In 2004 Gerardo Cajamarca Alarcón, a union activist finally fled Colombia after paramilitary forces killed four of his friends and threatened to kill him. He believed his life was in imminent danger, and he had good reason. Colombia has been named “the murder capital of the world for trade unionists”; over the past few years, out of every ten trade unionists killed in the world, seven have been from Colombia.
Cajamarca fled a land ruled by Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, who has been accused of supporting the paramilitary forces responsible for a number of the union deaths. On November 3, Cajamarca stood in front of a rally of students, faculty, and human rights activists who were demonstrating against Uribe’s appointment as a “Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership” at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. to share his story and demand that Uribe be prosecuted for his crimes.
“We are here in the name of our dead,” Cajamarca told the crowd. “For truth, justice, and reparations.” Holding photos of union leaders who had been assassinated, he went on to describe the cooperative links between transnational corporations and the 2002-2010 Uribe administration, and the role this cooperation played in these killings. Uribe “represents this criminal system,” he concluded.
Uribe, who has been involved in the Colombian political system since he was elected mayor of Medellín in 1982, has also been connected with the illegal surveillance of Supreme Court judges, journalists, and human rights defenders. Hollman Morris, a Colombian journalist who is now a prestigious Nieman fellow at Harvard University (although his visa was initially denied by the U.S. State Department), described his experiences being targeted by Uribe at a talk following the rally: “I understood that any journalism I were to do just got a lot more dangerous. Any curve could have an ‘accident.’” Uribe targeted the internationally renowned journalist as a “publicist for terrorism,” a public smearing technique the Colombian president used to discredit a number of journalists and human rights defenders.
On August 11, just four days after Uribe finished his term in office, Georgetown University announced that he had been selected as a Distinguished Scholar and that beginning in September he would “conduct seminars and other programmatic activities for students in the School of Foreign Service and the broader university community . . . to help foster conversations on important issues facing the international community.”
“We are looking forward to having President Uribe join our university community,” said Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia. “Having such a distinguished world leader at Georgetown will further the important work of students and faculty engaging important global issues.”
However, on September 29, students delivered an open letter to DeGioia, signed by over 150 scholars, asking Georgetown to dismiss Uribe because of his involvement in human rights violations. The letter—which was written by Colombian Jesuit Father Javier Giraldo Moreno S.J.—explained some of Uribe’s controversial history in Colombia. It cited “Uribe’s ties to paramilitary groups,” among other serious human rights violations and scandals that defined his two terms as president. Not only did Uribe “continue to sponsor those paramilitary groups,” Giraldo wrote, “but he defended them and he perfected them into a new pattern of legalized paramilitarism . . . while at the same time lying to the international community with a phony demobilization of the paramilitaries.”
Georgetown Peace Studies professor Mark Lance explained at the rally that the decision to appoint Uribe as a Distinguished Scholar was not an isolated aberration to glorify human rights violations. Rather, it is a more deeply rooted practice of the university to invite people who are perceived as powerful to train students to be the next class of elite: “They brought him here for one very simple reason,” Lance avowed. “Because he was a president. That’s all that mattered in the making of this decision. Because if you’re powerful in this sense of power, if you run national organizations, you’re welcome here. Because that fits into a conceptualization of education that’s shared by many educators, many faculty, and, I’m afraid, many students at this university.”
Former Distinguished Scholars in the Practice of Global Leadership in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown have indeed been politically powerful, including Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski, former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, and former Ambassador at Large Robert L. Gallucci. The most controversial was the appointment of a George W. Bush administration Iraq war architect Douglas Feith as a professor at the School of Foreign Service in 2006 (but not as a Distinguished Scholar), which caused similar faculty and student protests.
Following the rally, Georgetown University law students delivered Uribe a subpoena summoning him to testify in a case against Drummond Company, Inc., an Alabama-based coal company that is being tried in U.S. Federal Court on accusations of paying paramilitary forces to kill union organizers and other civilians in the regions of Colombia where they are mining. After a number of thwarted attempts, the students successfully served the subpoena as Uribe was leaving a class he was teaching.
The subpoena itself encapsulates the core reasons why so many at Georgetown are angered by Uribe’s appointment: In 2009 nearly 500 family members of Colombian civilians who the paramilitary assassinated filed the case after uncovering evidence that Drummond funded the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary forces responsible for the assassinations. The Drummond plaintiffs summoned Uribe to testify in the case on the grounds that he has “direct knowledge of several key issues in the case,” which includes both governmental collusion with the AUC and governmental protection of the Drummond mining facility. Students hope that the subpoena will further the case of the Colombian families and also support their efforts to repeal Uribe’s appointment at Georgetown.
Uribe’s deposition in the Drummond case is scheduled for November 22 in Washington, DC. Students and faculty are continuing to organize against Uribe’s status as “Distinguished Scholar” and are committed to do so until he has been discharged. “When we win this campaign and Uribe is forced to leave Georgetown,” Charity Ryerson, a Georgetown Law student and leader of the movement against Uribe’s appointment told a Georgetown University reporter “a message will be sent that our community does not condone the model of politics Uribe represents.”
As Gerardo Cajamarca Alarcón said as he closed his address to the crowd gathered, “For our dead, not one minute of silence. An entire life of fighting.”
Rachel Winch is a NACLA Research Associate