By Fernando Berdion Del Valle, MPP ’14, Correspondent
Former Mexican president Felipe Calderón has returned to his alma mater. A Class of 2000 graduate of the Masters of Public Administration program, the former head of state is serving as the inaugural Angelopoulos Fellow – a program designed to provide opportunities for high-profile leaders who are transitioning out of public office or other leadership positions.
Calderón left the presidency only three months ago, after serving a six year term. While in office, he worked to increase Mexico’s economic competitiveness through numerous free trade agreements and significant investments in public health and education. At the same time, he pursued a controversial campaign against organized crime that coincided with a period of intense violence in Mexico.
In his first interview since he left office, Calderón spoke with The Citizen about the last six years as chief executive, the challenges he faced in governing and his training in public policy. An excerpt from the interview follows. A more complete transcription can be found here.
Q: What will be the primary theme of your work at the Kennedy School?
A: Basically, the Angelopoulos Leadership Fellowship allows for me to organize, with the highest academic rigor, my experience in government, including the most important public policies and decisions. I will participate in a seminar with students, write about the Mexican government, and I will give some lectures too.
Q: Are there any particular public policies that you would like to highlight at Harvard? Any policies that are less well known in the United States, for example?
A: Yes. The topic that has dominated international public opinion, sadly, has been the topic of violence in Mexico. It’s a fact. But there are very successful public policies that we implemented, and that somehow were minimized or weren’t given their deserved consideration because they have been overshadowed by the issue of security.
One key program was universal health insurance coverage. I believe that Mexico is one of the first developing nations to achieve universal coverage. That is, every Mexican at the moment has access to a doctor, access to a hospital and access to care when she needs it. Of course, there are differences in quality and regional differences, but basically it’s an impressive work of infrastructure. I believe we built more or less 1,200 new hospitals and clinics in the country, and we re-built another 3,000.
Q: As President, were you involved in the management of universal coverage?
A: Yes. One of the things you learn at the Kennedy School is that one of the most difficult decisions is to establish priorities. We established that priority for, what I would say, are basic philosophical reasons.
In reality, the greatest injustice is that money could determine who has the right to live and who doesn’t. That’s the reality of healthcare. If you don’t have money and that prevents you from taking your child to the hospital, or of taking care of yourself, that is the worst injustice. There can be many other injustices, but the fact that your life is on the line is the most serious one.
“In reality, the greatest injustice is that money could determine who has the right to live and who doesn’t. That’s the reality of healthcare.”
So we decided to prioritize equality of opportunity in education and health. In this case, healthcare had greater success. And there is an element of popular philosophy too. In Mexico, there is a saying “health comes first.” The Seguro Popular, on top of providing a health benefit in itself, provides an insurance against the risk of a catastrophic economic event.
I gave very clear orders to increase the budget. In fact, the budget for the Seguro Popular increased six times, almost doubling each year. The fact of having a budget several times larger allowed the program to serve as a massive development program.
Q: Do you believe that the Mexican model can be replicated in other Latin American countries?
A: Yes. It can be replicated. But it depends on many variables. I believe that, in general, the government paying for the health insurance of the poorest Mexicans is an effective model that should be replicated. Not only in Latin American countries, but also in developed ones. The truth is that it’s unbelievable that there are very rich countries that are still not able to provide health security to all of their people.
Q: Currently, Congress is considering reforms to the immigration system. Do you have an opinion about what elements should be included in the legislation?
A: Very vaguely. I also want to be very respectful. First, it’s important to understand that immigration is a social and economic phenomenon that cannot be abolished by decree.
It’s a textbook case of economics. Economic development is explained by two factors: labor and capital. Next, you have the case of two economies: One economy, the Mexican one, is labor-intensive while the other, the American one, is capital-intensive. One economy is younger than the other (the median age in Mexico is 26) and it happens that they are neighbors sharing 3,000 kilometers of border.
It is impossible for the factors of production not to integrate. I wish that the integration would take place in Mexico. But the fact is that the flow is normal. The flow derives from the needs of people and of the economy. It’s a phenomenon that cannot be halted by decree, and pretending to stop immigration by decree has been a mistake that has cost Mexico and the United States dearly. So reform should recognize this reality. It should bring people “out of the shadows” who are working and paying taxes to American society and contributing to American prosperity.
“Immigration is a phenomenon that cannot be halted by decree, and pretending to stop immigration by decree has been a mistake that has cost Mexico and the United States dearly.”
Second, there is the question of innocent people. Specifically, there are children who were brought illegally by their parents, but through no fault of their own. There is no reason to penalize them for acts they did not commit.
Third, the United States has to find economic opportunities. The name of the game in the 21st century in the economic realm is competitiveness; it is productivity. The United States will not be competitive if its products are more expensive or of worse quality than the rest of the world. The way to gain competitiveness is to make the labor market more flexible; that goes from agriculture to the services sector.
Why were the apples in Washington state not collected in 2011? Because immigration enforcement was so strict, and since immigration was actually decreasing, they were left without agricultural workers. Wide sectors of the United States are clamoring that they be allowed to hire workers. The apple-farmers of Washington State don’t have anyone to pick their apples. They have had to reduce the productivity because of a shortage of labor.
Two more elements: The law has to have the correct incentives. I know that I must be very cautious, and I wouldn’t know what to suggest, but the law should not reward those who take advantage of the system. It should reward those who work responsibly.
The net annual rate of immigration of Mexican workers has been zero since 2010, three years in a row, mainly due the recession in US, but also because the improvement in opportunities for more people in Mexico. For instance, we created 140 public, free tuition universities and expanded 100 more.
Finally, reform does not contradict having a more secure border. On the contrary, I also ask for a more secure border with Mexico. I want to see the day in which we end all human trafficking, all drug trafficking and all the traffic in laundered money that goes from one side to the other. The traffic in persons and drugs comes from the South, but the traffic in weapons and laundered money comes from the North. Therefore, border enforcement can be stricter while the law is more in accordance with reality.
Q: And on the issue of security and drugs, what is the solution?
A: Well it’s a very complex topic. The important thing to understand is that there are two issues. One issue is drugs. The other is security. My priority was the security of Mexicans, not the fighting of drugs. It’s very difficult to understand in the United States because here since President Richard Nixon coined the term, all the focus was on the “War on Drugs.” And always, when people asked about Mexico, the question was about “the war on drugs.” And that wasn’t my focus. My focus was security. Obviously, they are very correlated – cartels and insecurity – but you have to determine the priority. So the first solution is to distinguish the two. My goal was to protect Mexican families by fighting crime, and not a “war on drugs.”
Second, I believe that the solution for security lies within the strategy we adopted, which was a comprehensive strategy. You do have to fight the criminals, but even more important than fighting criminals, you have to rebuild law enforcement agencies and institutions by cleaning out and building police forces that are much more competent and reliable, among other things because we don’t have them. And third, it is key to rebuild the social fabric, creating opportunities for jobs, health, education, recreation and prevention of drug addiction, particularly among the youth.
“At the heart of it, what they reproach me for is having carried out the law. It is not having negotiated with the criminals.”
On the issue of security, I insist that what you have to do [first] is confront the criminals so that they don’t displace the state. In the end, the criminals were displacing the state. If the government should levy taxes, criminals were levying taxes through quotas for extortion. If the government is the one that should institute laws, criminals were instituting laws in many communities. If the government should monopolize the use of public force, the criminals sometimes exercised public force superior to the local government. So you have to confront the criminals. You cannot opt for letting them do whatever they feel like. Second, you have to institute new institutions, because the ones we have in a large part of Latin America are rotten. Third, and more important than all of this, you have to reconstruct the social fabric.
Talking about drugs, I think we need to review the policy at a global level. The American and the Global market are growing, not decreasing. That is the reason why we, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico proposed to discuss that at top level in United Nations. In fact, UN approved our proposal and there will be a new convention on drugs by the year 2016. I hope things will change from there.
Q: There has been criticism from students and journalists that the energy with which you enacted your policies contributed to the rise in violence. How do you respond to such criticism?
A: Basically you have to carefully examine what is happening in Mexico and in Latin America. In the case of the region, the violence is following a phenomenon of clashes between criminal organizations. It is not responding to what the government does or ceases to do. There are states in which government has made the decision to hold back criminals, and there is violence, which is Mexico’s case. There are states in which the government has decided not to do anything with criminals.
In specific regions, in fact, the violence precedes actions by the government. That is, it’s not the case that there is violence because the government intervened; the government intervened because there was uncontrolled violence.
I believe that the worst strategy is to not do anything. In my opinion, what has caused the violence in Mexico is having abandoned citizens, having let the criminal organizations grow, and having allowed them to take control of communities.
If there had been an effort to reform the police and confront them ten or twelve years ago, we wouldn’t have had this problem. I affirm that this is a time bomb that sooner or later was going to explode, and it exploded. Neither the deaths nor the violence began with me, nor have they ended when I left. Why is that the case? Because the criminal organizations that were permitted to take hold of wide swaths of territory are clashing.
In the old Mexican political culture, there was the rule of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I won’t bother you because this is a federal crime and I’m the governor of some state along the border. You give some cash to my campaign. I won’t interfere with you, you won’t interfere with me. We’re happy. Those same actors tried to apply the old culture to the new business model. But the old culture no longer applies.
At the heart of it, what they reproach me for is having carried out the law. It is not having negotiated with the criminals. Because they say, “No, you shouldn’t have interfered.” What is the message behind that? “Calderón’s mistake was in attacking the criminals. His mistake was enforcing the law.” They are convinced that the right thing to do is not to attack them. That is the culture that permitted our countries [to] turn into battlefields.
Let me tell you something: either you enforce the law, or change the law if you don´t like it. But you cannot avoid your duty as President, as somebody suggests.
Q: Finally, what would you like your legacy to be?
A: I believe that my term in office was an exciting era of change in Mexico. We were successful in reforming the nation’s public health care system as well as many sectors of the economy. Mexico became more competitive in the global marketplace and if additional reforms are completed that I proposed, I think the nation’s economic progress will continue.
In fact, Mexico has four years of continual growth at rates above 4 percent on average, with an unemployment rate below 5 percent, so I believe that a good future is in store for Mexico; this can’t be understood without looking at all that we did in the area of economic policy. Even in the area of security, although the night is very dark right now, we confronted criminals and began to transform institutions. It was a time of change for Mexico. And, if proposals are continued, Mexico will be a nation at peace.