The news that Colombian former president Alvaro Uribe was to be appointed as a distinguished scholar at Georgetown University surprised many, especially his Colombian critics. But what is more surprising is the level of criticism among faculty members and students at the university, which has even led to protests on campus. This outcry misses the real significance that a political leader of Uribe’s standing has for their education as future leaders.
In August, soon after Uribe ended his eight years as tenant of the Nariño Palace in Bogota, Georgetown University named him “Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership” at the university’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Information about his specific role in lectures and topics to be covered have been kept under wraps. What is clear is that Uribe will only be a guest speaker, rather than a full-time lecturer.
On Wednesday September 8, the day before Uribe was to hold his first lecture, there was a widely-publicized protest on campus organized by lecturers and students under the name “Coalition Adios Uribe.” This coalition will continue protesting outside the halls where Uribe is speaking, denouncing the Colombian’s lack of moral and ethical authority to lecture on global leadership. They highlight the various negative aspects, and abuses, of Uribe’s presidency.
The most problematic aspect that all his critics in the university have agreed on is his miserable track record on human rights: illegally wiretapping judges, politicians and journalists; extrajudicial killings; widespread murders of trade unionists. Another key component triggering the ire of the coalition stems from Uribe’s alleged links to paramilitary armies that wreaked havoc in the countryside and were instrumental in his ascent to power, if judged by the more than 30% of Congress members that had links with the paramilitaries.
These protesters, however, are mistaken in believing that they will gain by preventing Uribe from delivering his lectures, or even throwing him out of Georgetown University altogether. The opposite is true. With Uribe on campus delivering lectures the students have a great opportunity to question Uribe and get the answers that the millions of Colombian affected by his policies have never been able to ask.
Georgetown University students, unlike people in Colombia, have all the guarantees that a truly democratic environment provides for voicing their questions and opinions. After all, Uribe will not be able to accuse the students of terrorism or of being the intellectual front of the FARC; he will not be able to wiretap students’ telephones; Uribe will not destroy the university’s statutes in order to re-elect himself as a guest speaker, although that does not mean that Uribe will not try to bribe his way to become a full-time lecturer.
Georgetown University’s students, therefore, ought to be grateful that they can do in a few hours what Colombians could not do in eight years: question Uribe’s less than ethical actions (to say the least) without the worry of ending up ostracized, exiled, wiretapped, or even killed.