Leonel Fernández on the Climate, the Economy, and the Future of DR Foreign Relations

Leonel Fernández on the Climate, the Economy, and the Future of DR Foreign Relations

On November 19, former President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández joined the Georgetown Center for Latin American Studies for a conversation on the future of education. Following the event, GJIA sat down with Dr. Fernández to discuss climate change, economic development, and the future of the Dominican Republic’s foreign relations.


GJIA: The Dominican Republic (DR) is one of many countries experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, including severe flooding. What steps is the DR taking to mitigate the impact of climate change? 

LF: First, we began a program of reforestation, and we have already planted 30 million trees in order to recover those areas that have suffered from deforestation. Second, we have been recovering riverbeds, trying to rehabilitate them after they’ve dried up. We are also trying to work directly with farmers to reduce the use of fertilizers to feed the soil. We would like to implement new ways of nurturing the lands and increasing farming productivity, but with fewer carbon fertilizers. In transportation, we recently created a rapid transit railway system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These are the main areas we have worked on to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


The DR provides an example of strong economic growth that has been maintained over time, despite the impact of natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding. What measures have you taken to achieve this growth, and why have they been successful?

First of all, we’ve understood the importance of having microeconomic stability, which basically means reducing fiscal deficits over spending and trying to adjust to our means. We have also been diversifying our economy. Originally, we were more agriculture-oriented with the production of sugar, tobacco, cocoa, etc. We still produce those products, but now we have moved more into industrializing. We have a huge small business sector, and within that sector we have local industries focusing on the production of hardware, for example. Then, there’s the service economy - tourism, finance, commerce, and special economic zones. We have been working in textiles, apparel, footwear, plastics, electronics, electricity, medical equipment, and we’re now moving into technologies including software, biotech, and drones. Because we’ve been diversifying, there has been a constant economic growth over the past 60 years, especially in the last 20. We come from a GDP of $20 billion in 1996 to $80 billion today; that’s almost quadrupling the economy in 30 years. Our model was very much labor intensive; now, we’re trying to create a capital-intensive, technology-driven economic model. This model has to be inclusive, and it has to expand the middle class in the Dominican Republic. So, I would say our success comes from respecting the concept of microeconomic stability, diversifying our economy, and moving from labor-intensive into capital-intensive growth models.


The DR recently engaged with China. Is that decision related to trying to shift towards a capital-intensive economy? What impact will that have on the economy? 

A relationship with China could help in achieving the previously mentioned goals, but more importantly, China is the second-largest economy in the world today. We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Taiwan. Now, China is accepting new relationships in Latin America, including El Salvador, Panama, and us. What we expect from China is more investment in infrastructure development projects, rather than what would be a very uneven trade relationship. We don’t have the volume of products and services to satisfy the demands of the Chinese economy, so China would inundate our country with imports, and we wouldn’t have the possibility to reciprocate that. As a result, it has to be more focused on development projects, like infrastructure for water supply, renewable energy, transportation, and the railway system. China has the expertise and the resources to help with those projects.


Do you think this engagement with China will impact relations with the Unites States and Europe?

I don’t think so, because China has already been involved in the region for quite some time. The main economies in South America have a stronger linkage with China than even with the U.S. or Europe. The United States is the largest investor in the hemisphere and will continue to be; it is also the most important trade partner for the Dominican Republic and for the whole hemisphere, followed by China and Europe. Europe is the most important donor of international aid for Latin America. I think we can relate to all of these international actors. The U.S. will remain an investor and our main trade partner because of geographical proximity, shared history, and a large Dominican diaspora in the U.S. But we don’t have to exclude China or the European Union. We have a strong relationship with the EU based on trade, investment, banking, history, and cultural ties. I think if we can amplify our international connections, it’s better off for our country, and it’s better off for the world economy.


What would you identify as the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the Dominican Republic? 

I would say Haiti. It’s our neighbor, and the Dominican Republic has been modernizing and developing while Haiti has stalled, both economically and socially, and is politically unstable. For the Dominican Republic, this poses challenges like massive illegal migration into our country, which will put a lot of pressure on things like job creation opportunities, health care assistance, and schooling. That is our main challenge. Our neighbor has not been able to develop, fully democratize, or guarantee political stability. Their population is increasing – Haiti now has 11 million people, and by 2050 it is projected that number will double to 22 million. For the Dominican Republic, that represents a major challenge.


What do you see as the DR’s responsibility towards Haiti?

I think our responsibility is creating awareness among the international community that Haiti by itself cannot make radical changes. They need resources, and they need a lot of investments in infrastructure, water supply systems, energy, in roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools. The Dominican Republic does not have the resources to help Haiti on the scale that it needs in this moment. After the earthquake, for example, we were the first country to respond to the natural disaster. We built a university, which cost the Dominican Republic $50 billion; they now have 800 students there. We feel proud that we were able to respond to some needs at the time, but we don’t have the resources, or the means, to fix all of it. If the international community - the European Union, Canada, France, and French-speaking countries – cannot deliver, then most likely both Haiti and the Dominican Republic will go underwater. That’s why I think the best we can do is raise awareness and promote engagement from other countries around the world to help Haiti build itself economically, socially, and politically.


You currently serve as the president of an organization which unites Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Could you explain a bit about what that organization does?

The organization you’re referring to is the European Union, Latin American, Caribbean Foundation (EU-LAC). This organization was created in one of the European Union-Latin American-Caribbean summits. The first summit began in 1999 in Rio de Janeiro because after the second world war, Europe isolated itself from Latin America, but it began to intervene once again in Latin American affairs during the 1980s with the crisis in Central America, playing an important role in promoting peace and democratization in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. That led to the first summit of heads of state and governments in 1999, in Rio de Janeiro, to reconsider relationships between the two regions. In one of those summits, they decided to create an organization that would include civil society, academics, and the business sector as well, to further strengthen the linkage between both regions. Prior to that decision, only government and the public sector would participate in those summits, so important actors felt excluded. The business sector, civil society, and academics all agreed that there is a lot to be done for relations between our regions outside of government. Under those circumstances, they created this Foundation which promotes, for example, academic exchange between universities. In that regard, there is an association of European Universities and of Latin American universities which get together to arrange scholarships, academic programs, and exchanges among faculties, students, and researchers. One of the programs is called Erasmus Plus, whereby students and faculty from Europe can come to Latin America, and vice versa, and that really helps in establishing new linkages and creating networks of exchange. Another aspect of the Foundation is culture, including efforts to support public libraries and literature, promoting the filmmaking industry, and recognizing the cultural values of each country. A third area of importance is small business, creating networks among small businesses so they can develop and learn from best practices. And, of course, we work on climate change. The Foundation itself holds seminars and workshops, and implements those decisions made at the heads of state summits which deal with these four areas that we work with within the Foundation. Our headquarters are in Hamburg, Germany, because it began as an organization of civil society under the auspices of the German government. Now, the EU-LAC Foundation is an intergovernmental organization, supported by the individual countries in Europe and in Latin America, as well as the European Union as a supranational organization.


Dr. Leonel Fernández served three terms as the President of the Dominican Republic, from 1996-2000 and again from 2004-2012, as head of the Dominican Liberation Party. His administrations oversaw periods of economic prosperity and stability, as well as increased technological and infrastructure development.  In 2016, he was elected president of the EU-LAC Foundation, an international organization designed to further engagement between the European Union, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Dr. Fernández holds a degree in law from the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo.