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Ex-Colombian President Uribe Draws More Fire at Georgetown

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As former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez concluded his first-semester teaching assignment at Georgetown University on Thursday, the controversy surrounding his faculty appointment remained close to the surface, with students and professors continuing to rail against his human rights record as president and his hiring at the Jesuit school. Thursday night, students held a farewell "vigil" outside of the university's Walsh Building to mark Uribe's last lecture on campus this term, the latest in a series of protests.

The tension has occasionally spilled over into Uribe's classes. In September, a protester (who was not a Georgetown student) was arrested during a question-and-answer session after a lecture. The man left his seat and began yelling at Uribe -- who served as Colombia's president from 2002 to 2010 -- condemning his record on human rights. Another protester shouted out during the arrest before leaving the auditorium.

As Georgetown's Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership, Uribe teaches in the School of Foreign Service.

According to his critics, Uribe oversaw a period of massive human rights violations in Colombia, the most serious of which allegedly include assassinations of labor leaders by the Colombian Army and the killing of civilians by paramilitary groups. Both the Colombian Army and paramilitary forces continue to be implicated in scandals known as "false positives," in which soldiers have killed large groups of civilians and reported the body counts as guerrilla casualties.

Walker Grooms, a Georgetown graduate student, attended one of Uribe's lectures last week and addressed the "false positive" concerns head-on, asking the former president how he reconciled his goal of "democratic security" for Colombia -- which has been torn since the 1960s by an armed conflict among right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas, and government forces -- with estimates that the Colombian Army committed up to 3,000 civilian murders during his eight-year tenure.

According to Grooms, Uribe pointed out that he has fired many of the generals implicated in the "false positive" incidents. The former president also disputed the death toll estimate. "He said, 'Well, the number is wrong. The 3,000 number is inaccurate,' " Grooms said. "He couldn't give me a real number."

"He was extremely evasive in answering questions," Grooms added. "He's good at his talking points, and he knows how to stay with them, despite what you might ask him. But he dodged a lot, and he lied."

Carol Lancaster, the dean of the School of Foreign Service, declined to comment for this story. In a university statement announcing Uribe's hiring, Lancaster said, "President Uribe will bring a truly unique perspective to discussions of global affairs at Georgetown. We are thrilled that he has identified Georgetown as a place where he will share his knowledge and interface with Washington, and I know that our students at the School of Foreign Service will benefit greatly from his presence."

In September, Marc Chernick and Joanne Rappaport, Georgetown's two Colombianist scholars, wrote a letter to John J. DeGioia, the university president, urging him to fire Uribe. "Alvaro Uribe should be given every opportunity to vigorously defend himself in the appropriate national and international tribunals," the letter stated, referring to several legal charges pending against the former president and his aides, which include allegations that his administration orchestrated illegal wiretapping in Columbia and used illegal surveillance on human rights leaders in Spain. "However, Georgetown should not assist him by providing him with the cloak of its legitimacy through a faculty appointment."

In an interview with Politics Daily, Rappaport explained that her experience working with indigenous groups in Columbia has given her a searing perspective on the atrocities of the Colombian paramilitary and right-wing forces. She recalled a visit to the home of a community leader in Cumbal, a town near the Ecuador border, who told her how he was abducted on a bus traveling back to the small community.

"He wasn't sure who the attackers were," she said. "He thought maybe they were paramilitary. They planted guerrilla literature on him and accused him of being a guerrilla and tortured him for two days. The men who were taken off the bus with him were cut into pieces before his eyes."

Uribe's ties to Colombian groups that have committed massive human rights violations, Rappaport argued, make him unfit to serve on the Georgetown faculty. She also expressed concern for the safety of researchers from Georgetown who study in the South American nation, who could potentially become targets of guerrilla groups by virtue of Uribe's association with the university.

"I'm not saying that we can't find statesmen of varying political views who couldn't make a contribution," Rappaport said. "I think we could. I just don't think Uribe does, and I'm concerned about the fact that this was done behind the back of the faculty."

Some students at Georgetown, however, have expressed surprise over the uproar. "I was definitely shocked by the level of vitriol directed at him," said Andrea Michelsen, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Colombia. Although Michelsen acknowledged that Uribe's government had been marred by some corruption, she felt nonetheless that he benefited Colombia as president, especially through his efforts to promote security and combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the left-wing guerrilla group also known as the FARC.

"When I was a kid," Michelsen said, "we used to go to Columbia every summer. And then, starting in 1996, we stopped going. My dad absolutely, flat-out refused to go back. But after Uribe was elected, he said we could go back. We started to see concrete changes."

Indeed, Uribe enjoyed widespread popularity throughout his tenure, and he left office with an approval rating of 75 percent. During his presidency, Colombia's poverty rate dropped from 54 percent to 46 percent. In addition to improving the economy, Uribe is credited by supporters with reducing crime. According to Colombia's Ministry of Defense, murders dropped by 45 percent from 2002-2009, and kidnappings decreased by 90 percent.
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David Mitchell

Ubibe left office with a 75% approval rating from the Colomiban people? That says it all. He saved Colombia pure and simple, and left behind a realtively stable, free-market democracy that sits in sharp contrast with the Georgetown protestors' favorite South American nation, Venezuela. How do you think the "protestors" would react if Hugo would be invited to speak? They'd be wetting themselves with excitement. Face it, Uribe was one of the best leaders in the 20th century's history of Latin America and he should be welcome here.

PS - Tell the Democrats in the Senate to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement already. Even Obama is pushing it as good for both nations. Does Big Labor set our international trade policy, too?

January 11 2011 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mark

"A protestor who was not a student".......says it all

November 13 2010 at 7:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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