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Members of a student group focused on issues of Latin American diplomacy will spend the beginning of their spring break hosting a summit of high school students from throughout South America and the U.S.
While their peers flock to more popular south American spots like Cancun, the 25 members of The Harvard Association Cultivating Inter-American Democracy (HACIA) will spend this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Guatemala City running a mock Organization of the American States (OAS) conference.
For the past several months, 300 students from public and private schools in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, the U.S. and Guatemala have been preparing to attend the event.
They will speak and debate on topics ranging from terrorism to children’s education in committee sessions.
HACIA’s 25 staff members will lead committees of approximately 35 students each.
Members have been in contact with the students’ schools for months to help prepare for the conference.
“We work every day talking to faculty advisors [at the Latin American Schools] about everything,” said Maria Luisa Romero ’04.
HACIA members, delegates and approximately 100 parents and other observers will stay in the hotel where the conference, whose theme this year is “Democracy in a Globalized World,” takes place.
The days are long: the delegates get to work at 9 a.m. and stay in their committee sessions until 7 p.m. In debating their topics, the focus is “emphasizing negotiation, compromise, and resolution,” said Romero.
Jaclyn M. Shull ’03, HACIA’s recruitment director who helped staff the event last year, said the experience was a positive one.
“I felt that we were empowering the students that are going to be the future leaders of Latin America, with the correct way to approach problem-solving,” she said.
Several prominent public figures will be guest speakers at the conference, including the former president of Guatemala, The U.S. ambassador to the country, the former foreign minister and a Guatemalan leader for indigenous rights.
Hearing real political figures speak is important for the students, said Romero.
“Once the conference is over, they see it’s not just debating. They can go out into the world and do something,” she said.
Increased publicity and sponsorship have made scholarship funds available for students from public schools in Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica to travel to Guatemala for the conference, Shull said, whereas before this year only Guatemalan students would have been able to do so.
HACIA has received funding from sponsors including Harvard’s Institute of Politics, the Undergraduate Council and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
Increased publicity for the event also allowed Romero to successfully ask three banks in Panama to sponsor Panamanian students’ trips to the conference.
The fact that it can be available to both public and private school students “is what really makes the conference so worthwhile,” said Shull.
Romero, who is originally from Panama, attended the conference as a delegate in 1995 and 1998. She said she was inspired by listening to the other student delegates speak, and by the friendships she made there and still maintains.
“I left the conference thinking this might be something I want to do with my life,” she said.
Romero said she has seen this inspiration in many of the students attending the conference in past years. Nicaraguan public school students wanted to come to the conference so badly, she said, that they worked on their own to raise money to fund their transportation to Guatemala.
HACIA members said the last few hours before they fly south are frantic ones.
“I’m wrapping presents for some of the speakers right now,” Shull said during a telephone conversation.
HACIA’s members won’t spend their entire spring break in Guatemala City. When the conference is over, they will travel around the country.
“That’s not sponsored by HACIA,” said Shull.
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