Former Mexican President Emphasizes Importance of Putting Education to Use


On Saturday, April 13, Former President of Mexico Felipe Calder??n, the keynote speaker for Spring Family Weekend, filled the Memorial Chapel to capacity with students and families. Calder??n spoke about “The New Global Economy,” joining the ranks of Sir Richard Branson, former President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama as a speaker in The Kerschner Family Series of Global Leaders. Calder??n served as the president of Mexico from 2006 to 2012 and is currently the Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He faced an unprecedented number of challenges during his term, many of which he addressed during his speech.

Calder??n’s speech was preceded by classical Spanish and Mexican music performed by Professor Laura Klugherz, on violin and viola, and Artist-in-Residence Steven Heyman, on piano. For some songs Klugherz was joined by Clare Pellerin on violin and Colgate senior Chelsea Gottschalk on cello. Following the performance, Chair of the Society of Families Wendy Carey introduced Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst, who wasted no time in giving a quick history of the global leaders series and introducing President Calder??n.

Calder??n began his speech by speaking about one of Colgate’s longest standing traditions.

“I know the University has a lot to do with the number 13 so it is a pleasure to be here on April 13 and in particular in the year 2013,” Calder??n said. “Unfortunately the year has only 12 months.”

Sharing a story from his personal life, Calder??n spoke about the autocratic regime in place in Mexico during his childhood. A single political party controlled everything from the media, to education, to what concerts could be held. In the late 1960s, many college students dared to protest the regime and were massacred. However, Calder??n’s father continued to protest as part of the opposition party.

“Those were very difficult times,” Calder??n said. “I didn’t understand why my father always was the candidate of the opposition party. Nobody else wanted to be the candidate at that time.”

As a child, Calder??n did not understand why his father was protesting when it didn’t seem to have any effect. His father told him that it was the right thing to do, and since then, Calder??n has lived his life by that motto, leading him to the presidency as part of the opposition party. “Several years after that conversation with my father and, against all odds, I was elected president of Mexico,” Calder??n said. “That’s my story. And I wanted to be president to transform Mexico. To transform Mexico into a safer, more prosperous nation.”

However, it was not as simple as Calder??n made it sound originally, as he began to address many of the challenges that his administration faced.

“As you probably know, my government faced a series of challenges, each one unprecedented which made my term one of the most difficult experiences of Mexican modern history, starting with the closest presidential election ever,” Calder??n said. “And then, there was the worst global economic crisis in memory … Add to that, we witnessed the unprecedented growth of criminal violence, the worst drought and the worst floods in recorded history in Mexico. The emergence of a previously unknown and lethal virus, the swine flu, that started in Mexico City, the largest city in the country. And even on a personal level, I suffered the tragic loss of three of my closest friends and collaborators and secretaries, two of them in different air accidents.”

Calder??n felt that these challenges would have only overcome a nation weaker than Mexico. He began to speak about some of the difficult decisions he had to make, starting with the new global economy, the title of his lecture. In this new economy, there is more interdependence than ever before with events in the United States, Europe, China or anywhere else affecting economies across the globe.

“People say that when the United States sneezes, Mexico catches a cold,” Calder??n said. “And when the United States catches a cold, Mexico gets pneumonia. And in this particular case, what happened when the United States got pneumonia?”

As the laughs in the audience subsided, Calder??n provided the facts, stating that the Mexican gross domestic product (GDP) contracted at a rate of more than 10 percent during the first half of 2009. As president, Calder??n’s goal was to save as many jobs as possible and keep industries afloat. This was achieved through a combination of government transfers to poor families, a temporary jobs program in poor communities and public and private works projects.

“We made unprecedented investments in roads, ports and airports, even in the midst of the crisis. Government and [the] private sector increased investments in infrastructure, from three percent to five percent of GDP a year during my term,” Calder??n said. “For instance, [through] building or rebuilding roads or highways we built or rebuilt 22,000 kilometers [of road], which is more or less the distance between the north and south poles. [This was the] greatest effort ever in infrastructure in Mexico.”

These efforts were successful, Calder??n said, because his administration realized that increasing the fiscal debt was a “one-shot weapon.” While some countries made stimulus packages a permanent reform, Calder??n realized that he would eventually have to take steps to lower the fiscal debt. This was done, in part, by closing unprofitable government facilities and raising taxes. Calder??n realized that these decisions would not be popular and admitted that he lost some votes during this time, but used what he learned from his father to realize that what he was doing was best for Mexico.

Calder??n realized that his goals were ambitious and that progress would be slow.

“We were looking for a touchdown and what we got was first and 10,” Calder??n said.

However, Calder??n pushed on as he worked towards a free market for Mexican goods and universal health care. Now, all Mexican children under 18 years of age have full coverage for cancer treatment, raising the cancer survival rate for children in Mexico from 30 percent to 70 percent.  Calder??n also increased funding for the creation of public, tuition-free high schools and universities. He noted that 90,000 engineers are graduating from Mexican schools every year, some of which are currently designing the engine for the Airbus 380, the largest airplane in the world.

Calder??n also addressed the crime rate in Mexico, saying that it is lower but still at unacceptable levels. Overall, he believes that the future of Mexico depends on two things: dependent economic performance in telecommunications and energy and the government continuing to institute security and judicial reform.

He then reminded the students in the audience about the importance of their college education.

“[College] is perhaps the one moment that defines our character,” Calder??n said. “Away from home, college life offers us the opportunity to figure out what we want, who we are, and how we want to spend the rest of our lives. Being a student at one of the best universities like Colgate is a privilege [and] very few people have a chance to study at a great college like this. And for the same reasons, it is a huge responsibility. Each one of you will be required to give back.”

The former president’s lecture ended similarly to how it started, as he left the audience with some parting words of wisdom.

“I ask you to go and try to give powerful meaning to your life,” Calder??n said. “Find the purpose of your own existence and when you have found it, embrace it with all your passion. Fight for all those things you believe in. Stand up for your principles, and never give up. Find the reasons why you are here today, in 2013, on this beautiful planet.”

Calder??n’s speech seemed to resonate with many of the students in the audience.

“Felipe Calder??n’s remarks about graduating as a human being, and not just attending school to obtain a degree for a high paying job, really spoke to me,” first-year Missy Velez said.

Following the speech, Calder??n addressed some questions from Benton scholars, who were seated just behind the podium. President Herbst also asked some of his own questions, and finished by asking Calder??n to speak about any misconceptions that Americans have of Mexico. Calder??n simply wanted the audience to know that Mexican people are responsible, hardworking and want to see the United States as a neighbor and a friend.

Contact Jared Goldsmith

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