In our surveys, when we ask what is the worst thing Leonel Fernández has done, they say the metro. The best thing? The metro,'' said Florida International University Prof. Eduardo Gamarra, a consultant for and longtime friend of the president. 'During his first government, everyone said, `Look at this guy coming in and building highways.' There's nobody who would have said that was a good investment.

'This guy is a studied man with a vision who thought to himself, 'I am going to build a little New York here.' ''

It has not always been a smooth journey.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Fernández, 54, grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he attended public schools while his divorced mom worked as a seamstress and nurse's aide. He loved the Yankees and the Knicks. He moved back to the Dominican Republic as a teenager, because his mother thought he was spending too much time on the court.

''At that time . . . I was more interested in sports,'' he told Miami Dade College students at a forum last week.

Fernández became a lawyer and protégé of former president Juan Bosch. A Liberation Party leader, he first became president in 1996 when he was just 42 years old, after cutting a controversial deal with an opposition party.

He left office in 2000 and took a four-year hiatus from government by running a U.S.-style think tank in Santo Domingo. He ran again for a second term in '04, as the nation was in the middle of an economic collapse marked by three large bank failures.

When Fernández returned for his second stay at the National Palace that year, the Dominican Republic's peso had lost half its value and inflation was at 43 percent. Foreign debt and joblessness were high.

''The big goal in '04 was achieving macroeconomic stability and they did that,'' Gamarra said. "The next goal for whoever wins -- and I hope it's Leonel -- is going beyond macroeconomics and deal with unemployment.''

Fernández is widely credited for making the big picture decisions that staved off a currency crisis and lured foreign investment. He hired Gamarra to design a security plan for inner city neighborhoods which got quick results.

''He's a prudent man, moderate. He thinks decisions through,'' said interior and security minister Franklyn Almeyda. ``The country needs someone like that.''

Even as 43 percent of his nation lived in poverty and an energy crisis kept the lights going out, Fernández got started on the trickiest project of all: the subway. Despite crushing traffic, critics saw the train as an overly ambitious project that should not have been a top priority.

''His is one of those governments that wants symbolic pharaonic public works that stay in people's memories, despite the need or cost,'' said Orlando Jorge Mera, head of the Dominican Revolutionary Party.

Mera's party has proposed the candidacy of longtime politician Miguel Vargas Maldonado, a former water and sewer engineer. A recent Gallup poll showed Fernández enjoys a 17-point lead over Vargas.

Mera said despite 10 percent economic growth figures, the country still has 16 percent unemployment rate. Fernández's team counters that unemployment has dropped from 19 percent four years ago.

Fernández's quest for public works was the root of one of his administration's major scandals. His cabinet secretly negotiated $130 million debt with a Florida company hired to expand a Santo Domingo university, but did so without congressional approval and in apparent violation of international loan terms.

Critics said Fernández was contracting out foreign debt in a mission to stay in power by creating thousands of short-term jobs. ''He has been buying people off one by one with jobs,'' political analyst Juan Bolívar Díaz said. "People believe he's modern. He's not. His practices contradict his words.''

The president has been dogged by accusations that he funds cronyism with state coffers. Almeyda is one of 13 of Fernández's 16 cabinet ministers who are members of his campaign committee, Bolívar Díaz said.

Fernández declined to be interviewed for this article, and his press office did not respond to written questions.

At the Miami Dade College event last week, Fernández told students the trick for success in Latin America is to keep up six percent growth year after year while implementing social policies that address health, subsidize food supplies and guarantee things like jobs and water.

With eight years already in the presidential palace, Fernández was quick to say there are no short-term answers.

''It can be accomplished over the years,'' he said. "It's not something that can be done in a four-year administration or eight-year administration.''

He'll find out May 18 whether he'll get a shot at 12.