Dominican Resumes Presidency on Stern Note
By SIMON ROMERO
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Aug. 16 - Leonel Fernández returned to the presidency of this nation after a four-year hiatus on Monday, bracing Dominicans for austerity measures needed to ease an economic crisis that has caused living standards to plummet during the past year.
Mr. Fernández, a lawyer and former university professor, said in a speech at a swearing-in ceremony that he would restrict spending by government agencies, preventing civil servants from using public funds to buy the imported sport utility vehicles that have become symbols here of skewed income distribution, rubbing up against the dilapidated motor scooters that fill the streets of this city.
He also said his administration would limit international phone calls by civil servants, among other cost-cutting measures intended to reduce a budget shortfall that has depleted resources to import fuel and generate electricity. In a jab against his predecessor, Hipólito Mejía, a populist businessman against whom Mr. Fernández won a landslide victory in May, he deplored the "absence of seriousness in everything."
Almost immediately, however, critics called on Mr. Fernández to provide greater specifics on his plans to reinvigorate a political system hobbled by corruption scandals associated with a series of bank failures last year. No one has been imprisoned for involvement in the scandals, which cost the government the equivalent of a fifth of gross domestic product in bailouts for depositors.
"We don't have anyone to blame but ourselves, since the current economic frailty is the result of corruption and the perception that bad behavior is rewarded with impunity," said Miguel Ceara-Hatton, a political analyst and economist. "The president has a large amount of political capital right now, but he has to use it quickly and wisely. He could start by throwing a few bad apples in jail."
Mr. Fernández, 50, who was raised in New York before returning to Santo Domingo to attend college, signaled a desire to confront corrupt practices, but emphasized Monday an urgent need to re-engage regional leaders and international lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Fernández reached out to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in a trip to Caracas last month, seeking to preserve an agreement allowing the Dominican Republic to import oil on favorable terms. And Mr. Fernández was scheduled to meet Monday evening with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil in an effort to strengthen ties with that country, Latin America's largest.
The I.M.F. is also negotiating with Mr. Fernández's cabinet to determine whether it should reopen a $600 million aid package that it suspended last year amid criticism of the government's handling of electricity shortages. The pressing need for foreign financial aid stands in contrast to the first time Mr. Fernández ascended to the presidency, in 1996, when the Dominican Republic was promising to become one of the fastest growing countries in Latin America.
Now the comparisons with other countries in the region tend to focus on how a bloated public bureaucracy has prevented the government from meeting basic obligations like providing emergency food supplies and basic health care. The country's central bank, for instance, has close to 1,800 employees, nearly four times the people employed at the central bank of Mexico, a much larger country.
Much of Santo Domingo geared up on Monday for street parties to celebrate the start of Mr. Fernández's term, though not everyone was enthusiastic. "Let's be realistic, politics in this country is for the worst elements of society,"said Julio Facundo Esteves, 51, a carpenter, who nevertheless turned out to the Malecón, an oceanfront avenue of hotels and casinos closed to traffic for a parade. "The last government was trash and I'm not sure Leonel will be much different."
Mindy Luisa Rodríguez, a 22-year-old secretary seated on a bench next to Mr. Esteves, saw things differently. "Leonel is more intelligent than the alternative," she said. "We're ready for a little bit of happiness, a little bit of relief."
Relief from a downturn that has led many Dominicans to flee in rickety boats to Puerto Rico is something many here emphasize, after more than 50 migrants died in an attempted crossing this month. One prominent observer contrasted that voyage with the Dominican Republic's image among rich industrialized countries as a playground for the prosperous.
"Europeans and North Americans save the entire year to be able to enjoy our beaches and hotels for 10 days," said Bernardo Vega, a former ambassador to the United States. "Meanwhile, thousands of Dominicans, whose reality begins at the edge of those hotels, save the entire year to risk death on boats to flee this country."