Watch Latin America closely, advises former Dominican Republic president

With its 600 million people, its wealth of environmental resources and biodiversity, and its fast-paced economic development, there is no question that Latin America should be an important presence on the world stage, former president of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernandez said during his campus visit as a Chubb Fellow on April 9.

Speaking before a large audience — including an entourage of Dominican students — at Yale Law School, Fernandez said that although the region still faces challenges, the rest of the world needs to recognize the importance of Latin America in both the global economy and the ways in which many of the 33 sovereign states in the region have contributed to world stability via significant democratic reforms.

However, he noted, Latin America currently does not get the attention it deserves in global headlines.

“It is not wealthy enough to become a state of the art center for financial transactions,” said Fernandez. “It is not poor enough to provoke worldwide pity. It is not dangerous enough to generate global fear.”

Fernandez, who served three terms as president of the Dominican Republic before stepping down in 2012, cited Latin America’s racial and ethnic diversity, its large reserves of arable land, its “astonishing” natural environments, and its $6.7 trillion GDP among the region’s attributes. He also noted progress in recent decades that have resulted in a decline in child mortality, unemployment, and poverty. He acknowledged, however, that illegal drug trafficking, crime and violence, labor rights, and migration are areas where further progress must be made.

Fernandez also cited the need for “more and better democracy,” sustainable growth, and improvements to education as the most important issues for the region to address in order to continue upward trends in Central America and the Caribbean.

“How can we add value to our products and services? That can only be done through knowledge,” said the former president, adding that addressing the issue of illiteracy, access to education, and improvements in teacher training programs has helped in that cause. He noted that it is critically important to educate a new generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to ensure Latin American advancement in the future.

In addition, he told his audience, changes in infrastructure in Latin America have been “astounding and breathtaking,” citing the modernized cities of São Paolo, Mexico City, Santo Domingo, and others, where there have also been major improvements in roadways, public transportation, and hospitals.

In the technology sphere, Fernandez said Latin America is tops in its mobile industry growth. “We have more phones than people,” he said, along with 255 million Internet users.

Latin America should be of special importance to the United States, suggested Fernandez, who noted that Latinos make up the largest American minority and that its current population of 52 million Latinos will more than double by 2050.

“In the last two years, there has been a 53% increase in Latinos in government,” remarked Fernandez, who also noted the many famous American Latinos — among them actresses Jennifer Lopez and Selma Hayek, musician Carlos Santana, writer Junot Diaz, baseball player Alex Rodriguez, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Sotomayor. He also cited the important contributions to American cultural life by such noted Latinos as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and others.

“Latin America is a key player in global affairs, one that needs to be watched closely,” Fernandez stated during his talk.

As the president of the non-profit organization Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (Global Foundation for Democracy and Development), which he founded, Fernandez helps promote collaborations between organizations in the United States and the Dominican Republic. He told his audience that in meetings with Yale student groups, he agreed to establish student exchanges between Yale and Dominican college students.

In introducing Fernandez, Jeffrey Brenzel, the Yale dean of admissions who oversees the Chubb Fellowship, said that the former Dominican president believes that “the very exchange of ideas brings people together.”

See Fernandez’ full speech.