Calderón Visit Sparks Protests

Unnamed photo
Kate C. Xie

Demonstrators march along JFK street—starting from the IOP and heading toward the COOP—to protest a speech given by Mexican President Felipe Calderón at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. forum last night.

President of Mexico, free-trade advocate, and Harvard Kennedy School alumnus Felipe Calderón defended the accomplishments of his first year in office last night to a packed audience at the Institute of Politics.

Several groups of protestors, including one against illegal immigration, greeted Calderón’s arrival at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum yesterday afternoon. Calderón, who narrowly won the presidency in 2006, has dealt with protests since before he took office, on topics ranging from his contested electoral victory to his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But Calderón dismissed the protests to IOP audience members, many of whom greeted him by shouting “viva la Felipe.”

“If you see dust in the air, no worries, because we are cleaning house right now,” he said.

Calderón spoke about his administration’s progress against drugs and organized crime, saying that his government has captured over 22,000 criminals and seized over “one billion personal doses” of drugs over the past year, his first of six in office. He also added that Mexico has re-planted 600,000 acres of forest in the past year, starting to reverse a national trend of de-forestation.

Calderón called illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. a “textbook example” of a country with surplus capital needing a country with surplus labor. He expressed his support for more integrated North American markets, saying that “closing the border is a very, very big mistake.”

Diana C. Robles ’10 of Harvard-Radcliffe Raza, which co-sponsored the event, said that Calderón’s speech did a good job addressing class and geographical separations.

While “he didn’t say he was perfect,” she said, “he left us all with a very positive impression of his administration.”

Calderón’s former teacher, Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey A. Frankel, recalled Calderón as “soft-spoken and self-deprecating” in an interview yesterday. Frankel said Calderón took at least three of his classes while studying at Harvard.

Their relationship continues beyond the ivory tower. Frankel said he visited Calderón in Puerto Vallarta in 2001 and spoke at a conference held by Calderón’s party, adding that he was impressed with Calderón’s work as president.

“He’s doing all kinds of useful reforms,” Frankel said. “If you try to think who among Mexican presidents have tried to do the right reforms, there’s nobody to compare him with.”

Others have been more critical.

At about 6 p.m. yesterday, 40 to 50 demonstrators carrying red and black flags marched loudly down JFK St. They banged on plastic drums and chanted slogans, including “Zapata vive, la lucha sigue”—“long live the Zapata movement, the struggle continues.”

As the protesters arrived outside the IOP, two Cambridge Police officers debated what to do.

“You going to start locking people up?” said one.

“I would love to start moving people, but we don’t have enough resources,” said the other.

Numerous protest groups—including the Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement, Massachusetts Global Action, the Boston May Day Coalition, and the Harvard Students for a Democratic Society—decried Caldéron’s legitimacy as a president, his treatment of indigenous Mexicans in Oaxaca and Chiapas, and his positions on continental trade.

“I’m protesting Caldéron and his stolen election victory,” said Kaveri Rajaraman, a neuroscience graduate student.

Javier J. Castro ’09 said he was “standing in solidarity with the people of Oaxaca and Chiapas and to protest NAFTA.”

The arrival of the contingent of human rights protesters overwhelmed a smaller group of demonstrators already at the event: the Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement, who were picketing outside the forum and moved north toward Eliot St.

Those protesters objected to Calderón’s stance on Mexican immigration.

Demonstrator Jim Rizoli said that he believed Caldéron “thinks he can pawn all the people of his country” on America while Americans pay for their health care and schooling.

But Caldéron’s visit had several less contentious moments as well—Mariachi Veritas de Harvard serenaded Caldéron before his speech, for instance.

According to band director Beatrice Viramontes ’08, Calderon even “came backstage and sang with us a little bit.”