A colleague, friend and trusted advisor to many of us across the institute, Prof. Gabriela Dutrénit has worked with UNU-MERIT for decades, as a lecturer on our DEIP innovation workshops, and as a member of our International Advisory Board. In this brief portrait, Howard Hudson interviews Prof. Dutrénit to find out more about the woman behind the titles.
Born in 1957 in Uruguay, Gabriela has been an activist, community coordinator and human rights defender for almost half a century. A leader of school marches against poverty and political repression, she was twice jailed as a teenager before fleeing the country aged 17 – in some ways following in the footsteps of her mother, who was herself a child refugee from Poland.
Now a proud wife, mother and grandmother, Gabriela is a Bachelor’s alumna of the University of Havana, Cuba, a PhD alumna of the University of Sussex, UK, and Full Professor of Economics at the ‘Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana’ in Mexico City – where she was honoured with the Distinguished Professor Award in 2015. She is also the long-time regional coordinator of the Latin America’s Knowledge Systems, Innovation and Capacity Building Research Network (LALICS) – part of the GLOBELICS network.
I call Gabriela just after breakfast, her time, in Mexico City. Conveniently, but unfortunately for me via Zoom. Elegant but unpretentious, she sits in front of a bookcase, fan spinning overhead as the temperature hits 20 degrees. Her husband shuffles around in the background, answers a call and, on her request, comes to greet me. By all accounts, this appears to be a happy, family home.
But late last year Gabriela again felt compelled to flee her home, after a ‘visit’ from representatives of the Mexican Attorney General – a move she branded as a ‘crusade against science’. That particularly episode spurred us to hold a conference in partnership with UNESCO on the importance of academic freedom in times of disinformation. A show of principle and solidarity.
I’ve only met Gabriela a few times in person, at conferences in New York and Panama, but every time I see her – with her warm smile – it feels like meeting an old friend. A fact that says a lot about her ability to connect, organise and rally support. After the usual small talk about family and work, I dive straight into the context of the case, asking her pointedly: “Do you think we’re sliding back to the dark days of repression and totalitarianism? Is Latin America going back to the 1970s?” Gabriela pauses and pouts a moment, shakes her head, then explains.
“No, I don’t think that we are going back to the coup d’états that we had previously because the international context is different, and because civil society has moved much more in the direction of building democracies in Latin American countries. But still, we have a lot of problems, because the process of building democracy is slow. When you look at most of Europe, for instance, you’ve had hundreds of years to cement your institutions, but for us in Latin America it is simply not the same. It takes time – many decades, centuries even.
“The huge problem that we have in Latin America is that we still don’t have strong institutions. In Mexico, the government is now trying really hard to reduce inequality and poverty – and remember that about 40% of the population lives in poverty right now – but in order to do that, they are also reducing our freedoms. It’s not (yet) at the same level as Uruguay or Chile in the 1970s, but we are certainly going back in terms of building democratic institutions – and this is why the ‘31 scientists’ are having problems here in Mexico.”
On a basic level, this is understandable: shining beacons of democracy are never built in a matter of months. One need only consider recent Anglo-American experiments at ‘regime change’ to see that democracy needs a firm embedding. It needs decades of careful stewardship alongside, perhaps most crucially, local ownership. The people need to ‘own’ the process, and must be truly and clearly involved.
A similar story seems to hold for development, in terms of educating and empowering not only entire populations but even two or three generations. At this point, though, I have to admit that my knowledge of democratic institutions and development processes across Latin America is really very superficial. So I try to reframe the question: “Is the [Mexican] government taking shortcuts to development or is it even more cynical than that?” Gabriela replies magnanimously:
“No, it is not so cynical. They [the government] believe they are activists, but they need to understand that they cannot eliminate corruption and poverty in just one year. You cannot achieve goals like these in one administration period. You need a long-term strategy.
“So, yes, in a sense they are taking shortcuts because they are trying to introduce new values via decree. The strategy has a lot of populist features. But at the same time, this project is made even harder because COVID has hit the economy and government revenues, as it has done all over the world.”
I wonder how Gabriela would do things differently if she held the reins of power. I wonder about Gabriela’s commitment to community building and mobilisation at school and university, home and abroad. Work she began as a teenager, for which she lost her liberty not only once but twice, for which she fled her country of birth; work that has not only been part of her life, but in many ways the backbone of her life. I ask: “What would you do in their place? What development strategies would you insist on rolling out?”
“First and foremost, we need to build communities. Particularly at the beginning in Uruguay, I wanted to find the most effective ways to build communities in political terms, while trying to help the poor people transform the country. Later, when I decided to move into an academic career, I focused on building the community in Science, Technology and Innovation, particularly via LALICS across Latin America.
“Even now, in spite of my recent experience, I am still committed to promoting public participation. I am a member of the Mexican Academy of Science, and involved in its reward commission for theses and young researchers of social sciences. I am a member of the editorial committee of its journal of dissemination, and heavily involved with ProCienciaMX, a network that aims to promote science for development and social welfare. Ultimately, this all comes together as a way to demonstrate – and convince people – that Science Technology and Innovation can be a key ingredient of a development strategy.”
For now, says Gabriela, the process against her seems to be frozen, partly because the Mexican government is now facing bigger problems and priorities; but also partly because the networks and communities that Gabriela has dedicated her life to building have recognised her contributions, and are jointly mobilising on her behalf. She and the 30 other scientists are now being supported by the Mexican National Academies, the Human Rights Commission, the University of Uruguay, Universities of Brazil, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and the United Nations Coordinator in Latin America. All political and research communities to which Gabriela has contributed over a lifetime of leadership and dedication. She has no regrets:
“I am happy with what I have done and the life I’ve led. From the age of 15, I was only ever going to be an activist. This is part of my story, part of the story of my family. Perhaps I could have published more articles in high-impact international journals. But to build communities takes time. A lot of time. In the long term, I think this is going to be more helpful for our countries.”
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.