Virgilio Barco speaks at Commencement
(The following is a transcript of the speech by Colombian President Virgilio M. Barco '43 to the graduates and guests at Commencement on Monday, June 4, as recorded by the MIT News Office.)
President Gray, Members of the Board, Distinguished Guests, Class of 1990:
In a few short days, each of you will be entering a new stage in life, new careers, new opportunities, new challenges. In a few short months, I will be leaving the office of President of Colombia. I have been on a long and fascinating journey since that day in 1943 when, like all of you today, I received my degree from MIT.
I remember that day well. So many things raced through my mind. So much was happening in the world. So much was happening so fast. Social, political and economic orders were turned upside down by events around the world. Overnight, it seemed, borders were changing in Europe. No one was sure what tomorrow would bring.
All of this must sound strangely familiar to each of you with the rapid rate of change in Europe and around the world. All of it may be a bit overwhelming as well. I can understand the feeling. In my senior year, in my room at the Graduate House, I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed myself for what the future might bring.
Little did I know that a few years later, I would be deeply involved in politics, elected to the House of Representatives, only to have Congress shut down as violence against my party broke out. A year later, I returned to Boston with my new wife to obtain a graduate degree at MIT. Soon after, my first child, Carolina, was born here at Massachusetts General Hospital, at the same time my friend and young professor Paul Samuelson and his wife had triplets.
I knew I had to return to Colombia at a time of crisis, but little did I know what extraordinary events would shape my life in public service. I have learned that our lives and careers are shaped by outside forces, often beyond our control. Throughout our lives, we are faced with important choices. In the end, I realized how important it is to establish a set of values and beliefs to guide these choices.
I also realized that a strong foundation in the humanities, economics and technology was the key, for it is through these basic disciplines that we manage change. They are truly at the core of social progress. Now these enormously powerful tools of change rest in your hands and the fate of future generations depends on your ability to put to good use all that you have learned. Your families, your professors and I are all confident that each of you can meet the challenge.
This pace of change, and the rigors of academic life have at times, I'm sure, left you gasping for breath, wondering if the whirl of learning around you will ever slow down.
Today, you can stop and take a breath. Look back on the years you have spent at MIT; look beyond the long hours and hard work. What you have achieved today is a true compliment to all of you, and you should stop and savor the moment. Commit to memory the time you have spent here and what you have done. In the future you will look back on these years as a time of great excitement, of great challenges and of great ideas. It was a time when many of life's mundane details could be set aside so you could focus on ideas, on learning, on experiencing the thrill of academic life. You will look back at these years as a time when life was lived to its fullest, when bonds of friendship were built, bonds that will last your entire lives. Never forget what you have learned here; it will serve you well for years to come. Indeed, it has served me very well.
In many ways, this is also a proud day in my life. Today, I also find myself poised on the edge of a new time in my life. This speech to the class of 1990 at my alma mater will be one of the last major speeches of my presidency. Soon I will depart elected office and seek new challenges in my life. Some have asked how I managed the job of president at such difficult times. I tell them that it is nothing compared to taking the oral PhD examinations at MIT.
In many ways, my situation is much like yours: Together we enter a new time in our lives, a time with new opportunities and new responsibilities. We must enter this new time bravely, holding dearly to the values that we have been taught to cherish at home, at school and here at MIT.
No doubt, all of you expect me to talk about an issue that has stirred the hearts and minds and emotions of millions around the world. It is an issue I have come to represent, one which has even led to some controversy on this campus. I am sure you expected me to use this time with you to discuss the scourge of illegal narcotics.
But that is not what I have come here to speak about today. I hope my views on this issue are well known by now. Every day, you read about our struggle against narco-terrorism and drug trafficking in Colombia. This struggle will continue when I leave office, for good men and women everywhere will not tolerate the misery and violence bred by those who push and those who consume illegal drugs.
No, today I want to explore with you a wider vision and the events that will shape a new global order in the 21st century. For of all days, a day which has such personal importance to me and to each of you, this is a day to look forward, not to look back.
Like most of you here, in Colombia we watched on television the wall come down in Berlin with rapt attention. From "People Power" in the Philippines to Vaclav Havel's "Velvet Revolution" to the "NO" vote in Chile, democracy is on the rise around the globe as totalitarian governments are tossed off by people restless to experience a world of freedom. For all those devoted to the cause of freedom, we share in their celebration of democracy.
Democracy is not a distant notion at all in Colombia. Indeed, our position in Latin America is somewhat unique. Our constitution is nearly as old as yours, and our democratic institutions have long been a model for our neighbors. This is the true significance of our current struggle, for the greatest threat to our democracy is narco-terrorism and the insatiable worldwide demand for drugs which fuels it. In the past, we usually saw extremist ideologies as the most serious threat to democracy, but now drugs and organized crime are even more dangerous, not only to our democracy, but to yours as well.
This is an auspicious moment to reflect on our changing world and a new global order. Look at what has happened since I graduated from MIT. In 1943, a terrible war was raging in Europe and in Asia, taking lives and devastating the countryside at every turn. No one can ever forget the tragedy of this war: the 45 million killed, the Nazi death camps, the destruction of towns, cities, of lives and hopes of generations to come, the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Seven years later, when I returned to MIT for postgraduate studies, Europe was still rebuilding the ravages of this war and the Cold War appeared to be a reality that would never leave. Soviets and Americans stood poised, ready to strike each other at a moment's notice, threatening the existence of the human race.
Around the world, democracy was in retreat and totalitarian regimes flourished on nearly every continent. The result of totalitarian regimes in Latin America was the same as everywhere: the crushing of the will of the people, the violation of fundamental human rights, the demise of democracy.
During this cold war, the developed world chose to look the other way as millions in Latin America suffered under oppression. US foreign policy remained fixated on East-West competition. A North-South view rarely came into focus.
And yet, in the last decade, democratic change has swept our continent. Ten years ago most countries of Latin America suffered under the weight of dictatorships. Just look at the change. Peru returned to democracy in 1980, Bolivia in 1982, Argentina in 1983, Brazil in 1985, Chile, Nicaragua and Panama in the last year alone. Almost a whole continent has moved from military rule to legitimately elected leaders. Still, as evidence of North American's bias to the cold war ideology, this dramatic change so close to your borders receives relatively little attention.
Now it is time to open our eyes to a new world. After years of superpower conflict, each one vying for gains in the high-stakes game for global military advantage, we are now able to see beyond the East-West confrontation. Today's global order no longer rests on the foundation of security concerns; military might is no longer what determines a country's place in the international system.
We are now able to look beyond the myopia of the Cold War, beyond our previously clouded horizon, to where a new world is waiting. A world where economic growth and technological innovation will be of critical importance, not sheer military strength. A world where entrepreneurs and innovators will lead the way, not the generals of yesterday.
Witness Japan -- a country that spends little on its military but that has suddenly leaped to the front ranks of world powers. It is a country that gives more economic aid to the Third World than any other nation, including the historically generous United States. The small military establishment of Japan presents no serious threat to the vast armies of the US or Soviet Union, but through its economic might it wields true global influence today. Which country, I ask, do others most want to emulate today -- Japan, or the Soviet Union?
The economic growth throughout Asia and in Europe has been extraordinary. Now we must work to expand the economic success of these dynamic regions to other areas. This is particularly true for the fragile new democracies of the world. For these countries to solidify their political gains, they will need economic success. From Poland, to Argentina, to the Philippines, newly free people expect economic growth and improved living standards and, in order to maintain stability, those expectations must be met.
It is your responsibility, and those in other wealthy countries, to ensure the fostering of global economic growth. In this way you can help these fledgling democracies as they struggle to spread their wings. This is especially true in Latin America, a region which historically has received far too little attention. The best way to foster North-South cooperation will not be through military means, but rather by guaranteeing access of Latin America's democracies to economic prosperity and change.
Just as history will recall the 1980s as an era when democratic forces swept the globe, it will also be remembered as a decade of resurgence in free market economics. This is a revolution of enormous significance, a recognition of our global economy and a confirmation that open economies with access to markets can lead to social progress. It seems that the long-running match between Karl Marx and Adam Smith is finally coming to an end.
I applaud this development, but at the risk of sounding passe, let me issue a warning. In our rush to embrace free market forces, let us not lose sight of the fundamental role of government, as it embodies the free and collective will of its people. There is a role for both market forces and the state in solving social problems. Free market policies should not be used as an excuse for the lack of political will, whether it is assuring justice and fighting drug trafficking or providing basic education and health care. Free market economics is not a magic wand which somehow will relieve us of the obligation to care for our fellow human beings.
Nowhere is the role of the state as clear as with another global issue which has been pushed aside for too long: the preservation of our environment. This is a struggle that must be one of our highest priorities in the decade of the 90s. I firmly believe that the industrialized countries have an ecological debt to humanity. In less than two centuries, industrial development not only has destroyed most of the native forests of Europe and North America, but also has brought pollution, acid rain and destruction to the ozone layer. This is an ecological debt to future generations who will have to live with the consequences of the thoughtless ways in which the developed countries have achieved their standards of living.
The burden of sustaining a viable planetary environment now rests clearly on the shoulders of the Third World, for we are the last frontier of unspoiled lands. The
only way our countries can meet this challenge is by defeating rural poverty and economic stagnation. The best way for the United States and other industrialized countries to pay their ecological debt to humanity is to be partners in this cause.
My administration has already set aside more than 40 million acres of rain forest as Indian reserves in the Amazon region, an area larger than the six New England states together. Let us pledge to seek sane development policies which recognize the value of our most precious resources. Let
us pledge to retire this debt now for future generations.
You are indeed as fortunate, as I was, to be embarking on new careers during a watershed period. The record of human history is marked by these moments of fundamental change. You now inherit a new global order with new challenges and extraordinary opportunities.
As you watched the joy of your young German colleagues dancing in the streets, or the sorrow on the faces of those brave young students of Tiananmen Square, or the courage of young Colombian soldiers fighting for democracy against narco-terrorism, it may have been difficult for you here on this beautiful campus in Boston to truly appreciate such democratic fervor. Here in America, where so much is so often taken for granted, the struggle for democracy may indeed seem distant.
However, you are all now graduates of one of the world's most prestigious academic institutions. That honor brings with it a special responsibility. The new democracies around the world are fragile and need your help to survive. As you look to your future I ask one thing: Do not let today's flowering democracies wither on the vine. Extend your arms to those who have for too long lived in oppression, in fear and in poverty. Like all newborns, these infant democracies around the world may at times falter and stumble, hesitantly trying their first steps. Yet, they must prevail. This is our first duty. All of us, especially you here in the United States, now have an opportunity to build in peace what is often unavailable by force. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that this opportunity does not pass us by.
You have been well trained. I have no doubt that you have the intellectual power to face any challenge. I harbor the hope that you will also have the heart to meet these challenges with fairness and compassion. I know you will, for this, after all, is our shared heritage.
And you, my friends, are now the guardians of our shared vision.