The Road to Mérida: Interview with Dr. Francisco Fernandez, Anthropologist and Former Rector of Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán 1/17/03

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Dr. Francisco Fernandez has been on the anthropology faculty at the Autonomous University of Yucatán for nearly 20 years, and was appointed chair of the department in 1997. Fernandez was until recently the Rector of the university, and approved the university's co-sponsorship and hosting of the Out from the Shadows conference. DRCNet spoke with Dr. Fernandez on Thursday.

Week Online: First, can you tell our North American readers what an "autonomous university" is?

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.

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Issue #272, 1/17/03 The Road to Mérida: Interviews with Participants in the "Out from the Shadows" Campaign | The Road to Mérida: Interview with Dr. Francisco Fernandez, Anthropologist and Former Rector of Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán | The Road to Mérida: Interview with Al Giordano, publisher of Narco News | Bolivian Government Represses Coca Protests, Four Dead... So Far | Ed Rosenthal Medical Marijuana Trial Underway -- Judge Blocks Mention of Prop. 215, Has Trouble Seating Jury | Canadian Prime Minister Promises Motion on Decriminalization as Courts Continue to Chip Away at Marijuana Laws | Latin American Anti-Prohibition Conference, Feb. 12-15, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Cumbre Internacional Sobre Legalización, 15-Dec Febrero, Mérida, México | Newsbrief: Souder Pushes Partial HEA Reform, Frank to Reintroduce Drug Provision Repeal Bill | Newsbrief: Racine Caves Before the Ravers | Newsbrief: MPP "War on Drug Czar" Continues -- State Reacts to Allegations | Newsbrief: 12 Dead in Brazil as Drug Police Raid Shantytowns | Newsbrief: Mexican Soldiers Bust Narcs | Newsbrief: Colombian President Seeks Iraq-Like Mobilization Against Traffickers | Newsbrief: Some Colombian Terrorists May Be More Equal Than Others | Newsbrief: Alaska Lieutenant Governor Disqualifies Marijuana Legalization Petition Signatures, Proponents Vow Fight | Newsbrief: Return of the RAVE Act | Newsbrief: Ecstasy Rarely Kills, British Study Finds | Alan Shoemaker Ayahuasca Legal Defense Fund Needs Support | Media Scan: Washington on Forchion, Cockburn on Rosenthal, Forbes on Walters, Szasz on Drug Medicalization, Bruce McKinney, GAO on DARE | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar

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