Why Did We Invite a Latin American President to Stanford?

Alberto Diaz-Cayeros
9 min readMay 3, 2023

The President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, came to Stanford University on April 18, invited by a student organization, the Society for Latin American Politics, the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS, better known as Bolivar House). My role as Director of CLAS has given me the opportunity to host and interact, over the past few years, with four Latin American (current and former) Presidents. Before the COVID19 pandemic, CLAS hosted public addresses by former President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, we also invited Vicente Fox of Mexico. A few months ago, I had an informal coffee, in the gardens of Bolivar House, with President Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia. I have found myself wondering how Presidential visits fit within our overall mission as educators and researchers.

After the recent visit from President Petro, who inspires polarized opinions among many Colombians and Latin Americans, I was asked that exact question by many of our students. A research University always hosts writers, artists, scientists, journalists, researchers. But why invite a current or a former Head of State, considering the great complexity and cost such visits involve? Presidents are prominent public figures that may fill up an auditorium. Foreign leaders perhaps signal that a country matters to the University. But I must confess that in my view speeches from Latin American Presidents at Stanford have neither been state of the art scholarly contributions nor highly nuanced statements of public policy.

The iconic Hoover Tower in the background of President Gustavo Petro of Colombia in his visit to Stanford University. © Rod Searcey

A search of more than a thousand articles on the Stanford Daily, allowed me to dig out the history of Latin American Presidential visits to Stanford. The first visit of a President from Latin America was Pascual Ortiz Rubio from Mexico, during his exile in 1933. Stanford had already a well-established reputation of connections with Latin America, with Brazil in particular, led by its second President John Branner, a geology professor. Branner happened to be a mentor to Herbert Hoover, who had been instrumental, as a trustee, in getting Branner to become University President. The University had a strong focus on Latin America in those early years. The Stanford Daily covers, through several stories, how then US President-elect Herbert Hoover engaged in a two month “good will” tour throughout Latin America, before taking office. His unusual visit included stops in Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil (the Daily reports that he had to cancel stops in Guatemala and Panama due to bad weather), at the end of 1928. This tour occurred before the “Good Neighbor” policy of Roosevelt, suggesting that, given the geopolitics of the world in the late 1920s and 1930s, US policy makers from both political parties probably sought to improve the US relationship with Latin America.

Reading through the coverage of Latin America in the Stanford Daily, this positive engagement was short lived. The Cold War resumed US interventionist policies in Latin America. The news coverage of the Daily shows that Stanford attention towards Latin America waned during much of the second half of the 20th century. The Stanford Daily does report, however, that Professor Graham Stuart made a two-month study tour of Latin America with support from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And there is a story of student activities in Bolivar House, which in an article in 1963 the Daily says was “reputed the finest Hispanic-American Studies Center”.

The story tells about a news digest, called the Hispanic American Report (HAR), produced by founding Director Ronald Hilton. Graduate and undergraduate students worked intensely, reading the major Latin American newspapers (yes, in paper form!) that arrived to CLAS through a subscription. This digest circulated widely among academic and policy circles throughout the US. Reading articles in the Daily suggests that during those years Stanford engaged Latin America mostly through the HAR, reporting events and news of the region. Students kept a critical outlook regarding US foreign policy, with a high intensity of activity surrounding the Salvador Allende Presidency in Chile, and the coup that deposed him in 1973.

Bolivar House today hosts the Latin American Perspectives (LAP) Lectureship. LAP is a direct legacy of the HAR, a refereed Journal and invaluable web portal with current news and analysis on and from all over Latin America. The legacy for CLAS of those early years is an interdisciplinary MA program, and a seminar bringing to campus guest speakers, discussing issues and scholarship of Latin America every week. The lively discussion by our students, established more than half a century ago, remains the soul of our community of learning.

As far as I can reconstruct, including President Petro, Stanford has hosted five sitting Presidents from Latin America. Carlos Andrés Pérez of Venezuela came in 1991, invited by then Director of Bolivar House, Terry Karl (the visit resulted in the establishment of an endowment for CLAS, through the Ayacucho Foundation). The visit was aligned with scholarly pursuits, Dr. Karl being arguably the most prominent scholar studying Venezuela in the US at the time. A few years later, in 1996, Terry also brought Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil (the visit resulted in the establishment of the Nabuco Visiting Professor Chair). Cardoso was a scholar, well known to any Latin Americanist, writing the classic book on “dependency theory”. In both cases the visits emerged from scholarly engagements, and significant financial support for Latin American Studies resulted from the Presidential visits, cementing long-term engagements of CLAS for future scholarship on both Brazil and Venezuela.

Two Presidents of Mexico have visited Stanford while still in office. Carlos Salinas de Gortari, for the Centennial celebration of the University in 1991, participating in a panel of leaders highlighting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). I remember Salinas de Gortari visited again, as former president, but I was unable to find a record of this second visit. Felipe Calderón came in 2011 as the Commencement speaker. I found out through the reading of the Stanford Daily that Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, visited the Graduate School of Business (GSB) while she was still in office, also in 2011. As far as I know none of those visits resulted in specific commitments cementing long-term institutional relationships of the University with those countries. But they created quite a bit of student engagement.

President Carlos Salinas visit from three decades ago was well attended by students. The Stanford Daily published an advertisement, in Spanish, telling Mexican students they could sign up to meet the President in a private meeting. The Stanford Daily published a most telling picture of Stanford students protesting, signaling to the controversy that came with the visit. Twenty years later, students voiced concerns regarding human rights in Mexico, when Felipe Calderón delivered the Stanford Commencement in 2011. In that visit a plane flew over the stadium displaying a banner reading “40,000 Dead! HOW MANY MORE?”. Calderón’s choice as commencement came quite as a surprise to many of the students and faculty working on or studying Mexico.

The Mexican President chose to avoid talking about violence or the challenges of security in Mexico. Similar to Petro in the most recent Presidential visit, the Mexican head of state devoted his address to talk about climate change. In contrast to President Petro, who made an indictment of capitalism, the particular content of the Mexican President’s speech did not produce controversy. It was his presence in campus that was controversial.

Coverage of the Stanford Daily “Salinas addresses ‘inner revolution’

The visits by the two sitting Mexican Presidents remind me of the main reason why it is relevant and important for a research University to be open to invite Heads of State. A visit might not be grounded on scholarship or bring specific agreements for engagement and cooperation between the University and the countries represented.

The main benefit to the University and its student body is about opening a space for political expression, for vigorous debate surrounding the big issues of the world we live in. Governing a country is always challenging. There is no magic bullet, or any single public policy solution that guides governments in Latin America or elsewhere for that matter on how to tackle challenges of economic, social, or political development. A President from Latin America coming to campus should embodying a healthy dose of controversy and debate, because all public policies are contestable. Being exposed and discussing conflicting ideas and grappling with unresolved questions are critically important to our education mission.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro meeting with students and faculty at Stanford University. © Rod Searcey

A University can and should place some ethical limits on what is acceptable in terms of the level of controversy an invited leader may represent. For example, there is an unwritten norm where Stanford does not invite military dictators, indicted criminals, or undisputed violators of human rights. Presidential engagements of Stanford with Latin America Presidents in the 20th century have involved democratically elected leaders, even though the Mexican presidents should fall under a semi-democratic category.

Rodrigo Carazo from Costa Rica visiting Stanford as a former President in 1985, and another former Costa Rica President, Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, came to the Law School in 1989. Ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to speak to campus in 1994. After the Mexican transition to democracy, Vicente Fox visited campus, as a former President, in 2008. To me that was a most memorable event, due to the attendance of service workers from throughout the campus. I remember watching in the overflow spaces outside the old GSB auditorium, with the service workers, as he talked about issues of immigration reform.

It is perhaps not surprising then to note that three visits by Latin American presidents have been from a relatively small country, Costa Rica, but quite tellingly, most solid democracy in the region. Stanford has invited former Presidents who have been impeached, charged with corruption, or involved in some form of legal wrongdoing, before or after their visits. The most known case involves Alejandro Toledo of Peru, a Stanford alumnus. He gave, as former President, the Commencement address of 2003. And President Toledo held several visiting positions in the campus for several years, speaking frequently in public events. He facilitated connections with other Presidents in the region, including a visit from former President of Bolivia, Carlos Meza, to CLAS in 2008.

This takes me to another controversial visit in recent memory. The former President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, spoke at the Sanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) in 2012. That visit was controversial due to the “falsos positivos”, alleged human rights abuses by his government in which innocent victims were murdered and arms would be planted on them claiming they were guerrilla fighters. Uribe was part the global advisory board of the Knight Hennessy Scholars program. Regarding Colombia, CLAS also hosted a former Governor of Colombia as a Tinker Visiting Professor. Sergio Fajardo had been a mathematics professor, although by the time he visited the University he was a visibly public figure, vying to become President of Colombia.

In this sense the visit of Gustavo Petro is in keeping with our continued educational purpose of providing a space for vigorous intellectual debate. I must say that the behavior of our students in that regard was exemplar. A lot of preparation for the Presidential visit involved putting in place protocols for potential protest, disruption and heckling. Stanford students voiced their contrasting views, preparing thoughtful and highly critical questions, respectfully, and used his visit as a space of learning. A wide range of political views were expressed freely and listened to. Students have continued discussing the visit and the politics of Colombia and Latin America, weeks after the event.

I believe that we have contributed to a better understanding of the complicated world we live in.

And I remain hopeful of the possibilities that new ideas will generate, through dialogue and debate.



Alberto Diaz-Cayeros

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University