Felipe Calderón

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón (right) answers a question from Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst at the Kerschner Family Series Global Leaders at Colgate. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

Colgate keeps finding memorable and educational ways to mark the 13th.

Former Mexico President Felipe Calderón delivered the latest lecture in the Kerschner Family Series Global Leaders at Colgate this evening. He addressed a crowd of students, parents, and alumni in Memorial Chapel, capping off Spring Family Weekend.

“I know that the university has a lot to do with the number 13,” he said in response to an introduction from Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst. “So it is a pleasure to be here on April 13, and in particular in the year 2013.”

Calderón began his talk by tracing his road to the presidency. As a child, he stumped with his father, Luiz, who was often the only opposition candidate on the hometown ballot. The ruling party had been in power for decades. But Luiz Calderón was determined to speak out and keep running, even though he admitted that he would probably never see anyone from his own party elected to top offices.

Given the apparent futility of the effort, the younger Calderón wondered why he should even bother. “Because it is our moral duty for the country,” his father said. “This is the only way that Mexico can change peacefully.”

Luiz Calderón was right in one way: he never lived to see his party in power. But his son Felipe participated in negotiations to change electoral laws and was finally elected president in 2006.

Only three years later, his government was confronted with what he called “a perfect storm.” It included floods, droughts, a global economic crisis, a surge in violent crime, and an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City.

Calderón addressed the epidemic through an open exchange of information with the outside world, and he turned inward to address the remaining issues. To decrease violence and reduce the country’s alarming homicide rate, he mobilized security forces, even as he overhauled the agencies that controlled them. Meanwhile, he attempted to rebuild society in regions hit hardest by the fighting.

A Harvard-trained economist, Calderón knew that rule of law was critical to a country’s economic growth. So, he asserted, his steps to rein in violence went hand in hand with his approach to addressing the 2009 financial crisis. It began with a massive investment in public infrastructure. He negotiated a deal with Mexico’s slumping export industry to split the burden of saving jobs, and he shuttered a government-operated utility that was draining coffers at a rate of $5 billion per year.

After a year of stimulus, Calderón’s government implemented an exit strategy that reduced spending and increased revenue — politically challenging decisions that raised taxes, lowered subsidies, and reduced government regulation.

“We made bold decisions in order to reduce the deficit at the proper moment,” he said. “Other countries are paying a much higher cost, because they delayed making difficult decisions.”

Calderón’s government didn’t cut spending across the board, however. He said he increased investments in universities, high schools, and universal health care to bolster the number of Mexicans who could participate in the 21st century global marketplace and build his country’s future economic prospects.

The president contended that his government’s approach to the economy and security has made this “Mexico’s moment.” But did he regret any of the actions he took against the cartels, for example? Did he wish the American government had done more — or less — to help? Those questions were put to him by Katrina Bennett ’16.

Calderón did not offer any revisions on his own performance. He noted that the United States could have a significant impact on the security issues facing his country if it did more to stop the flow of weapons and drug revenue crossing the border into Mexico.

While affirming Americans’ second amendment rights, he noted that, “in my administration, we seized 150,000 guns, and 84 percent of them were legally sold in gun shops on the American side.”

Given that cheek-by-jowl relationship between America and Mexico, Herbst asked if there were any perceptions that Calderón wished he could set straight for his neighbors to the north.

“We want to be seen as neighbors and friends,” Calderón said. “We are asking for understanding and collaboration, friendship, respect, and mutual responsibility.”

In moving toward those goals — in forming his program to pull back Mexico from the brink of violence and international recession — Calderón was following a precept that he traced back to his days on the campaign trail with his father.

“Never stop defending ideas, principles, and dreams,” he said. “Believe and fight for something you can leave as a legacy for those who come after you.”

The Kerschner Family Series Global Leaders at Colgate began on April 13, 2007, and has featured Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson; President Bill Clinton; Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain; Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state; and the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. For a full list of past speakers, visit colgate.edu/globalleaders.