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Stanford Report, June 18, 2003

Alejandro Toledo: 'Join this collective effort of fighting poverty'

The following is the text of a speech delivered by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo Sunday, June 15, 2003 at Stanford's 112th Commencement.

John Hennessy: One can overcome tremendous barriers, achieve at the highest level and make the world a better place. Please join me in warmly welcoming one of Stanford's own, President Alejandro Toledo.

Alejandro Toledo: President Hennessy, honorable members of the governing board of Stanford University, distinguished deans and faculty, members of the graduating class, parents, relatives, ladies and gentlemen: Before I share with you my reflections, I beg you to bear my rusty English. Secondly, I want to thank with all humility the generosity of the university, the generosity of the presidents of the senior class -- Ruby, James, Judi, Rajaie -- for having chosen me.

Today you have in your hands a great accomplishment. Knowing you still have a long path to go through, I want to ask you, please do share this accomplishment with your families. They deserve it, and those who are fathers, Happy Father's Day.

Standing here before you evokes in me vivid memories and powerful emotion. Being here brings me back memories of Escondido Village, of the coffee house at Tresidder Union, [the] soccer field of Maloney, or searching for books at the Main Library or Cubberley Library.

My friends, I stand before you as president of Peru, but when I originally came to this country I was a wide-eyed country boy trying to make his way in the midst of a marvel. Some of you -- most of you -- can guess by looking at me that I come from the highlands of Peru. I was born in a tiny place of 50 families over [13,000] feet up in the Andes close to the sun. I am the eighth of 16 children of whom, as President Hennessy has said, seven died before the age of 1 -- [a] story very typical and representative of extreme poverty in Latin America.

At the age of 5, I became prematurely adult. My parents decided to move down to the coastal port city of Chimbote in search of a better life. By the age of 6, I was shining shoes, selling newspapers and lottery tickets, all at the same time. I had to contribute to the family income. But I went to school, a public school. I learned to read and write as well as many other things. In fact, my teacher saw a spark in me, as he discovered that I loved to write poetry.

When I was 12 years old, I entered a contest [to become] a correspondent for one of the country's main newspapers, along with many others. To my surprise, I won the prize. It didn't pay much, so I had to continue shining shoes along with selling newspapers and lottery tickets. However, it did catapult me into a whole different cultural world. At 12 years old, I was the political correspondent of a major newspaper in an election year. I don't know what I was doing there.

My stories that I wrote were bylined and were published. Of course, when I would show one of my articles to my shoeshine clients and I told them, "Listen, I'm the author of that article," the guys looked at me and said, "Are you kidding me?" They would never believe me, [that] I was the author of that article [and] I was shining their shoes.

But you know what? No matter. The critical thing was the transformation within myself. One afternoon, [as] I was walking down the street, my life took a turn toward Stanford. I got into a conversation with two foreigners in my shantytown. They were looking for [lodging]. I was looking for a better world. They were Joel and Nancy Meister, who were members of the Peace Corps volunteers. It took some doing to persuade my mother to let them live with us, [but] I succeeded.

A few years later, I was in the United States at the University of San Francisco on a soccer fellowship studying four years of economics, together with theology and philosophy. Can you imagine what it was like to arrive in San Francisco straight from the Andes and from Chimbote? My city was essentially a big shantytown, and here I was, looking at the Golden Gate Bridge, at the Embarcadero, at the Bay Bridge.

Of course, Escondido Village was still in the future. I was taken to Berkeley at the height of the Free Speech Movement. It was 1965. Mario Savio, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis. Free love was the order of the day. I hope it still is. And all of a sudden, I thought ... the young fellow from the Andes, me, looked around himself out of amazement. How in the world was I to navigate successfully in this strange, beautiful yet alien culture? People spoke a language that was hard to understand.

Of course, I thought I "knew" some English. Rather, I "thought" I knew some English. I was wrong. There was a person, a black gentleman that I met in the street in the Fillmore district in San Francisco, who said, "Say, brother, you got a quarter to spare?" I was totally amazed and disappointed. He must have felt I was an unsympathetic brother, but all that happened was that his and my English were simply not the same. It was not his fault. I did not understand English.

The means for survival were simple: playing soccer for USF's varsity team with a coach, Steve Negoesco, from Hungary; pumping gas at night at the station at the corner of Fulton Street owned by a Lebanese person. I did that to supplement my fellowship, and I scrambled like mad to close the gap between study habits I came with, with those [required] to survive at the University of San Francisco. The differences were amazing: reading assignments that were really requirements. Libraries. Huge amounts of books. I was lost in a different culture.

Somebody wrote about culture shock. My friends, professors did not tell you what was right and true -- they required you to think for yourself and discover. It only got worse once I got to Stanford. Graduate studies really required standing on my own intellectual feet. You have to remember, I grew up in a basically authoritarian culture. Peruvian popular culture looked, and it still looks, to the father figure, the caudillo, who will make it all good. That is gradually changing and, I can assure you, I'm pushing as hard as I know to change it.

But when I grew up, it was still there alive and well. So you did not think yourself about big things, about the principles of the world, about what's right and what's wrong, about how to live. You accepted the established traditions. But once I was in the United States, and for sure as a graduate student, the demands on me were quite the opposite. They used to tell me, "Think for yourself, young man. Decide for yourself, find the facts, assess them, take nothing for granted, you are a social scientist." They used to tell me, "You must discover for yourself what's right and valid. Use your professors as a guide, but don't blindly believe them or follow them."

My friends, I had some great professors at Stanford. Martin Carnoy, Alex Inkeles, Henry Levin, Clark Reynolds, Professor McKinnon and others. I learned a lot from them. Many facts for sure, and much methodology, but what I am most indebted to them is ... the mandate they instilled in me to find out for myself, and the trust they conveyed that I had the stuff that it took to come up with worthwhile results. Me? The boy from Cabana? Who had shined shoes and sold newspapers and lottery tickets in Chimbote? I was worthwhile enough to earn two master's degrees and become a Stanford Ph.D.

Young men and women, it takes guts for a professor to have such faith, and it is scary to be the recipient of such expectations. But as you can see, I survived. I survived the scary part and went on to some expectations that were even as scary: to be a president of my nation.

Let me tell you, being president of a country is not easy, particularly president of a developing nation. Maybe George Bush thinks that it's hard to be a president of the United States. Let me tell you, being president of Peru is even harder. I told President Bush, let's exchange jobs. He didn't like it.

Here you have a democratic institution. Here in this country you have strong democratic institutions that guarantee continuity regardless of who is president. In Peru, we still need to build them. Look at what happened to me just this week. First, a strike of teachers, to whom I will be forever grateful because had it not been for education, I wouldn't be in front of you today. Thanks to the teachers and to education. But also, they were demanding, justifiably so, an increase in salaries. Of course, some of them did not want to be tested for their abilities, but they are still at the bottom of my heart -- [educators].

Then the kidnapping of several dozen workers in a gas field deep in the jungle by [remnants] of Shining Path. We managed to rescue them with no loss of life, through a mix of negotiation and intimidation [that] enabled us to liberate them. It was touch and go for a while. But finally the hostages were let go and we are now pursuing them, we are looking for the kidnappers as they try to melt into the jungle.

There is an issue that I want to share with you today. I am a man of deep democratic convictions, with respect for human rights and [a defender of] the freedom of the press. But in my government, I would not let pass any attempt of that perverse joint venture of narco traffic and terrorism. Terror, no matter where it happens, requires a mutual effort. There is no space for ambiguity in the fight against terror. That is why I personally got involved in our operation to free the hostages. And I was suffering within myself. It was so deep that I did not even share this with my wife. I was suffering because if we could not ... liberate the hostages, I would have deprived myself from being today in front of you, because I could not have left my country if my people were being held hostage.

In this job of being president, for sure, you never know what will happen next. But what a privilege to have in your hands the privilege to conduct the destiny of your nation, particularly after having shined shoes and sold newspapers and lottery [tickets].

My survival at Stanford has equipped me well for my present job. Thank you. This institution is great. The personal growth skills I developed here, the intellectual arsenal I accumulated, the friendships and associations I formed, and the deep democratic convictions I developed here have been essential in equipping me, first, to [pursue] my objectives, to be stubborn, and now, to [hold] the highest office of Peru.

In all this, Stanford was central. Not least because it was at Stanford that I met my wife, my life companion, Eliane Karp, Peru's and my first lady, who is right here with us. She has been and is currently an enormous source of inspiration and support for me. I have had 128 death threats in my fight to liberate my country from a dictatorship. Eliane's Jewish background and my Andean persistence for survival converged to confront the highest challenge in life. And that encounter happened right here at the Stanford coffee shop.

It was here at Stanford I started to craft my plans to serve my country. The mute scream of my soul reverberated in my head: I had gotten out but my brothers and sisters were still [stuck back] in poverty, and I could not remain enjoying such great things at Stanford, at the World Bank, knowing that I had my brothers and sisters back home sentenced to live below the extreme poverty line -- the poverty that robs the freedom of people, [the] poverty [that] steals human dignity and the right to choose. Democracy and freedom do not circumscribe only to a day of an election.

How free can be a man and a woman who tonight will go to sleep without knowing whether tomorrow [they] will have something to eat? She and he [are] not free.

Let me talk to you from the bottom of my heart. I could talk to you about the success of my administration, but that's not the central point of my reflection today. Yes, we clearly are one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. We have a GDP that goes over 5 percent. We have low inflation. We have accumulated huge international reserves. Our primary manufacturing products are being exported at a growing rate. We have successfully placed sovereign bonds in the world market. We are modernizing our export agriculture, and more. But as some of you might know, my political popularity is very low. It is low because I have been holding the line against demands of a quick fix that looks good in the short term but ... will backfire in the medium term. Being a responsible leader has put me into a very difficult political position. However, I see no other way.

Poverty must be eradicated in my country and in Latin America. But it must be eradicated in an effective and lasting way. Poor people have dignity. They don't want to [raise] their hands and receive fish. They demand the right to learn how to fish. And I know what [that] means. Of course, this requires responsible [and] prudent microeconomic policies, along with inventive investment in education, health [and] nutrition as the foundations of human progress.

There is no better investment that a person, a community or a nation [can] make than investing in the minds of our people. That means increasing investment in nutrition, health and education.

I was inaugurated on July 28, 2001, and I [made] a decision that was congruent with my conviction. [On] the first day of my inauguration, I made a decision [to reduce] by 20 percent the budget of military spending and to reorient it to education and health. And I haven't finished yet.

Steering a careful middle course between orthodox trickle-down economics and a market economy with a human face [that] underpins an effective war against poverty is not an easy task. But I feel, my friends, I feel that I am condemned not to fail. I am condemned not to fail because the poor expect me to succeed. When I was born, the first thing I saw was the scary face of extreme poverty. Now as a president, I have the responsibility not to let the poor go through the same experience that I did.

Now that I'm a grown man, I carry with me the expectations of a millennial culture. I am the first-ever elected president of my racial extraction. I represent 95 percent of the citizens [who] look like me. I carry with me the marks of discrimination that we have been subject to. But I have become liberated. I am free, thanks to education.

I know [clearly that] I am the result of a statistical error. For the 40 percent of Latin Americans who live in poverty and the 15 percent [who] live in extreme poverty, political democracy rings an empty, hollow ring and signifies only the beginning. Poverty erodes the most intimate fibers of the human soul. Poverty is the challenge of our global role. The poor need to be liberated, and that comes with the tools to craft a better life. That's why investment in nutrition, health and education are the ladder for a better life. ... They need education as the centerpiece to exercise the freedom to choose effectively on behalf of themselves.

Here at Stanford I discovered that economics is a social science that needs to be at the service of the people, and not the other way around. People [come] first. People matter. Investment in people has high rates of return. It's the greatest investment that one can make -- high rate of return, low risk, low vulnerability we say in economics -- in the long run, nothing compares to investment in a human mind. Moreover, nobody can expropriate what you have in your head. No bandit can steal it. No government can take it away. It cannot even be destroyed by war. [A government] can come that can nationalize your gold mine, your oil, but there will be no ... government that can nationalize what you already have invested in your mind. They can come, someone who believes in the god of the absolute free market, but they will not be able to privatize what you have invested in your mind.

Yes, I became free as the result of a statistical accident. Now, as a president, I have the responsibility to turn the [exception] into the rule, [for] the right of every human being to have access to a good quality of education and health. It's a right in order to be free.

Dear graduating class, do not take what you have -- education and a good standard of living -- for granted. Look at the world out there. There are millions who cannot even dream of what you have as a matter of course. Don't take it for granted. I am here today in good part as a consequence of an extraordinary experiment in generosity on the part of American people -- Peace Corps; John Kennedy. In 1963, President Kennedy challenged the youth of his day to look beyond the frontiers of the United States and spread the conviction that education and dedication can empower even the poor. Two wonderful Peace Corps volunteers, Joel and Nancy Meister, as I have said before, helped me. But, in 1970, the Peace Corps was thrown out of Peru. Now, as a president and [with] a sense of gratitude, I have decided to invite back the Peace Corps to Peru. I have received young men and women who are now working in Peru as members of the Peace Corps. I have met with them twice already. We had lunch. And I see in their eyes the dreams.

I invite you today, you people, young men and women who are not contaminated, you that have the capacity to dream, don't let anyone wake you up! The world needs people who have the capacity to dream with their eyes open. Don't let anyone, don't let Wall Street, wake you up! I know that those young men and women who are serving as Peace Corps volunteers, when they return to the United States, they will be, for sure, very different U.S. citizens. In this globalized age, we need human beings of all nations to look [into] each other's eyes -- [and] not just to do business with each other over the Internet or to learn what happens in the world from this new CNN culture. The strength of a globalized world lies in direct human contact, a mutual knowledge and a mutual respect for our cultural diversities.

Great universities such as Stanford have always understood this and it is a message that we need to propagate now more than ever. As the world shrinks, thanks to [the] Internet and market forces, this interaction needs to be more human.

Don't only stay behind a computer to get in touch with other people in the world. Travel around, touch their hands, look [into] their eyes -- we will understand each other better. The war against poverty must be seen as a worldwide partnership, just like [the] war against terror. It will take [the] pressure and effort of developed countries as much as developing nations. The wealthy countries [must] help sustain our democracies. We, in turn, must develop democratic societies that unleash the potentials of [their] members. I am the president of Peru, but at the end of the day, don't tell anyone, I am still a rebellious Peruvian Indian fighting for [the] cause of the poor. The war against poverty needs to be won. Otherwise, the beautiful vision of a world populated by truly free human beings will continue to be no more than just a dream. Many Stanford graduates are [at] work in this effort, each in [his or her] own way. I look forward to having those of you graduating today joining us in this enterprise. Together, we can do it.

My friends, I invite you today to join this collective effort of fighting poverty. Join me in the effort to liberate the women and men who are sentenced to live below the poverty line. Let's give them the right to be free. Let's provide them the opportunity to come to Stanford, maybe to graduate as you are doing today. Let's give the poor the opportunity to be free, to choose, to have [an] education, and maybe in a few years, Mr. President, you will have the courage to invite another president [who] has emerged from poverty.

Thank you very much.


SLIDESHOW: Commencement 2003

Peruvian leader implores graduates to help fight world poverty

Graduates engage in traditional 'wacky walk'