Interview with Dr Margarita Cedeeo de Fernendez, First Lady of the Dominican Republic

St. DomingoShe is one of the dynamic women of the 21st Century, not only pretty but also intelligent…The First Lady of the Dominican Republic, Dr Margarita Cedeeo de Fernendez, despite her tight schedule has kindly accepted to grant us an exclusive interview to talk about being a woman of today, her commitment to the Digital Solidarity Fund and the Common Technology Centres…
Q : How does it feel to be the wife of the most popular President of Latin America ?
A : A lot of pride. That I cannot hide. It is normal that a wife feels genuine pride when her companion is loved and admired. This feeling attains an even greater dimension, since I am convinced that this admiration for Leonel Fern ?ndez is rooted in the recognition of his virtues as a great human being. Furthermore, it touches me the way people value him as a political leader. They picture him as an honest, humble and intelligent leader, as well as a visionary and enterprising statesman, and I take a lot of pleasure in this. His family and the Dominican people undoubtedly see in President Fern ?ndez a hope for the realization of their well-being and progress.

Q : As a model for the young women of your country, what is your advice for the woman of today ?
The Dominican woman is admirable. As soon as the country was freed in 1961 and began to set up a democratic society, leaving behind the horrific legacy of the dictatorship of Trujillo, women assumed their historic responsibility to get one step ahead. They studied and prepared themselves for careers and disciplines, either at the technical or university level, and in a short time we observed and were even amazed at how women were involved in all kinds of productive sectors, many of which had previously been dominated by men. In many managerial positions women are preferred, because they have shown talent, efficiency, responsibility and integrity.
Of course, our population is growing and is predominantly young. We have accumulated a big social debt, which has grown as a consequence of the economic crisis suffered by the country in 2003 and 2004. The result has been higher unemployment rates and increased poverty. This means that many young people who are looking for employment opportunities will have to prepare themselves better, and not everybody may be able to achieve that goal.
All of these problems affect Dominican women, in particular the less fortunate ones who are always among the poorest. In an effort to give Dominican women real support, the office for which I am responsible develops and implements programmes for marginal families, promoting personal progress to enable them to leave behind their sad condition of poverty and backwardness. One of these programmes is called Common Technological Centers. The objective is to install well-equipped centres with complete modern technological tools in the least-developed communities, thereby providing education for development, and with the hope that this connection with the world through the Internet will help them to break down the barriers of insularity.
Education is one of the top priorities of the Government of Dr. Leonel Fern ?ndez, because he knows that it is fundamental for the country to have a well-educated workforce. In this way we can face the changes happening everywhere, particularly the challenges that an open-market economy imposes on us, and for which we have to be more competitive. His project to introduce English-language education in public schools, as well as his initiative (since 1996) to provide computers to schools attended by poor students, are two of the best examples of his vision about the importance of education and technology for development.
My message for today’s Dominican woman is about the necessity of focusing on her personal development, which can be done by studying for a career, or developing skills, or getting a technical or higher level of education. Education will enable them to attain a place in the productive world where they will find an opportunity to improve their economic and social status, which will assure them of a better quality of life.

Q : You gave a striking speech during the launch of the Digital Solidarity Fund, which took place in Geneva in March 2005. How do you visualize the implementation and the impact of this Fund in your country and in other developing countries ?
It is good to hear you say that, mainly because at that time my role was to represent my country and my husband, President Leonel Fern ?ndez. I believe that your appreciation indicates that the concepts that I presented on that memorable occasion, about the advantages of the information society in our societies and its impact on development, were clear and comprehensive.
I indicated on that occasion, and I reiterate it now, that opportunities for access to technologies could become an obstacle in developing and least-developed countries, because in most cases access to that technology is limited to those social groups with the highest incomes, which in the long term contributes—if nothing changes—to widening what is called “the digital gap”.
The critics of the UN project to build an information society base themselves on this argument. They wonder, for example, if there is any sense in making a digital revolution available to the world’s 842 million starving people, or for the 2,400 million people with no access to basic health services. Likewise, they ask themselves : what would they (the 845 million adults) do with a computer when they don’t know how to read and write ? And what about the 115 million children who do not attend school ? Nevertheless, these critics do not value the fact that these new technologies are the tools that can give access to education for the uneducated and poorest people in the world.
That is why the launching of the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) was so important. It was a historic step, without any doubt, because it facilitates integrating poor countries into the process to reduce the digital gap, and enables them to participate in the information society, thereby creating opportunities for all to achieve sustainable development. The possibility of receiving financial support from the Fund will reduce the problems related to economic limitations in countries such as ours. These problems arise from the big social debt that has been accumulating for decades, and where countless resources are needed to develop programmes that reduce poverty and raise the indices of human development.
It should not come as a surprise that the initiative to create the DSF was a proposal made by the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, during the “Summit of Cities and of Local Authorities for the Information Society”, that took place in Lyon (France) in December 2003. Knowing that he is the Head of State of a nation from the Third World—like us—he felt the need for financial support to be made available to enable his country to successfully reduce the digital gap and to promote access by all citizens to the knowledge society.
Q : Beside your active commitment to bringing information technology to all in your country through Common Technological Centers, what are the other areas that worry you, and what type of work are you carrying out to achieve better results ?
As regards the Common Technological Centers (CTC), I would like to indicate that this project is carried out by our office and is supported by the Dominican Government. These centres give us an opportunity to incorporate the excluded communities of our country into the Information Society. This is done through Internet access and local radio stations that broadcast different local educational programmes.
These centres will be also equipped with conference rooms where workshops and educational programmes can be held. A committee drawn from the local community will manage these centres and we think that they will become the starting point for improvement in each town were they are installed. We are so confident about the success of this project—the goal is to install 102 CTCs—that we intend to present it as a model for other Third World countries. The CTC represents our answer on how to reduce the digital gap, with specific solutions.
With regard to other areas that concern us and the kind of work we carry out, I would like to inform you about our programme “Progressing”, which is another significant attempt to achieve integral development for families who live in extreme poverty. We have been carrying this programme out for seven months, with pilot tests among the densely populated neighbourhoods of Santo Domingo—our capital—and in the municipalities of Miches and Pedro S ?nchez, in the province of El Seibo in the east of the country, the second poorest province of the Dominican Republic.
The objective of these programmes is, through social education supported by guidance and information, to achieve the integration of families that live in extreme poverty. Currently, around 5,000 families are participating in the programme “Progressing” and we expect that by November 2005 we will be able to double the number of families taking part in this effort, which has already begun to yield important and beneficial results.
Moreover, we are also placing substantial emphasis on education and health. I believe that these two areas are the most vital areas we have to face, because the economic crisis that has affected our country in 2003 and 2004 further aggravated our social problems by creating more than 1 million additional poor people, according to UNDP statistics.
We are obliged to improve these human development indices, which in our case have not been achieved. The reduction of maternal/child mortality is a great, unfulfilled challenge and improving the educational level of our people is a priority task. These are prior steps to being able to attain the level of development we are looking forward to.
On the subject of concrete actions undertaken as part of the “Millennium Goals”, I would like to mention that our office has sponsored refurbishment and physical installations of some rooms in the main children’s hospital in the Dominican Republic, the “Dr. Robert Read Hospital” in Santo Domingo, as well as facilitating improvements in new nutrition policies, which will take into account the diet that each child needs according to his/her present situation. Recently, we have inaugurated an emergency room for children in our Army hospital.

The office that I preside also sponsors vaccination days, whose purpose is the improvement of mother/ child health. This policy is present in every effort to ensure improved health conditions, just as much for the mother as for the child. It also seeks the support of technical co-operation with national and international institutions.