Robert Gelbard, former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, has always wanted to come to Cornell.
“There were two different times I almost came to Cornell. The first time was as an undergrad, but so many of my friends were going to Cornell, so I decided to go to Colby instead,” he said.
The second time was for graduate studies of the language Quechua, but as before, he decided to try something else and joined the Foreign Service instead. Gelbard finally got his chance to come to Cornell last evening when he spoke to approximately 150 people in Bache Auditorium in Malott Hall on the topic of “Trends in Latin America in Democracy and Foreign Policy.”
Gelbard has spent most of his career working in Latin American countries, from his days in the Peace Corps in Bolivia to his work as deputy assistant secretary of state to South America. On top of directly consulting elite members of foreign government, he was the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia during the late 1990s, when Timor split from Indonesia to become its own country. He was also instrumental in planning a military intervention in Haiti.
Gelbard began the talk by touching on the problem that Americans do not pay any attention to Latin America. Despite the negative reputation that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has in the U.S., Gelbard acknowledged he has done at least one good thing for the region.
“He has done a magnificent job in the past years of drawing attention to Latin America. People only pay attention to Latin America in a time of crisis,” he said.
In light of leftist governments like Venezuela’s, Gelbard cautioned audience members to take media reports with a grain of salt.
“I read in the news that there is a trend toward the left, and the question is, is that really happening? My answer is, ‘No, not really.’ The trend to the left should not be something the press is exaggerating,” Gelbard said.
However, Gelbard challenged the audience members to try to find more than three countries in Latin America that have a long history of democracy. He then explained the reasons for the lack of democracy in this region, beginning with the trend of Latin Americans mistrusting essential parts of democracy such as the judicial system and political parties. He also spoke about the dangerously prevalent trend of rallying around one strong leader in Latin America, and the problematic mindset that elections are the only basis for democracy.
“The democracies are fragile and underdeveloped, and elections are an insufficient means of establishing democracy. What’s more important is the nature of the country’s democratic establishments,” Gelbard said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Gelbard came to Cornell as part of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) Colloquium Series. CIPA is a two-year program in graduate professional studies, and the Colloquium is a 14-week series that includes international, national, and local speakers, who speak on topics ranging from fair tax systems to the role of public service in the 21st century.
The 150 graduate students of the CIPA program are required to attend each lecture of the series, and the intent of the series is to bridge the diverse areas of study available to the graduate students in the different tracks of policy and development.
“The goal of the series is to provide a common forum for students to discuss cutting edge policy issues with practitioners and scholars,” said Thomas O’Toole, organizer of the series and assistant director for professional development of the CIPA program.
Besides receiving all-expenses paid trips to Ithaca for several days, speakers are drawn to the forums because they have the opportunity to guide future activists in the fields of policy and development.
“A lot of them do it as a public service to give back to the field,” O’Toole said.
The people they are giving back to are the diverse group of students who were in attendance yesterday. Joe Oppong grad, who is studying developmental agriculture in rural areas, likes that these speakers bring up relevant public issues within the fields of policy and development.
“We have our core courses but the program is very diverse,” Oppong said. “Some of the topics brought up in these discussions are new and very interesting.”
Also in attendance yesterday evening was Alene Gelbard PhD., Robert Gelbard’s wife, who works to improve conditions for women around the world.
“Right now I am working with companies, NGO’s, and government agencies to improve women’s health in developing countries,” Alene said.
Over lunch yesterday, Alene and women in the CIPA program discussed the challenges and successes in addressing women’s issues and the need to integrate all the fields of study in the program in order to form a consistent goal and plan for the promotion of women’s interests.