Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81 and Arturo Sarukhan — the former president of Mexico and former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. — voiced their opinions on U.S.-Mexican relations and international affairs in a crowded Branford common room on Thursday afternoon.
About 100 undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members attended the discussion, moderated by Justin Schuster ’15 and Eric Stern ’15, editors-in-chief of The Politic. Zedillo and Sarukhan discussed their career paths and thoughts on the future of Mexican relations with the U.S., as well as the impact of China’s rise as an international power on the bilateral relationship.
Zedillo, who currently teaches economics and heads the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, served as the President of Mexico from 1994 to 2000. Sarukhan, now working for a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C., was an ambassador from 2007 to 2013 under Mexican president Felipe Calderon.
Throughout their remarks, both speakers emphasized the importance of education to achieving success. Zedillo described his humble upbringing in a remote part of Mexico, where his father worked as an electrician and his mother as a secretary. Through success in his local public school system, he said he was able to advance to the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City.
“And then I came to the best university in the world,” Zedillo said. “You know the name — Yale.”
Sarukhan said he viewed his work as ambassador as a service to the country that enabled his parents to “restart their lives.” His father’s family fled Armenia during the Armenian genocide, and his mother’s family of Catalonian Republicans left Spain after the Spanish Civil War.
Sarukhan said the U.S.-Mexican relationship during his tenure was like a Dickens novel: the “best of times, the worst of times.” The relationship faced challenges such as a fluctuating American immigration policy, drug violence in Mexico that occasionally spilled across the border and uncertainty about the role of a rising China in the Western hemisphere. But despite these tensions, Sarukhan said, communication between the two nations remained strong.
Zedillo attributed credit for this close relationship entirely to Sarukhan.
“I don’t even want to think what would have happened if an old-school Mexican diplomat had been in Washington,” Zedillo said. “It would have been a disaster.”
Sarukhan achieved the distinction of being the first ambassador in D.C. to operate his own Twitter account, which started in 2009. He said he decided to start the account without asking for permission because he was sure it would be refused, adding that “everyone except babies hates change, and foreign services are no different.”
Sarukhan urged students seeking careers in the foreign service to push against the “bureaucratic inertia” that limits freedom and reduces creativity. And he cautioned them that a career in government is not an easy life of gala events and shaking hands with dignitaries.
“It will be a long slog,” Sarukhan said.
After the moderated discussion, audience members asked questions about the speakers’ current occupations, thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons reduction efforts and opinions on the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy.
Aaron Troncoso ’17 said he was interested to learn more about Mexican politics because of his Mexican heritage, adding that hearing speakers like Zedillo and Sarukhan offers a lot of knowledge and feels like “watching an artisan.”
But not all audience members felt the venue was well suited to the event. Reed Dibich ’17 said he felt the former president and ambassador deserved a more grandiose setting than a table in the Branford common room.
Ernesto Zedillo teaches two undergraduate courses at Yale — a lecture on international trade and a seminar about globalization.