Citizens of Mexico and the United States question the appropriateness of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government offering former Mexican president Felipe Calderón a prestigious and lucrative fellowship, given the dramatic increases in drug violence and human rights violations during his tenure.
When Felipe Calderón completed his Mexican presidential term in the fall of 2012, he boarded the first plane out of the country and landed at The Harvard Kennedy School of Government to start a prestigious fellowship. In his wake, he left a country reeling from violence, where kidnappings, extortions, beheadings and grave human rights violations have become part of every day life. In the past six years, over 70,000 people have been murdered and more than 25,000 people have been disappeared under Calderón’s “war on narco-trafficking.”
On November 28, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government announced that Felipe Calderón would be their Inaugural Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow in a program designed for “high-profile leaders who are transitioning out of public office or other leadership positions to spend time in residence at Harvard for teaching, learning and research.” Within days of this announcement, Eduardo Cortés Rivadeneyra, a businessman from the state of Puebla, started a bilingual petition on change.org to urge the president of Harvard and dean of the Kennedy School to revoke Calderón ‘s fellowship. Simultaneously, John Randolph, a former border patrol officer, started an English petition stating, “Any moral or ethical integrity that Harvard has ever had has been submerged in Calderón’s blood- soaked fellowship.” Randolph and Cortés united their petitions and have garnered over 35,000 signatures in just two months.
Petitioners hailing from some 28 countries, including Mexico, the United States, India, Iran, Colombia and Germany wrote a range of complaints, but the words assassin, blood and death were a constant presence throughout the signatories’ comments.
“Our tax dollars are going to fight this unjust illogical war,” says petition creator John Randolph. “How can you trust the military when the whole government is corrupt from local to state law enforcement on up?”
Working 26 years as a US Border Patrol Officer, Randolph added that he has seen enough of the deadly effects on immigrants resulting from the militarization of the border and that spreading similar security tactics farther south won’t work.
“People think [the violence] is just Mexico’s problem without examining our own problems of drug consumption, a skyrocketing prison population and not to mention money laundering and arm exports,” adds Randolph.
Randolph and Cortés hope that the petition and the large support it has gathered through change.org will serve as a wake-up call to the American people about the true significance of Calderón’s Harvard fellowship.
On Tuesday, January 29, Melodie Jackson, Kennedy School associate dean for communications and public affairs, received Cortés and Randolph, allowing them to submit hundreds of papers with the signatures urging the dean to revoke the fellowship. The petitions had been addressed to Harvard President Drew Faust and Kennedy School of Government Dean David Ellwood – both of whom did not attend the meeting and later issued a statement (which the school has not publicly posted) rejecting the petition’s claims.
Harvard Kennedy School: “A Free Exchange of Ideas”
The press office of Harvard Kennedy School refused to speak with Truthout and instead sent two public statements issued by Dean Ellwood, both of which were grounded in the idea that “one of the fundamental tenets of the Kennedy School is the free exchange of ideas.”
When asked by Truthout why the free flow of information must be accompanied by a hefty salary, Harvard’s press office simply referenced their previous statement:
“The unique opportunity to engage in direct discussion with a former head of state is one that many of our students value greatly, even if they may disagree with some of that leader’s policy positions. We are confident that Mr. Calderón’s one-year fellowship will create numerous opportunities for rigorous discussion and active debate on a range of important issues between our students, the wider Harvard community, and Mexico’s former president.”
Calderón: Rising to Power on Stolen votes
The Mexican people’s issues with Calderón started with the controversial election through which he took power. Calderón belongs to the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), which translates into National Action Party. In 2005, he ran against center left candidate and former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). At first, the Federal Electoral Institute declared that the election was too close to declare a winner, and then it stated a few days later that Calderón had won by a narrow margin of 0.58%. For many months following the election, supporters of Obrador declared the results were fraudulent and set up an encampment occupying the capital city’s main plaza, the Zocalo, to protest the imposition of Calderón .
Lacking the popular support of the Mexican people, Calderón sought legitimacy by exercising an iron fist against the country’s infamous narco-traffickers. “National Security” became his motto, and he greatly increased the national defense budget, deploying 50,000 military troops to civilian areas throughout the country. The United States enthusiastically welcomed Calderón’s militarized approach, viewing it as parallel to its own war on drugs. In June 2008, The US government signed The Merida Initiative into law, which allocated $1.6 billion over the course of three years to Mexico and countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean to combat drug trafficking – which was likened to terrorism and insurgency. This initiative is nicknamed Plan Mexico by its critics, a reference to Plan Colombia and the massive militarization of that country under the umbrella of a war on drugs.
Much of this money allocated to Mexico never left the United States, landing in the hands of the very same defense contractors who had lobbied for the passage of the Merida Initiative in the first place. While the Merida Initiative came with a high financial cost to US taxpayers, it came at a much higher cost to Mexican citizens, who paid with their flesh and blood, 70,000 – 100,000 times over, depending on whom you ask.
Calderón’s strategy of deploying the military to civilian areas and pursuing targeted assassinations of drug kingpins merely resulted in the splintering of “organized crime.” This method of selective enforcement left voids that allowed newer cartels to emerge and engage in turf wars. With brute force and massive artilleries, these cartels battle for control of the local drug market and trafficking corridors known as the “plaza.” These newer groups often act with less discipline – increasing the likelihood that ordinary citizens will be caught in their deadly crossfire. In 2009, the military murdered cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva in Cuernavaca, Morelos, and in the wake of his death, murder rates immediately skyrocketed.
In a country where less than 10 percent of crimes are investigated and less than 5 percent are pursued, the families of the more than 25,000 people disappeared are left grappling with unknown histories and dark futures. For those living in the 14 Mexican states that are most ravaged by violence, the chance of a crime leading to trial and sentencing was less than 1 percent in 2010.
We’ve Had It Up to Here: Breaking the Silence
In 2010, nationally renowned poet Javier Sicilia’s son was killed in narco-related violence, leading Sicilia to denounce Calderón’s failed strategy as the true assassin of the Mexican people. In the months following, he formed the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) and helped mobilize more than 225,000 people across the country in protest of Calderón’s utterly failed drug war. The testimonies of each participant debunked the government myth that only drug traffickers are killed in this war. Families united to break the silence, refusing to let the deaths and disappearances of their loved ones be brushed aside as collateral damage.
In 2012, MPJD protesters took their cries for justice up North, crossing the border and traveling across the United States to denounce their neighboring country’s role in the violence by supplying the market, the arms, the banks and government support for military actions.
“The only fear that I have is to die without seeing my son again, but other than that nothing will stop me from looking for him.” said Maria Gonzalez Vela of Puebla at a protest at NYC’s City Hall. “I will spend all my days looking for him, because when you lose a child, there goes your life.”
It is the testimony of thousands of people just like Vela, whom Calderón has ignored.
“He doesn’t stay here to show his face to the victims and all the consequences of his political economical and war decisions” says National Autonomous University of Mexico professor Pietro Ameglio “If he wants to discuss with students of the USA or the world in Harvard, he should first discuss with victims and families of victims about why he took such dramatic effects and without any conscience.”
Javier Sicilia and Sergio Aguayo, who is also involved with MPJD, wrote two letters to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government urging them to reconsider their offer, citing Harvard’s commitment to “individuals who respect the dignity of others” which they maintain that Calderón has clearly violated. “Professor Ellwood, you called the ‘President Calderón of living example of a dynamic and committed public servant,’ ” write Aguayo and Sicilia “How can you support that claim, when there is so much evidence to the contrary? President Felipe Calderón was insensitive: The government failed to investigate what happened to the dissapeared and deliberately concealed important information to their families.”
After receiving these letters, the Harvard administration has maintained its same support for Calderón. “We care about power, not ethics,” is the message that Harvard is sending, according to Laura Carlsen, the director of the Mexico-based Center on the Americas.
“Wow! We’re cool because we have these former world leaders, and we don’t really care if they left their country bathed in blood, or if they left their countries mired in debt, or if they created human misery left and right during their time in office. Is that the way that they want to teach students in the United States? Ethics, morality and even human life doesn’t matter.”
Academic Accolades for Human Rights and Environmental Violations
Harvard has not only praised Calderón’s social practices, but also his economic policies. In its statement announcing the fellowship, Calderón was credited, “with having boosted the nation’s economic development as a pro-business, pro-free market leader and having made significant reforms to the country’s environmental, immigration and health-care policies.”
Change.org petitioner Cortés also based his argument against Calderón’s fellowship on a critique of his catastrophic economic policies.
“Felipe Calderón increased public debt by 122 percent, according to the Mexican Ministry of Finance, and poverty rates rose with the addition of 7.3 million poor people, and Mexico fell 33 ranks in the international Corruption Index according to Transparency International.”
In the center of Mexico City stands a towering statue known as the Estela de Luz or Stream of Light, which has become emblematic of Calderón’s corruption. The Estela de Luz, constructed to commemorate the Mexican Biennial, was originally budgeted to cost the equivalent $16 million – and in the end cost $ 124 million.
As far as Calderón’s immigration policies are concerned, his government willfully accepted the deportation of over 1 million Mexicans from the United States during his term, and violence against Central American migrants crossing through Mexico on their way to the United States seriously increased. The Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, an activist organization dedicated to migrant’s rights, estimates that more than 60,000 migrants have disappeared during his six-year term.
Concerning environmental advancements, Calderón opened up the country’s campesino and indigenous territories to transnational mining companies, which now have thousands of exploration licenses for gold, silver and copper mining. These mining concessions come with a human toll, not only that of contaminated rivers and air, but also increased violence against activists defending their communities from these mines. Assassinations of environmental activists across the country are proof that those receiving the bullets are not just those on the payroll of organized crime. “Within our movement, they have assassinated our brothers, our compañeros in indigenous communities.” stated Saul Raque, representing an indigenous council in Morelos, during the US caravan organized by MPJD. “These assassinations are ecocide, killing our natural resources,” he added, after recounting the stories of two fellow community members who were assassinated for defending their land.
Those reporting on these assassinations have also themselves become victims of violent crimes, kidnappings and murders. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, and during Calderón’s term, at least 45 of them have been assassinated.
Harvard: the Mecca of the Technocrats
One would have to be delusional, perhaps, to think that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government would take issue with Calderón’s welcoming transnational mining companies since the University is legendary for teaching neoliberal economic models. Calderón completed his masters in 2000 at the Kennedy School – officially baptizing him as a “Technocrat.” Technocrats belong to a school of political elites that are defined as “individuals with foreign graduate degrees in economics who have spent their careers in the financial sector of the government,” according to Colorado College Political Science Professor Juan D. Lindau. They are defined by neoliberal policies that allow for limited democratic participation.”American Capitalism is their religion, and the Harvard Business School is their Mecca,” according to Lindau.
Many blame neoliberal policies for the devastating economic effects that laid the groundwork for the explosion in narco-trafficking and related violence. “When a young woman has to work all day in a factory in exploitative conditions, she doesn’t have time to care for her children.” said Rafael Mondragon, an grad student at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), hailing from the northern state of Durango who was active in the anti-drug war mobilizations. “People abandoned their traditional crops, adapted to the maquiladora lifestyle, and then the companies found cheaper labor in other countries and left an even larger social void. This created the broth that created narco-trafficking. Children in middle school now have ambitions to be hit men.”
In implementing these neoliberal policies, Calderón followed the lead of his predecessors, de la Madrid, Salinas and Zedillo – who are also faithful members of the technocrat school. Just like Calderón, they also had to flee the country when they ended their terms. Zedillo met a similar fate to Calderón’s, landing at Yale, where he is a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Globalization. He also serves on the board of Citigroup and numerous transnational corporations seeking to invest in Mexico. Zedillo is currently being sued for crimes against humanity for his role in promoting the formation of paramilitary groups that murdered 45 indigenous people in a chapel in Acteal, Chiapas.Yale has not issued public statements concerning the lawsuit.
Renowned Mexicans Denouncing Harvard’s Ties to Calderón
Two weeks after Calderón started his fellowship, former Mexican Ambassador to Norway, Denmark and Iceland, Héctor Vasconcelos, returned his diploma to Harvard denouncing Calderón s role in election fraud and skyrocketing murder and poverty rates during his term. “I believe that the presence of Calderón at Harvard contradicts the values of representative democracy, critical thinking and intellectual honesty that university personnel are supposed to promote,” says Vasconselos.
Mexican Journalist Marcela Turati recently scoured the halls of Harvard’s Kennedy School in search of Calderón and says he is nowhere to be found, nor signs of his presence. She recounted in an article in the Mexican Magazine Proceso that numerous journalists have been pursuing him and that the former president does not respond to e-mails sent to his Harvard account, and that some addresses he has provided don’t even work.
John Randolph says he has little hope that Harvard will revoke his position unless the American people take a more active stance.
In 2010, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe was offered a position as a “Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership” at Georgetown University. He completed one year and was not invited back due to popular resistance by students who protested his human rights record. John Randolph says that United States residents need to increase their pressure on Harvard, urging the university to rescind the fellowship to yield similar results. Randolph and Cortés are currently publicizing their change.org petition striving to gain 100,000 petitions.