|Week Online: First,
can you tell our North American readers what an "autonomous university"
Dr. Francisco Fernandez:
The movement toward autonomous universities began as an effort to keep
higher education free of untoward political influence and extends throughout
Latin America. It means that all the rules and norms that govern
university life are decided within the university itself -- not by the
government. Even if our budget comes from the government, university
life is organized from within and is not influenced by the government.
The principle of autonomy is also generally viewed as one that keeps the
police or military from invading college campuses to put down political
or social movements.
WOL: Can you tell us
about the Autonomous University of the Yucatán?
Fernandez: The university
is a full-fledged liberal arts university, with 25 different Bachelor of
Arts programs, as well as advanced programs. We offer degrees in
the social sciences, the liberal arts, as well as mathematics, engineering,
architecture, the sciences, and medicine and dentistry. We have 35
full-time professors in the liberal arts. We have an enrollment of
15,000 students, the vast majority of them from the Yucatán, but
only 8,000 are what you would call college students in the US. Within
the university, we also have two high schools, with nearly 7,000 students.
WOL: Are you surprised
to see an event like this coming to Mérida?
Fernandez: No, the
university and the faculty are very open to hearing what people have to
say about such serious topics. It is important to open a space where
people from both inside and outside the university community can hear different
viewpoints on problems of concern to us all. On a sensitive topic
such as the drug traffic, it is also very important that a social institution,
such as the university, provide the forum for such discussions. We
need to have discourse and hear alternative views about this huge problem
of drugs that has an impact all over the world. Our students will
be very interested in attending; this is very important and will have a
good impact on the students. The students here should take advantage
of this conference.
WOL: The Yucatán
is a fairly conservative region. Do you anticipate political problems
for the university?
Fernandez: No, the
university is well-respected in Yucatecan society. People know we
treat things seriously. They understand that we are not trying to
promote a particular agenda, but are attempting to open a space to discuss
this issue from various points of view. If the university cannot
be open to different ideas, it is useless.
WOL: What is your sense
of Mexican attitudes toward ending the drug war?
Fernandez: People want
to fight against drug consumption. As in the United States, many
people consider drug use to be morally wrong. It has to do with the
values we uphold as a society, with respect for the family. Drug
consumption is seen as linked to family disintegration, as well as all
those other famous social ills. We want to keep the family strong,
we want to keep our young people healthy, and so we attempt to suppress
drug use. But this is based more on moral reason than scientific
reason. Science can and has been subverted to support moral values,
but that doesn't always work.
If we want to address drug
consumption, I don't think we are using the right weapons. Why do
people consume drugs? We need to understand that and then do education
and prevention based on that understanding. I don't think using the
weight of the legal system to fight drugs works. It is very difficult
to fight against the cartels with all their money and power. We have
to deal with them in non-traditional ways, as opposed to power fighting
power. Society should not fight the lords of drugs using the same
weapons they use. One weapon could be legalization. It is an
alternative that could reduce the violence. But it must be paired
with more creative means of reducing drug consumption. Legalization?
Yes, perhaps, but with education and prevention.
WOL: How much of an
impact does the drug economy have in Mexico?
Fernandez: It is hard
for me to say; I have not formally studied such things. One hears
the huge numbers -- $30 billion a year -- but it is, of course, difficult
to know for sure. I sometimes think the people who are involved inflate
the numbers to make the problem appear larger than it actually is.
But this is clearly a big business.
WOL: The US government
seems to have largely forgotten Latin America these days as it focuses
on Iraq, on North Korea, and on domestic problems. But things are
bubbling up all over the hemisphere, with new left-leaning governments
in Brazil and Ecuador, the battle for control of Venezuela, new strife
in Bolivia, and the continuing, escalating war in Columbia. Any comment?
Fernandez: Yes, with
Lula in Brazil and Gutierrez in Ecuador we are seeing changes. Perhaps
it is a good thing that the US is not paying attention.