Hundreds of people filled the 750-seat Irvine Barclay Theatre to hear former Mexican President Vicente Fox speak about the future of democracy in Latin America and Mexico on April 8.
Fox’s lecture, this year’s Peltason Lecture on Democracy, was part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series. The event was a combined effort between UC Irvine’s Center for the Study for Democracy, the city of Irvine and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.
Bernard Grofman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, said in a press release that Fox was chosen to give the Peltason Lecure because of his significance in Mexican democracy. As such, Fox is in a unique position to illuminate the issue of major cross-border flows.
Tickets for the event were distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis two hours before the lecture began. Over a hundred people in the line were turned away due to the limited seating in the venue.
Yolanda Phillips, a project manager at Verizon Wireless, was among those turned away. A member of a foreign policy discussion group in Laguna Beach, Phillips had hoped to hear the former president speak on immigration issues.
“[I know Fox] had worked on the issue with Bush. I’d like to know if he is talking to Obama. The people of Mexico are such an important resource. They are very much a part of our economy,” Phillips said.
Also present were approximately 30 representatives of the Vicente Fox Welcoming Committee, an umbrella group of various community and campus groups, including Radical Student Union and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), formed to protest Fox’s presence at UCI.
The protestors objected to Fox’s human rights record and the alleged use of general fund money to pay for his appearance.
“Here he is being brought in to talk about democracy, but … the democracy that he promoted is a lie,” said John Bruning, a graduate student in sociology who served as the group’s spokesman.
The group also accused Fox of having the opposing candidate, Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, jailed and of allowing police violence against students and villagers in Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Michelle Cheng, a first-year history student, wanted to hear Fox address the protestors’ concerns. However, she noted that allegations of misconduct are impossible to prevent.
“[They] are going to happen in every country. People are going to be disappointed. Besides, it’s not every day that you get to hear an actual head of state. It’s worthwhile. I think it’s really cool and we should have more [speakers like him],” Cheng said.
In his introduction, Chancellor Michael Drake praised President Fox for reforming the Mexican economy. He pointed out that under Fox, Mexico has achieved much.
“Through disciplined spending, a balanced budget … inflation was at its lowest point in 37 years,” Drake said.
The chancellor, an M.D. and a former dean at UC San Francisco medical school, also lauded Fox for creating a social protection system in public health that gave millions of poor and underserved people access to health care.
Fox began his speech with a tribute in Spanish to his “dear paisanos.” He expressed his gratitude for their contributions to the economy, their solidarity with Mexico and their love for their families. Fox also addressed democracy across North America and South America.
“We share the same dreams throughout the Americas because we are all Americans,” Fox said.
According to Fox, people, whether they lived in America, Mexico or Latin America, dream of freedom, democracy and opportunity for all.
“Democracy is a value that is not for granted in Latin America. It must be nourished and defended,” Fox said.
The active defense of democracy is, according to Fox, especially crucial now given the strong movement toward authoritarian government and the disillusionment with democracy that occurs when democratic governments fail to deliver.
Fox devoted the bulk of his address to touting the free-market economic reforms overseen by his administration and to defending the validity of the market economy. He cited the growth of the Mexican middle class to 62 percent of the total population and the expansion of opportunities as proof that the market works.
However, Fox acknowledged that the global economic crisis that originated in the United States poses great risks to the future of Latin American democracy.
“There is turbulence ahead,” Fox cautioned. “We see brights and shadows for the future … [Economic conditions feed] the growing trend of demagoguery, of populism, of nostalgic leaders that are thinking in the past.”
He had no problem with modern social democrats like President Ricardo Lagos of Chile and President Luiz Inácio Lula of Brazil. But he also stated that leaders who are after power for the sake of power build neither lasting nor stable societies.
If Mexico and the rest of Latin America can resist these impulses, Fox insisted, the 21st century would be the century of Latin America.
During the question and answer section, Fox answered critics of his administration, dismissing allegations of corruption and human rights abuses.
“I respect freedom of speech, but I do not respect allegations that aren’t true. There was not one single human right violation in my government. My government has always respected and promoted human rights,” Fox said.
He also pointed out that during his presidency, the United Nations Human Rights Commission opened an office in Mexico and that his government had always allowed various human rights monitoring groups to operate in Mexico.
Throughout his speech, Fox maintained that he had no regrets about his presidency.
“I did what I did according to the circumstances of those days,” Fox said. “I will be judged by history. I tried to do the best for the country, for Mexicans.”
After making a short plug for Mexican tourism, President Fox ended his speech the same way he started, with gratitude for the Mexican community here in Southern California.
“All those who are working hard here in this nation that are undocumented, they are and they should be legalized and be able to stay here as long as they have [a] job … [America] should forever be grateful to Mexicans who have worked here in order to build this country,” Fox said.
Norma García Guillén, president of the Hispanic Bar Association, expressed her appreciation for this recognition.
“I was moved and reminded of his passion for Mexicans on this side of the border,” Guillén said, “He has been the only president, at least in my lifetime, to truly acknowledge our presence and the commitment we have to Mexico. I was very moved and very impressed. He was terribly charming.”
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