UCSC alumna Julia Sweig speaks for a crowd of community members on foreign policy between Latin America and the United States. Since graduating from Porter in 1986, Sweig has become a distinguished scholar and worked at the Council on Foreign Relations. Photo by Prescott Watson.

Julia Sweig was all smiles when Provost Helen Shapiro handed her a Colleges Nine and Ten mug at the end of her speech on Latin America and foreign policy. Sweig, a Porter graduate of 1986, visited campus to address students after having been honored as a UC Santa Cruz Distinguished Alumni of 2011.

After graduating as a Latin American studies student before the major was even in place at UCSC, Sweig became a senior fellow and task force director for the Council on Foreign Relations. She took time off from her post at the major Washington think-tank to share her expertise with the crowd of Latin American and Latino studies (LALS) and politics majors and faculty members crowded into the Namaste Lounge.

While she currently works at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sweig said she found “a different sort of activism” during her time at UCSC.

“When I was a student at UCSC, my focus was on using my scholarship to pursue policy-related activism,” Sweig said to the assembled crowd.

Sweig went on to crunch decades of Latin American history and U.S. foreign policy into her 45-minute speech and ensuing Q&A session.

“This was a period in history when Henry Kissinger said defying the American order was done at Latin America’s peril,” Sweig said, recounting the turbulent period in Latin American history that was the 1980s, characterized as it was by hyperinflation and military dictatorships.

Sweig interrupted her speech on occasion to offer brief personal stories. For example, when in Cuba in the mid-’80s, Sweig shared a hotel with revolutionaries.

“There was a lot of rum flowing. That was Havana in 1984,” said Sweig, to the amusement of those assembled.

On a more solemn note, Sweig described how her involvement with the Council on Foreign Relations helped change the language of U.S. foreign policy.

“Even as recently as 2004, a group of ‘elites,’ using that word to describe their obvious [Latin American] counterparts, was like shining a light on the elephant in the room,” Sweig said, describing how American politicians shied away from using the term to describe Latin American high-powered military and political personnel. “Now in today’s dialogues, we see that word all the time, and I know where they got it from.”

Sweig also spoke of the necessity to recognize the greater prominence of Latin American states in today’s world.

“The greater voice that Latin Americans have now would have been unrecognizable to my professors,” Sweig said. “The fundamental agenda for Latin Americans now is social inclusion. There’s still massive inequality, but there’s more democratic access as well.”

Sweig also took time to answer students’ questions, which ranged from queries on future U.S. foreign policy to how Brazil was going to handle hosting both the Olympics and the World Cup. After firing off answers on how the United States tended to “use Latin America as a proving ground for counterinsurgency tactics,” and that “the ball hasn’t rolled very far forward” with regard to U.S. attitudes towards Cuba, Sweig casually mentioned that she’d be taking her family to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.