- Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe has been invited to speak at a New York University event.
- Uribe has been linked to right-wing paramilitary groups and accused of inciting violence against protesters.
- “Why give this man another platform?” one student critic asked.
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In power, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe was accused of collaborating with death squads that slaughtered peasant farmers and union organizers. More recently, online, he was found to be “glorifying violence” against protesters during a week of unrest that saw more than a dozen people killed.
Now, this week, he will be sharing “his journey and insights in pursuit of citizen and environmental security” at a virtual event hosted by The John Brademas Center at New York University’s campus in Washington, DC.
It’s a curious choice, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Insider. Uribe is currently under investigation for bribing right-wing paramilitary groups to lie about one of his leftist political rivals; he was under house arrest last year. And his years as head of state, from 2002 to 2010, saw a major expansion of environmentally destructive mining operations, as well as attacks on those defending the land.
“Maybe they should have a whole series of ‘human rights violators discuss things they never really worked on,'” Isacson said.
-Geovanny Vicente-Romero (@GeovannyVicentR) April 30, 2021
NYU insists the May 5 event is not an endorsement. James Devitt, a spokesperson for the university, said in a statement to Insider that “we anticipate a robust exchange on President Uribe’s tenure and the larger issue of sustainability, both among the panelists and during our question-and-answer session.” He also said the school “expects the protests in Colombia – and the former president’s views on them – to be a topic.”
But critics say the center’s panel, with no participants from the South American nation, is ill-equipped for a nuanced, and necessarily confrontational, discussion of a Colombian president’s record in power. And many Colombians do not want a dialogue with their former head of state; they say they would prefer a criminal indictment.
In a letter to the Brademas Center, the group Madres Falsos Positivos de Colombia – mothers whose unarmed children were among the thousands killed by security forces during Uribe’s reign and falsely labeled guerilla fighters – were indignant.
“We do not understand how it is possible that academic centers of such renown have such a level of ignorance of the nefarious social, environmental, economic, cultural and political consequences left by the government of Álvaro Uribe in our country and in the region,” they wrote.
Nor is his contribution to state violence all behind him. In recent days, Colombia has been rocked by street protests over the policies of President Iván Duque Márquez, a member of the same conservative party, Democratic Center, founded by Uribe. Sparked by a proposed tax hike, the protests have morphed into a broader indictment of poverty and an inadequate social safety net.
Uribe, on social media, has inflamed the situation. “Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism,” he wrote in a post that Twitter later removed for “glorifying violence.”
Isacson said what Uribe posts online has an impact in the real world.
“Like a lot of right-wing figures around the world, he has a lot of admirers in his country’s security forces – far more than President Duque would have. So what Uribe says certainly reverberates throughout the officer corps in both the military and police,” Isacson said.
At least 18 people have been reported killed and dozens more have gone missing during the unrest, which has seen security forces repeatedly open fire on unarmed protesters, eliciting condemnations from the United Nations and US lawmakers.
Melody Feo Sverko, a graduate student at NYU from Bogotá, likens Uribe’s speaking engagement to “having Donald Trump show up to talk about how great your immigration policy is,” and treated as an elder statesman – after he incited a riot at the US Capitol. She is a part of a group of Colombians, academics, and allies who have been urging NYU to rethink the event.
A petition sent to the school, now with more than 5,500 signatures, argues against the idea that having a former president talk is part of a university’s commitment to hosting free and open dialogue, often with controversial speakers. This, signatories maintain, is not a civil debate but the use of a university forum “to echo a single perspective.”
“With concern, we note the absence of other voices,” the letter states.
Feo Sverko hopes NYU reconsiders.
“It’s tone deaf, it’s insensitive – it makes no sense,” she told Insider. “Uribe had his post taken down on Twitter for inciting violence against civilian protesters. Why give this man another platform?”
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