FIU’s founders chartered the institution with an international mandate in mind. Such was the international-mindedness that Secretary General of the United Nations U Thant was the keynote speaker at FIU’s groundbreaking in 1971. While he understood the potential for our “international” university, I am sure that he could barely envision how the international would play itself out in the years that would follow.
So let me share with you two moments that speak to our university’s international aspirations—one from dozens of years ago and another from dozens of hours ago.
One of the earliest visits of a senior diplomat to FIU occurred in the spring of 1979. This diplomat, a hard-hitting lady from Mississippi, was President Carter’s most senior officer in charge of human rights and humanitarian affairs—Patricia Derian. As the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Ms. Derian unapologetically sent strong messages about the importance of human rights to countries throughout the hemisphere, including dictator Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua and the military regime then governing Argentina.
From the Miami Herald, May 1979
In fact, during her visit, I personally witnessed an incredibly efficacious act of U.S. foreign policy right at FIU that made me proud to be an American and that would have made U Thant happy. There we were in what was then known as UH 150 (now Graham Center 150)—then and now the vintage 1970s brutalist concrete tiered assembly space for our Student Government Association. The hall was filled with our students, and faculty and a mix of long-time community activists and refugees/exiles who were recent arrivals from Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Uruguay and Argentina all hopeful for an early return to their respective homelands.
These were challenging times in the Americas. Violent change was afoot. Rebellion and revolution were in the air. Following a brief presentation on human rights in the Americas by the secretary, a former civil rights activist, a soft-spoken woman in the back row humbly implored the diplomat to “help us.” She explained that a family member had disappeared in Argentina. There was no word from the military-led government related to the loved one’s whereabouts. Secretary Derian shot out from around the podium, looked at the lady and said in a reassuring and comforting voice, “Wait right here until I am finished, then I want to get the identification number of your family member so I can pursue this personally with the generals in Argentina.”
I was gratified that one of our senior diplomats took such a personal interest in the woman’s family member. You see, Ms. Derian already knew what many of us then suspected. Thousands of souls had already disappeared as a result of Argentina’s “dirty war,” most never to be seen again. Derian understood that there was no time to waste in the face of the murderous regime in power.
(It is ironic that yesterday the Miami Herald announced that a former Argentine officer charged in 16 murders in his country 50 years ago was arrested in Miami and will likely be extradited back to his country to face charges.)
So early on in our institution’s evolution, we had begun to fulfill our mandate to inform citizens and offer them a platform—what former FIU President Gregory Wolfe called “high neutral ground”—to discuss and address the challenges of the time in our hemisphere.
Fast forward four decades. Just this past Monday, U Thant’s aspirations for our FIU were alive and well in an innovative out-of-the box gathering that he never would have imagined when he was here at the groundbreaking.
This time, in the form of a global initiative, senior officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) announced a new program to address the challenges presented by Venezuela’s sharp turn to dictatorship and civil violence. The BetterTogether, JuntosEsMejor, Challenge will crowdsource, fund and scale innovative solutions to support Venezuelans and host communities affected by a military-led regime that has obliterated democracy in that country and, like decades earlier in Argentina, persecuted thousands.
The result? Nearly 5 million citizens have left Venezuela in what amounts to the hemisphere’s largest-ever regional migration. Just this out-migration and displacement will have significant consequences for regional affairs and foreign and domestic policies of countries throughout the region for decades to come, including the United States. But when accompanied by a complete collapse of the Venezuelan economy and civil society, it amounts to a regional catastrophe that demands creative and ingenious new responses.
Irene Arias Hofman, CEO of IDB Lab, says that she hopes the entire FIU student body gets involved in the challenge.
This initiative that was announced at FIU has a twist which speaks to U Thant’s aspirations and our promise as an “international” university. Both senior representatives from the two sponsoring agencies are graduates of academic units in FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs! In fact, these alumni were present at Monday’s event. John Barsa ’91 is assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the USAID and Eliot Pedrosa ’95 is the U.S. executive director of the IDB. According to Alexis Bonnell, USAID chief innovation officer, they chose FIU, in part, because our FIU is situated “in the heart of the Venezuelan community.”
Eliot Pedrosa ’95 (left) and John Barsa ’91
The initiative itself is intended to empower displaced Venezuelans who want to develop solutions to help their country. It is intended to connect Venezuelans, host communities and the world’s “collective genius” to promote relationships and collaboration in the cause of improving conditions in the country and in other countries hosting Venezuelans in exile. Specifically, BetterTogether will provide grants, loans or equity investments. Successful applicants will gain access to networks and be eligible for technical assistance to improve their business, product or service. To apply or learn more, visit www.JuntosEsMejorVE.org.
Alexis Bonnell explains why FIU was chosen to host the announcement of the BetterTogether Challenge.
Why FIU? Aside from the direct connect with program leaders, nearly 200,000 Venezuelans are living in South Florida, many in neighboring Doral. FIU itself is home to approximately 2,000 students who were born in Venezuela and thousands more of Venezuelan descent. The university frequently hosts major events related to the country’s return to democracy. President Trump himself visited FIU on February 18, 2019, to speak directly to the crisis in the country. And just last month, President Duque of Colombia visited FIU and spent considerable time outlining Colombia’s support for exiles from Venezuela.
President Trump at FIU in January 2019 speaking on Venezuela
Since we pride ourselves in the quality of our education in and out of the classroom, we understand that real-world opportunities to rub shoulders with world leaders, to engage in problem-solving to help the needy and to engage this world are not just academic exercises. Real people. Real problems. Real world. That is what we offer our students and other open-minded individuals who get the reality for us that our geography is our destiny!
In the Panther spirit,