Protests Intensify Over Mexican President's Harvard Job

The former president of Mexico will begin to teach at Harvard in January.

Jan. 15, 2013— -- Two prominent human rights activists in Mexico have sent a letter to Harvard University demanding that the university explain a recent decision to grant an academic post to former Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

Calderón is slated to begin a one-year fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government later this month, during which he will interact with students, deliver lectures and help to write case studies about government and public policy.

But protests over Calderón's new position have been growing since the announcement was made in late November, with an online petition against Calderón's appointment gathering close to 30,000 signatures.

The letter sent on Sunday was addressed to David T. Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School. It claims that Calderón, who initiated military action against Mexican drug cartels during his administration, is partly responsible for the deaths of more than 60,000 people in Mexico's drug war. It also argues that Calderón turned a blind eye to the problem of forced disappearances in Mexico, and failed to assist 25,000 families whose relatives have gone missing in that country.

"We believe professor Ellwood, that the appointment of President Calderón as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy school, is an insult to the victims of violence in Mexico," reads the letter, which was written in Spanish. "That is why we respectfully request that you send to us a written statement in which you explain the reasons for which the Kennedy School decided to offer this fellowship to Felipe Calderón."

The document was signed by Javier Sicilia, a Mexican poet and outspoken critic of the drug war. Sicilia, whose son was killed by gunmen in the city of Cuernavaca, leads a group called the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity, and traveled across the U.S. this fall telling his story. The letter was also signed by Sergio Aguayo, a prominent political scientist who leads the civil rights group Propuesta Civica.

During a twitcam session on Monday, Aguayo said that it was difficult to prove that Calderón had a direct hand in the drug war deaths. However, he added that Calderón ignored 25,000 families whose relatives have gone missing when he failed to take action after a list of disappeared people was compiled by Mexico's attorney general.

"When someone disappears, there is no closure for family members who never fully recover from their grief," Aguayo said during his twitcam session. "Calderón should apologize to the families of disappeared people for failing to investigate those cases."

According to the Dallas Morning News, Calderón had been seeking an academic position in several U.S. universities since the second half of last year, as he prepared to hand over power to the new Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto. The Morning Tribune reported in September that Calderón had knocked at the doors of Georgetown, Stanford and the University of Texas, where students staged energetic protests against his potential hiring.

But Harvard seems to have taken warmly to Calderón, who also holds a master's degree from the Kennedy School.

In late November, when the university announced the decision to grant Calderón a fellowship, university officials gleaned over his controversial drug war policies, and chose to focus on the more positive aspects of his administration.

"He is 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," read a statement issued by the Kennedy School on November 28.

David T. Ellwood the dean of the Kennedy School backed Calderón's appointment in a recent interview with the Cambridge Chronicle.

"We recognize that not everyone agreed with his policies or his approaches, as is the case with all world leaders, but one of the fundamental tenets of the Kennedy School and all American universities is a free exchange of ideas," Ellwood told the Chronicle. "In keeping with that educational mission, the school has a long and proud tradition of allowing our students the opportunity to engage with world leaders and to ask difficult questions on important public policy issues."

Ellwood has not yet answered the letter sent by the Mexican human rights activists.