Why is an international coalition of activists and business interests taking on a respected university – and one of the most powerful men in the world?
An honorable degree?
“I am concerned that George Washington University – an American icon – is sending the wrong message to Mexicans wanting to come to this country to work hard and build a life,” Jeffrey Brewer, an Occupy D.C. Protester, says to me.
“What are George Washington University’s values? Do they want to hold up exploitation as a legitimate business model?” he adds.
About 30 protesters (a mix of Occupy participants as well as members of a coalition called Two Countries, One Voice) are outside GW University posing this question to the institution on May 11th, 2012, while a handful meet with administrators inside. Their stated goal is convincing the university to cancel a decision to give an honorary degree to Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, at their May 20th commencement ceremony.
Their questions and anger are valid, considering that this esteemed institution wants to honor a tycoon accused of overcharging poor and working class Mexicans to the tune of $6 billion per year in cell and landline fees. Slim has a net worth of $69 billion dollars.
Slim has amassed this unimaginable wealth by owning 90% of Mexico’s telecommunication services and over 220 companies under the corporate behemoth Grupo Carso (basically giving Slim a 7% stake in Mexico’s GDP.)
In a country where the average citizen earns $15 per day and the per capita income is a little over $14,000 a year, one might wonder what George Washington University sees in this man to bestow an honorary degree.
The university touts Slim’s philanthropy as sufficient cause for honoring him. Problematic, however, is the fact that alleged philanthropic endeavors, such as the Fundación Carlos Slim Helú, are not required by Mexican law to publish financial information, so there is no way to confirm how much of his wealth has actually gone to improving the lives of people in Mexico. Carlos Slim has been publicly critical of charitable giving from billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
George Washington University has not responded to a request for comment.
Two Peoples United
“The first part of the plan is to force the university to sever ties with Slim,” Two Countries, One Voice organizer David Abrams tells me on the car ride over to the rally, “although I doubt they’re going to cancel his commencement invite. After that, we begin targeting American industries who maintain business relationships with him,” including calls for boycotts which he and others plan on carrying on long after the May 20th event. According to him, there may be hunger strikes involved too.
Companies in which Slim has stakes include Apple, Citigroup, and even the New York Times – which borrowed $240 million from him at a whopping 14% interest rate.
What does it take to stand up to the wealthiest man in the world? This coalition may have a fighting chance. The group is composed of a wide range of organizations, such as Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica (COFEM) and Nevada’s Latin Chamber of Commerce. It is worth noting that the Chamber’s membership has some heavy hitters on its board, and may have commercial interests in any successful outcome.
Abrams’s work on the ground has also brought members of Occupy Wall Street into the fold, he tells me. “It was a pretty easy sell,” he says of the effort. “After all, Carlos Slim IS the 1%.”
Check out Salon writer Adam Clarke Estes’ comprehensive background on Carlos Slim from March 8th, 2011.
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