Protesters greet Colombian Ambassador Barco P’10

As a band of Brown students picketed outside the Salomon Center last night, Colombian ambassador to the United States Carolina Barco Isakson P’10 spoke about U.S.-Colombian relations and answered students’ frank questions about her country’s cocaine production, paramilitary violence and the controversial free trade agreement being discussed by Colombia and the United States.

Barco urged the audience to look past Colombia’s problems and focus on the country as one of “creative, compassionate people.”

“Many Americans have seen Colombia from one prism, and especially your generation,” she said. She described how Colombia was once known for coffee, then for marijuana in the 1960’s, and now for cocaine.

“And yes, we’ll talk about human rights and we’ll talk about democracy and what it means,” she said, addressing the protesters as they filed into the back rows of the audience.

Barco discussed Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid plan to alleviate Colombia’s drug trade, and attempts by President Alvaro Uribe’s government to reduce cocaine production through eradication of coca crops, military force and reduced jail sentences for paramilitary leaders who turn themselves in.

She pointed to graphs showing decreases in the size of paramilitary forces (which she also referred to as “self-defense groups”), homicides, kidnappings and poverty. She said 60 paramilitary leaders and 60,000 soldiers have surrendered to serve jail time, and 10,000 guerrilla fighters have become reintegrated into society. In fact, she said, the Colombian Congress now contains former members of M-19, a Colombian guerrilla group.

Over 650 drug traffickers have been extradited to the United States, according to Barco. Describing the cocaine market as consumer-driven, she stressed the need to reduce American and European consumption of the drug.

After her speech, Barco fielded questions for an hour, including some about the paramilitary chainsaw massacre of civilians, the destruction of famers’ crops due to fumigation and Uribe’s alleged connection to the drug lord Pablo Escobar.

“You’re asking me all the questions I have to answer, but in months, not all in the same half an hour,” Barco said, smiling.

Protest organizer Jake Hess GS asked Barco why peace activists are repeatedly killed by so-called “self-defense” organizations. Hess and other demonstrators were protesting human rights violations perpetrated by Uribe’s government.

In an interview with The Herald, Hess said the United States’ uncritical support for Uribe’s administration, despite flagrant human rights violations, reflects unease over the recent leftward shift of Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

He cited Human Rights Watch’s characterization of paramilitary groups as an extension of the government’s armed forces.

According to Human Rights Watch, 14 congressmen from Uribe’s administration are under arrest for ties to drug-trafficking paramilitary organizations, and more – 30 in total, according to Barco – are currently under investigation.

Yet Barco said the perception of Colombia as politically corrupt is misguided. The current administration, she said, is weeding out criminal politicians who were in office long before Uribe was elected, and that he is working to make politics “clean and transparent.”

Still, Yesenia Barragan ’08, another protest organizer, said “the distinction between government officials, paramilitaries … and guerrillas is very blurred.”

“The group of students (protesting) is highlighting the really quite baffling labor rights violations of the Colombian government,” Barragan said. An American citizen of Columbian and Ecuadorian descent, Barragan said the situation in Colombia hits home given her family connections to the country and broader region. Her aunt is a South American trade union activist and her distant relative was murdered while working as a journalist.

The protesters set up roughly 40 wooden crosses on the Main Green with the names of murdered Colombian unionists. Almost two in every three labor unionists murdered worldwide are from Colombia, according to the U.S. Labor Education Americas Project. Colombia also has one of the highest rate of internally displaced persons in the world, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Barco’s visit was organized by Brown’s Center for Latin American Studies. At 7:30 p.m. today at the Watson Institute, a forum entitled “Colombia: Human Rights and Free Trade” will explore the Colombian free trade agreement.