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New Leader Applies His Big Apple Past To Island's Needs

An avid New York Knicks fan and an accomplished basketball player, the Dominican Republic's next president brings to his country the flavor of New York City, where he lived in his youth.

President-elect Leonel Fernandez shifts with ease from discussing Israeli politics to Dominican problems and follows the latest in US politics by surfing the Internet for hours on end.

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His image could hardly be more different from that of the man he is replacing. Joaquin Balaguer's seven terms as president were as a caudillo, or "strongman on horseback," a tradition rooted in the authoritarian governments of Spanish colonial times.

Mr. Fernandez is a policy wonk who favors Clintonesque town meetings and uses buzz words like "participatory government." During an interview at his Santo Domingo law office, he pulls from the shelf the book, "Reinventing Government," and a half-dozen other policy tomes.

"I've got to finish reading all these and have my friend take them back," he said, pointing to a July 18 due date. A friend in New York checked out the books from the mid-Manhattan public library and brought them down after Fernandez sent an urgent e-mail request.

On Aug. 16, Fernandez will take over from President Balaguer. Fernndez won the second round after trailing rival Jose Francisco Pena Gomez in May 16 first-round elections. One boost was the endorsement of Balaguer, who set aside decades of enmity with former President Juan Bosch to back Fernandez, Bosch's protege.

Mr. Pena, a three-time presidential candidate of the center-left Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), nearly won the presidency in 1994, when Balaguer edged him out. Pena's accusations of fraud against the longtime leader were so serious that United States and international pressure forced Balaguer to end his presidency two years early and hold new elections.

In this round, Fernndez squeaked by Pena. The 2 percent margin was just wide enough to avoid serious fraud charges and widely feared violence. For the first time in this country's history, a winner was announced within a day after the elections, and Fernandez supporters danced the merengue in the streets.

With no government experience and little name recognition until Bosch picked him as his 1994 running mate for the center-left Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), Fernandez faces daunting challenges. He will have to mend a country deeply divided during a campaign tarred by invective, personal attacks from both sides, intimidation of the press, and racial slurs.

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There is little difference between the party platforms. Both promise to decentralize government, attack corruption, and end the electricity crisis that causes frequent blackouts.

Fernandez will have to rely on Balaguer in Congress, where the PLD has only one of 30 senators and 12 of 120 representatives in the lower chamber. The lack of legislators means Fernandez will have to wait two years until Congressional elections if he is to make real political reforms that will accomplish his goal of ending authoritarian, centralized rule.

"There is hope," says Luis Vargas, director of the Institute of Dominican Studies here. "But the gravity and complexity of the problems of our people, the lack of institutions, all suggest a more negative outlook."

The Dominican Republic suffers from a 23 percent unemployment rate, a turgid bureaucracy, and virtually nonexistent political and legal systems.

One of Fernandez's biggest stated goals is to stimulate business in the Dominican Republic and thus stem the flow of Dominicans joining the estimated 1 million who have emigrated to the US over the last three decades.

When he speaks of the 10 childhood years he spent on New York's Upper West Side, Fernandez pauses often over difficult memories. His Dominican mother, Yolanda Reyna, worked in a factory and as a night nurse to raise her two sons alone.

In high school, Fernandez became a grocery-store delivery boy. "My mother thought I was taking too much time away from my studies. She was afraid that spending so much time in the streets without an adult present, I could get into trouble," Fernandez says.

So when he finished high school, she sent the boy with New York-accented English back to Santo Domingo for law school. He finished first in his class.

Fernandez's time in the US is not untypical for residents of this Caribbean country of 7.2 million, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Estimates of the number of illegal emigrants to the US, who travel in small boats to Puerto Rico, hover around 30,000 per year. In the first six months of 1996, Puerto Rican authorities returned 3,363 Dominicans, double the 1995 number and the highest total in seven years.

"The problem is one of jobs and economic security that they don't find here," Fernandez says. "That's what motivates them to leave. They must have access to health care, education, social security."

Fernandez, who campaigned frequently in New York, New England, and Miami, talks of the town meetings that he plans to use to bring Dominican emigrants back into the political process in their home country. "I want them to know there is a Dominican president who will be thinking about the problems of Dominicans living in New York," he says.

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