The Miami Herald
Tue, May 18, 2004
Fernández urges unity, says focus is solutions

President-elect Leonel Fernández has begun preparing to grapple with the challenge of pulling the Dominican Republic out of a major economic crisis.


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - Just hours after preliminary results gave him a win in the presidential election, Leonel Fernández took to the microphone early Monday and called for unity in a nation rocked by an economic meltdown.

''The fight is over,'' the U.S.-educated Fernández said, taking the high road as his supporters shouted campaign slogans against President Hipólito Mejía, who was seeking reelection. ``It's time to work to get this country out of the crisis.''

Even as questions linger about corruption allegations during his first term as president from 1996 to 2000, the 50-year-old Fernández has made a strong comeback that some analysts attribute to his charm and intellect.

Many international analysts have long compared him to former President Bill Clinton for his intense focus on policy issues, coupled with personal foibles that cast shadows over his first term in power.

''He's a very personable guy,'' said Lowell Fleischer, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. ``Calling for unity is very classic Fernández.''

''But in a sense, it is also the only thing he can do,'' Fleischer added. ``He needs to get other people on his side to get a program going. He's got a heck of a challenge ahead.''

When Fernández returns to the National Palace in mid-August, he will be leading a country that is in the depths of an economic crisis marked by soaring inflation, a sharp currency devaluation, huge foreign debt and high joblessness.

He will have to devise a recovery plan and push it through a Congress that will remain in the control of the opposition until elections in 2006, and he faces the challenge of restoring confidence in a population desperate for some economic relief. An energy crunch has led to rolling blackouts and bloody street protests.


At a press conference Monday afternoon, Fernández said his first order of business will be to get an accurate assessment of the nation's problems.

''We need to get a better handle on the internal mechanisms of the current government and the resources available,'' he said.

Asked if he would go after Mejía on corruption allegations linked to a bank scandal that cost the treasury $2.2 billion, Fernández said: ``We did not come with a sense of vengeance. . . . We come to reaffirm democracy and to confront the severe economic and social problems.''

The response was met with applause from supporters and members of his conservative Dominican Liberation Party. Partisans took to the streets Monday for a victory celebration that lasted into the evening, with the capital's main streets clogged with honking cars stuffed with Dominicans waving the purple flags of Fernández's party.

The festivities, however, will be short-lived once Fernández assumes control, several analysts said.

Fernández has promised to implement tight fiscal policies as a way to stabilize the Dominican peso and bring back the prosperity of his time in the presidency, when the economy grew by an annual 8 percent and the peso traded at 16 to the U.S. dollar. Today, it trades at 45 to 1.

High unemployment and stagnant wages amid inflation that topped 43 percent last year have sent a record number of Dominicans to the seas in rickety boats in illegal attempts to reach the U.S. mainland via neighboring Puerto Rico.

Beyond the financial struggles, Fernández also faces personal challenges.

He left the presidency in 2000 amid a corruption scandal that is unresolved, and he has been criticized by some as favoring the wealthy instead of the poor majority in this nation of 8.8 million.

His new wife and baby daughter will help dispel his previous image, in some circles, as a free-wheeling bachelor and bring a sense of stability and diligence to the National Palace.


Fernández, who was born in the Dominican capital, spent much of his youth in New York City. He returned to his homeland and earned a law degree, specializing in commercial law.

Over the past four years, he has remained highly visible as the head of his U.S.-style think tank, the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development, which supports conservative fiscal policies.

''When Leonel Fernández left power, he did not leave with his popularity on the floor,'' said Flavio Darío Espinal, a former Dominican ambassador to the Organization of American States. ``His party suffered, but his personal support did not.''

''He has a good image, is very cordial and respectful,'' Espinal said. ``He has managed to construct a broad coalition of supporters.''