STANDING OVER THE WHITE BIRTHDAY CAKE lit by its 38 candles, his wife and guests cheering, it was not difficult to guess what Felipe Calderón might have been wishing for. On that August evening in 1999, as Calderón mingled with friends and classmates about to embark on their mid-career master’s program at the Kennedy School, his dream of leading his country was already clear.
Even his casual conversations eventually found their way back to his deep concern for his country. “My country needs to be a winner in the world’s competition for investment and jobs,” he told guests.
By the end of the evening, as guests waved the small souvenir Mexican flags Calderón had handed out, the entire group appeared caught up in that aspiration. “Si, se siente, Felipe ser presidente!” they chanted in Spanish — “Yes, we feel it, Felipe will be president!”
It would take only seven years for that wish to come true. On December 1, 2006, after one of the most bitter, and hard-fought election battles in the country’s history, Calderón assumed power as president of Mexico.
After a year of hardball politics, social strife, and economic difficulties, Calderón faces huge challenges in governing Mexico.
“To lead a country facing that many challenges, win an election against all odds, and to undertake government in the midst of huge political tensions…required an enormous amount of leadership,” Calderón tells the Bulletin. “The training that I received during my stay at the Kennedy School of Government was essential in developing the skills needed to overcome adversity.”
Calderón’s times at the Kennedy School offers clues on his ability to take on those massive challenges. Classmates remember a man who would find time to bicycle along the Charles and devote time to his family, while demonstrating an uncanny ability to lead and bridge divides.
“There was some tension in our class between the U.S. and foreign students,” remembers Jehangir Pocha MPA 2000, now The Boston Globe’s correspondent in China. “The Latin ‘contingent’ was particularly diffident at first, and I remember it was Felipe who made a real effort, in a very nice, subtle way, to change things. He wouldn’t push things overtly, but he’d make it a point to mingle, come over and sit with people, talk engagingly with everyone. It really helped set a different tone in our class.”
However much of a “regular guy” Calderón is, and however much he bends in an effort to promote unity, he could also be formidable, say classmates who remember him devouring Ronald Heifetz’s book Leadership Without Easy Answers.
“From the start it was pretty evident he was going to be a leader,” says Paul Hodge MPA 2000, who traveled with a group of 50 Kennedy School alums to the inauguration. “He could pretty much wrap up complex issues in a simple way and come up with a plan of action.”
BORN INTO POLITICS
Calderón, now 44, began preparing himself to be a politician when he was a boy.
A longtime activist in Calderón’s native state of Michoacan remembers seeing Calderón as a five-year-old boy, folding political fliers for a governor’s race at his family’s dinner table.
Calderón was just 12 years old when he first announced his candidacy for the presidency, during a school discussion in his hometown of Morelia, about what each student wanted to be when he or she grew up. While his friends were playing, Calderón was handing out leaflets in the streets. He also prepared speeches that his parents patiently listened to at dinner time.
Politics was no stranger to the dinner table. Calderón’s father, Luis Calderón Vega, was an author, a congressman, and one of the founders of the National Action Party (known by its Spanish acronym, PAN). The perennial opposition to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), PAN was a moderate party in the Christian Democratic tradition, with few fixed ideological positions beyond its stated purpose of working to solve the country’s problems.
That would change in 2000, when PAN’s Vicente Fox would end the PRI’s 71 years in power and capture the presidency.
Fox’s victory was a sea change — the PRI’s long dominance made it the second longest-ruling political party in the world. PAN came to power as a party of technocrats, a conservative, business-friendly group that advocated reduced taxes, smaller government, and reform of the welfare state.
On the wave of PAN’s success, Calderón became head of Banobras, a state-owned development bank and then rose to the cabinet in 2003 as energy secretary. But his ascent confronted an unexpected obstacle in 2005, when Fox backed Santiago Creel, the interior minister, over Calderón as the party’s next presidential candidate. Calderón resigned, focusing entirely on the race to come.
By November 2005, Calderón, manoeuvering deftly within his own party, had defeated Creel and another PAN candidate in a primary election upset that strained relations with some members of his own party. During the general election campaign, Calderón trailed against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a charismatic former Mexico City mayor and leader of the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), until Calderón’s campaign introduced the most negative political ads in local history. The series of controversial TV ads displayed a photo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fading into
a picture of Lopez Obrador under the title“A Danger to Mexico.”
Although Mexico’s electoral commission later ordered the ads off the air, declaring them unfair, the ads already had made a strong impact, chiefly among middle-class people seeking stability. Calderón received support mainly from business people, middle-class and upper middle-class, as well as inhabitants of the northern states that have benefited in one way or another from the North American Trade Agreement, NAFTA. In contrast, Lopez Obrador’s support came from low-income people, many of them living in the neglected southern states. Those broad divisions — rich versus poor, north versus south — set the stage for an explosive election finale.
A BITTERLY CONTESTED ELECTION
In the July 2 general election, Calderón won by the razor thin margin of 233,831 votes — 0.56 percent of the 41.6 million ballots cast.
But on September 5, the Mexican Federal Electoral Tribunal announced that Calderón had triumphed over Lopez Obrador, arriving at the final tally after annulling some votes and recounting ballots cast in 9 percent of the polling places.
Lopez Obrador protested the results, claiming fraud, calling himself the “legitimate” president and even naming a cabinet. But Calderón would be sworn in, amid the chaos of protests, in a
tense inauguration ceremony held in the middle of the night.
“After the storm” Calderón says, “waters have receded and institutional life has taken its normal course.”
While less chaotic, his first months in power have been no less challenging, characterized by ambitious policy proposals, a crisis over the price of Mexico’s staple food, and spectacular confrontations with the growing problem of corruption and lawlessness caused by a huge drug-trafficking business. (see sidebar, “Fences, Ganga, Gay Unions, and Tortillas”).
Calderón’s term promises to be further complicated by the split in the Mexican Congress, said Kennedy School Professor Merilee Grindle, who has been studying the Mexican government for 30 years.
“I am much less concerned about a polarized country because I don’t think that the concerns of both candidates were that different,” Grindle says, pointing out that issues of poverty, job creation, infrastructure, and regional inequalities were common concerns.
“The real issue is whether the government will be able to take action about those…massive problems in Mexico.”
Calderón insists that shared concerns for Mexico will be a strong basis for action and sees the split in Mexican politics as a sign of the country’s political maturity.
“The Mexican presidential regime that was characterized by a monochrome distribution of power is long gone,” Calderón points out. “As in any other democratic political system, opposition parties in Mexico nowadays have a central role in designing public policy implementation through the federal legislature, where my party has only a plurality of votes.”
Calderón’s cabinet, packed with experts, many of them trained in the United States, is also uniquely qualified, he adds.
Calderón has also reached to Harvard and the Kennedy School for many of his senior positions (see sidebar, “The Boston Mexico City Shuttle”).
IMPORTANT LESSONS AT THE KENNEDY SCHOOL
“He’s the guy who can put together the team that’s necessary to lead Mexico. He’s a coalition builder,” says Hodge. “He’s perfect for the times. He’s willing and able to make the hard decisions that are essential if Mexico is going to move forward.”
Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey Frankel says Calderón’s diligence, perseverence, and intelligence were obvious in his approach to his studies.
“He was in the Mid-Career Program, where students who have been out of school for 10 or more years — despite tremendous experience, accomplishments, and real-world wisdom acquired thereby — often find it difficult to go back to doing problem sets and exams with algebra, let alone calculus,” Frankel says. “Calderón completed all of them well.
“Harvard should take deep pride in a brilliant technocrat’s success. To the extent the Kennedy School was able to contribute to Felipe’s skill base, this is just the sort of thing that we are trying and expecting to do all the time and that we hope pays off.”
But while technical knowledge will serve him well, perhaps Calderón’s biggest challenge will be to lead while engaging his fellow citizens in resolving the country’s deep-seated problems. After completing his studies at the Kennedy School, he said he had learned important lessons on the values of participatory leadership and was determined to take that direction in his leadership style.
During his studies, he continuously shared his views and experiences with his classmates. “I remember him talking with great feeling about his father and Mexico’s struggle for democracy,” says Pocha. “It moved me, too, because it was at a time when I was choosing between keeping with a somewhat selfish corporate job or taking up a more public service-oriented career.”
Calderón, whose dream of leading his country has now become a reality, agrees: “Above all, Harvard’s Kennedy School is a place where everybody is deeply committed to excellence and devotion in public service, and I hope to honor that commitment during my tenure as Mexico’s
Maria Cristina Caballero MPA 2001 is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.