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As an Ecuadorian state official, María Paula Romo was in charge of the police and security during the country's Oct. 2019 protests. (Photo by Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador | CC BY-SA 2.0)

A petition calling for Penn to fire a visiting scholar accused of committing human rights abuses as a high-ranking Ecuadorian state official has garnered nearly 11,000 signatures.

The petition, created on Aug. 26, calls for the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies to fire María Paula Romo, who is a visiting scholar for the fall 2021 semester. Romo “was [censured] and dismissed by the Ecuadorian Assembly as a Minister of Government accused of crimes against humanity, attempted bribery, among other charges,” according to the petition started earlier this year by Janio Alvarado.

Romo called the petition a "political attack without basis" in a statement emailed to The Daily Pennsylvanian on Nov. 30. “Neither in Ecuador nor anywhere in the world do I face a single trial for any crime," Romo wrote.

Romo served as the Minister of Government in Ecuador in 2019, during which she oversaw a government response to protests that Human Rights Watch alleged included “serious abuses.” Human Rights Watch reported that security forces killed at least four of the 11 protesters who died and used excessive force on others, including throwing tear gas canisters at people at close range and “fiercely beating and arbitrarily detaining” protesters. The attacks reportedly led to suffocation, eye damage, and other injuries to protesters.

The protests took place in response to a series of austerity measures that eliminated fuel subsidies, signed into law in October 2019, Human Rights Watch reported.

In November 2020, the Ecuadorian National Assembly voted to censure and dismiss Romo for the violent response to the 2019 protests. The specific charges included the use of expired tear gas canisters, which are more volatile and dangerous, and alleged abuses of protesters by police.

Executive Director of Marketing and Communications for the School of Arts and Sciences Loraine Terrell declined to comment.

Romo applied for the visiting scholar position in the spring of 2021, and began her term in the fall of 2021, Director of CLALS Tulia Falleti said. Falleti added that the position, which is unpaid, grants the scholars access to the University's resources to pursue independent research topics, but does not involve teaching.

Falleti said that in response to a letter that CLALS received in September calling on Penn to withdraw Romo's appointment, the program conducted an internal investigation. Falleti said Romo’s profile was removed from the CLALS webpage while the investigation took place, although her appointment as a visiting scholar was not revoked because of the strength of her research proposal on democracy in Latin America and her background in both academia and government, particularly her role as a delegate in the Ecuadorian Constitutional Convention in 2007 and 2008. Falleti added that the profile page has not been put back up because of a CLALS staffing shortage.

“All this experience is my contribution to any academic environment that honors the meaning of the University: universality, a safe space for plural thought, which does not lend itself as the setting for an episode of cancel culture and totalitarian claims such as the one that represents that petition and its promoters,” Romo wrote. 

Falleti said that the investigation that began in September did not find grounds for terminating Romo’s position.

“Whether what Romo did as Minister was right or wrong, whether it was legal or illegal, which is not something that I will determine, but that the courts will determine, regardless of that, this is happening in the context of high political polarization, in which she is seen as the enemy of a large sector of the country,” Falleti said.

Falleti also said that Romo’s censure and removal were political, not legal, processes, and that she has not been found guilty by a court. Romo was previously affiliated with Rafael Correa, who was formerly the president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, but disaffiliated from him during his term. Falleti said that in a country with high political polarization and where many Ecuadorians still support Correa, who is currently not in Ecuador because of corruption charges, Romo’s removal must be understood as a political matter.

Assistant professor of Urban Studies at Trinity College Julie Gamble was one of four professors who wrote to CLALS in September, prompting the internal investigation. In the letter, Gamble and her colleagues requested the withdrawal of the visiting scholar offer to Romo, as well as an explanation of the process by which she was selected. Gamble and assistant professor of Anthropology and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College Nicholas Limerick recently published an open letter on this matter with 54 additional signatures.

Gamble said that, regardless of the political context of Romo’s removal from office, it is indisputable that she was the Minister of Government while the 2019 human rights abuses occurred.

“It's a very well-known fact that she was removed from office,” Gamble said. “It's a very well-known fact that she was responsible for human rights abuses.”

Gamble said she hopes Penn will address both the letter and the petition, which Gamble, who is currently in Ecuador, said is widely known in the country. 

“​​The petition itself is something that's powerful and deserves a response, and I hope the University is able to respond in a way that is worthy of the 10,000 plus voices that have placed their names there,” Gamble said.