“As young Americans or Latin Americans, you may question whether it is possible to overcome the problems that concern your own nation,” said Felipe Calderon, the former president of Mexico. “In troubled times, you may ask yourself whether it is possible to change and to transform your country and do what is right to do for your people. And I’m convinced that the answer is yes.”
On Oct. 24, Calderon spoke about his presidency, and what citizens can do to improve their own countries, in Robsham Theater as a guest of the Clough Colloquium. Calderon, a member of the National Action Party (PAN), assumed office in December 2006 after an extremely close election and served as president until Dec. 1, 2012. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Richard Keeley, undergraduate dean of the Carroll School of Management and director of programs for the Winston Center, approached the podium first in order to thank Bob and Judy Winston, as well as Chuck and Gloria Clough, for making Clough Colloquia possible. Interim provost Joe Quinn then introduced Calderon, mentioning that he had a somewhat personal connection with the former president, as his younger brother moved to Mexico decades ago. “He’s married, with three children, and he’s a Mexican citizen,” Quinn said. “Since his surname is Quinn, like mine, they’re affectionately known as the Mexiquinns.”
Quinn continued to run through various achievements attained under Calderon’s presidency. He noted that Calderon is credited with boosting Mexico’s economic development and expanding welfare policies, judicial reform, construction of new universities, and reform in the country’s immigration policies. “[Calderon] prioritized access to health services-before his presidency, about 40 million people had access to public health,” he said. “Currently more than 100 million people do, nearly the entire population. President Calderon, if you have time, perhaps you could stop by in Washington on your way home?”
Calderon took the stage next. “Being a student of one of the best universities, like Boston College, is a privilege because very few people have the chance to study at a great college, and for the same reason, it’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “Each one of you will be required to give back according to the talents and opportunities you have received.”
He spoke about his own childhood and how he got involved in politics. When Calderon was young, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was in power-it was ousted in 2000, after 71 years as the ruling party, when Vicente Fox was elected. Calderon described the political situation during his youth as an autocratic regime-almost all congressmen and mayors were part of the PRI, which also controlled media and education.
“In 1968, when college students just like you dared to protest and ask for democracy, they were massacred,” Calderon said. “Around the country, hope remained alive-there was a peaceful and determined struggle for democracy.” In Calderon’s hometown, he said, his father organized opposition to the ruling party. As democracy grew around the country, though, electoral fraud grew as well, and Calderon recounted feeling disheartened by the fact that people often seemed not to care about democratic progress. His father, though, told him that it was a moral duty to continue working for democracy.
Calderon then launched into a summary of his administration’s challenges and successes. The global economic crisis hit Mexico hard, and was compounded by drought, flooding, and the emergence of the H1N1 virus. While the bulk of his summary focused on economic concerns such as negotiations with unions, energy reform, free trade, and reducing the federal deficit, he also touched on his administration’s successes building public high schools and universities, as well as approaching universal health coverage.
“One very important number I want to share with you, finally, on the economic side: immigration,” Calderon said. “The net rate of immigration of Mexican workers to the United States, which is a huge problem-the net rate of immigration went to zero in 2010. It was zero three years in a row. According to the Pew Institute, the net migration from Mexico to the United States has stopped, and may have reversed.”
His last major point had to do with organized crime in the country. Calderon emphasized that crime was not solely related to drugs, as is often implied in Western media-the drug trade exacerbates criminal activity, especially as the shift from simple exportation to internal consumption has led crime groups to seek control not just of small border sections but of cities and other, larger areas. Local law enforcement agencies and police corps must be reformed, Calderon said, for any meaningful change to be effected.
Calderon wrapped up his speech by appealing to the students in attendance to involve themselves in public policy in order to improve their societies.
“You can change the status quo, you can change your own reality,” Calderon said. “I hope that a new generation of citizens-better informed, linked to social nets, more participative and more conscious of the problems-will take … the huge responsibility of change, in their countries and in the world.”
After concluding his speech, Calderon answered questions from the crowd. Many of the audience members who asked questions identified themselves as of Mexican or Latin American descent. Natalia Montano, a student from Mexico City and member of the class of Dec. 2013, asked Calderon if he would have done anything differently during his term in order to protect journalists better.
“There are a lot of things that I would like to make different,” Calderon said. “One is to propose that crimes related to journalists be federal crimes.” As it stands now, he said, violence against journalists remains under the purview of local governments, which are often unduly influenced by members of organized crime.
Another audience member asked how the Mexican government could reconcile the technological potential of Mexico with the fact that millions of citizens still live in poverty.
Calderon responded that providing equal opportunities for all citizens was crucial. “What are the factors that are splitting society in that way?” he asked, pointing to educational opportunities and healthcare as the main divides between those who do and do not have money. Public policy, he said, should be aimed at equalizing opportunities, especially in the healthcare and education systems.