Former Colombian President speaks on campus, sparks protest

Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe spoke to a crowd overflowing from Leverone Hall on Monday for a presentation he told The Daily he thought garnered an unbalanced response.

“It went fine,” he said. “I thought there was more time spent on allegations than my accomplishments.”

Uribe came to campus on the invitation of the Latin American Business Conference. The group originally wanted to bring him as a speaker for their “Shaping the decade to come” conference in May, which according to its website aims to provide “first hand insight from the current business leaders on the issues that the region faces, as well as knowledge of the economic trends that will shape the region’s future in the coming decade,” but Uribe said he would be unable to attend.

The speech was a question-and-answer-style conversation moderated by Kellogg Prof. Harry Kraemer, who asked several questions students emailed to him in addition to his own.

Before Uribe took the stage, several students stood outside Leverone wearing red clown noses as part of a protest method that organizer Barnaby King called “clowning,” or a way to “make political statements and parody what are seen as political and social injustices.” King said he and his collaborators believe Uribe was guilty of overspending and encouraging the murder of innocent civilians in Colombia.

On a table in the lobby of the Owen L. Coon Forum, leaders of the protest laid out bags containing red noses and “false positives,” photos of Colombian civilians who King said were killed by the military during Uribe’s presidency.

King, a third-year Ph.D. student who has done research in Colombia, said he is not protesting NU in any way, only the speaker himself.

“We’re protesting the Uribe government and their presence in Colombia and the damage that that’s caused,” King said. “We’re trying to raise awareness on campus about the situation, which is not very well-known.”

On April 15, King sent a letter to University President Morton Schapiro, graduate school Dean Dwight McBride and Kellogg Dean Sally Blount to be circulated. It expressed the group’s concerns about Uribe’s visit and was signed by 10 Ph.D. students and six faculty members, King said.

David Austen-Smith, senior associate dean for faculty and research, said King has been in touch throughout the process and has been “a terrific example of how to do this in an appropriate academic way.” He said King made it clear that he was not protesting the visit itself, just the visitor, and that the protest would not be disruptive. “What he’s concerned about is the stories about Uribe’s administration and what they did. And I think those stories are exactly what we should be addressing. That’s exactly what universities are about: having difficult conversations.”

Because the protest materials were unlabeled and placed on a table for people to take on their way in, not everyone realized what they were.

“I think it’s informative,” said Roger Almendarez, a second-year Ph.D. student. “I don’t know how accurate it is, but I think it’s interesting that they have it laid out on the table and no one is stopping them.”

Carlos Martinez, a second-year Ph.D. student, said he knew about the protest beforehand and was not worried about it. Students were able to submit questions to a moderator prior to the presentation, and a few of the questions touched on the controversies surrounding Uribe’s presidency.

Questions ranged from what Uribe was most proud of in his presidency and if he had any regrets to more specific student questions about alleged wire tapping and corruption in Colombia’s Congress, which have led to current trials in the country.

When asked if he wished he’d done anything differently, Uribe said he lamented the decision to “make many people sad,” referring to an incident when Colombia reportedly dropped a bomb in the jungle of Ecuador where a FARC camp was located.

Uribe also spoke of what he believes to be his accomplishments, including reducing the amount of cocaine trafficking in the country and increasing microlending and enterprise programs for low-income youth and families.

Uribe stressed both during and after the presentation that he was not aware what questions would be asked beforehand.

Kantara Souffrant, a first-year Ph.D. student involved in the protest, said his participation was “a way of showing camaraderie in working for human rights across racial and social boundaries.”

“This a profound moment of addressing atrocities,” Souffrant said. “It’s not just about Colombia. It’s about more than this moment.”

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