President Leonel Fernández Addresses BLS

In New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández spoke at Brooklyn Law School to discuss constitutional reform measures he is introducing in his country. Library Director Victoria Szymczak hosted President Fernandez and his wife, First Lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernández in the Moot Court Room where Dean Joan G. Wexler introduced the President to speak about how he is preparing the Caribbean nation to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Dean Wexler told the assembled guests about Fernández’ being born in Santo Domingo and having moved to the US to spend his childhood in Washington Heights. The Dean went on to explain that Fernández started his Law Studies in the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo where he graduated at the top of his class and that he became active in the Dominican Liberation Party in 1973. She also spoke about his first presidential term from 1996 to 2000 after which he was unable to run for a second term, as the constitution did not allow it. After a change in the constitution, Fernández was sworn in for a second term in 2004 and was re-elected to another term in 2008.

President Fernández spoke about the independence movement in Latin America, which took place about 200 years ago in 1809 when most Latin American countries became free from Spanish rule. He noted that the DR declared its independence from Haiti in 1844. Citing a novel titled The Feast of the Goat by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa about dictator Rafael Trujillo, Fernández spoke about the military dictatorship from the 1930s until Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. He also spoke about the 1963 democratically elected government of Juan Bosch which ended with the 1965 US invasion which President Lyndon B. Johnson justified based on fears that the DR was turning into “a second Cuba”. Except for the period of authoritarian rule under Joaquin Balaguer until 1978, he said, the DR has moved toward representative democracy.

Fernández’ address about the DR’s new constitution, which has been ongoing for the past several months, stressed his view that it was a continuation of a liberal social democratic tradition that has been growing since the end of the dictatorships. He stated that the process included public consultation and that its content came from the bottom up rather than from the top down. In the Q&A after the President’s remarks, BLS students questioned key provisions of the new constitution, notably Article 30 of the constitution which would introduce the inviolability of life from “conception to death” and thus outlaw a woman’s choice of abortion even in cases of rape, incest or a threat to her life. Fernández stated that this clause was the result of the country’s large Roman Catholic population. Another questioner raised the issue of the new constitution’s impact on Haitians living in the DR and their ability to become Dominican citizens. Fernández said that the widely-held view that Dominicans exploit Haitian workers was unjustified as Haitians emigrate to the DR for a better life and are likely to have lower standards of living than native Dominicans just as Dominicans who emigrate to New York have compared to native New Yorkers. Fernández remarked that it appeared that BLS students were well informed on the the issues that he addressed.