On the record with ex-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe

September 16, 2010

On Tuesday morning, Álvaro Uribe, former President of Colombia and Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership at the School of Foreign Service, sat down with the Voice’s Cole Stangler for his first interview since leaving the presidency in August.

First off, what made you choose Georgetown? Why are you at the School of Foreign Service at this point in your career?

I received a kind invitation directly from President DeGioia who I met in the past. I have the highest opinion about him. Second, Georgetown is an excellent university. Third, I have had the opportunity to meet throughout my career many people who graduated from the university. During my two terms as president, many people with whom I had the opportunity to interact and work have graduated from Georgetown. Fourth there are many Colombian students here in the University. And fifth I came to this University as a presidential candidate and as president-elect for debates and profound discussions. I recall that my Vice Minister of Justice Miguel Ceballos used to work here with Arturo Valenzuela, running the Colombia Program. Therefore, there have been many reasons for me to accept this very important invitation.

What classes are you teaching this semester?

So far, I have been invited to different classes in the fields of comparative political systems and economics. I have shared with the students my views on matters such as political and economic risks in Latin American, government systems in the region and trade trends in the Americas. For the next semester I’m preparing classes that can cover specific items, such as politics, economics, governance, international relations, and leadership.

Have you been surprised so far about your reception at the University? Did you expect this kind of controversy?

I was surprised by the weakness of the protests. In the contrary I am motivated and impressed by the great number of students that have approached me to express their support. I have confronted numerous protests against my policies during my career, but over the years I have seen a decline in their number due to my consistent devotion to work with absolute transparency and my open commitment for constructive and respectful debate. Therefore, [it] didn’t surprise [me]. What has surprised me was the kind reception by the vast majority of the students.

Agencia EFE reported that during the first lecture, you asked your students not to disclose parts of the class in a “pact of honor”. What was the idea behind that?

There was no “pact of honor”. I am accustomed to saying in private what should be said in public. Therefore I want to take advantage of this question to deliver this message to the students—in accordance with my own experience, it is very important to say in private only what you are able to say in public. This has been a rule [throughout] my political career.

Many of the protestors have cited your human rights record as an important issue. How would you defend your record against people like Mark Lance, the director of Peace Studies who said, “This is a man who shows contempt for the very idea of human rights work?” How would you respond to those who criticize your human rights record?

He is totally wrong. I have fought for my country to overcome two long centuries of violence. During two centuries of independent life, Colombia has only lived 47 years of relative peace. My generation and previous ones have not lived one single day of complete peace. My permanent fight is to provide younger and future generations the right to live in a peaceful country, in a country of prosperity, solidarity, and equal opportunities.

You can look at many facts that reflect my administration commitment towards human rights. First the decrease in homicides. Second, the decline in kidnappings. Third, the decline in massacres. Fourth, the increase in confidence. Fifth, how for the first time, the members of the radical opposition have been surrounded by effective governance and effective guarantees. Sixth, the armed forces have defended themselves against the penetration of narcotrafficking, which has been the main source of human rights violations in my country. Seventh, we have left the country with the right conditions to have an excellent performance in human rights. Eight,  all Human Rights violations  must be investigated and prosecuted in order to eliminate impunity. Ninth, yesterday, the General Assembly for Human Rights in Geneva reported very well about the improvements made by Colombia. Tenth, three months ago, the [United Nations] International Labor Organization, for the first time in many years, excluded Colombia from the list [of nations to be examined for failure to comply with U.N. workers conditions]. In the list, there are many important countries and Colombia is now out of this list because of the improvement made during the last eight years.

Therefore, as commander in chief, I always pushed the armed forces for carving out a policy with credibility. And credibility in any security policy is based on two pillars—effectiveness and transparency. As I supported the armed forces, I was also very strict to sanction any individual violation of human rights.

But it is the right moment for me to show up in defense of our armed forces. Our armed forces are very professional and totally respectful of the constitution. They are making the greatest effort in the world for the fulfillment [of] human rights. Our armed forces have been able to combat and capture terrorist and criminals while improving their human rights record.

Rather than questioning our armed forces, what the world should do is to compliment, to praise our armed forces for their efforts in the advancement in human rights. You cannot forget that the main sources of human rights violations in our country are terrorist guerillas, and paramilitaries. During my administration the guerrillas were seriously reduced and received their biggest blows in history. Regarding Paramilitary structures my government dismantled their organizations and effectively prosecuted their leaders. We also advanced a lot in fighting narcotrafficking, achieving results [that] the world has acknowledged.

Long answer, but it’s a tough question.

Speaking about the military, some of the more serious allegations during your eight-year term in office are the so-called “false positives” that occurred as part of the armed forces conflict with FARC guerillas. According to a January 2009 Human Rights Watch report, “army members apparently take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up to claim they were combatants killed in action.” Did this practice of “false positives” ever occur under your watch as President and how do you respond to those who hold you directly responsible for the practice?

We cannot speak about a conflict or civil war in Colombia. In the past we spoke about civil wars or conflicts in Latin America when we saw insurgent movements fighting dictatorships or autocratic regimes. In Colombia, we have had narco-terrorist groups trying to destroy our democracy. Therefore, this is a huge difference. Colombia is an open, pluralistic democracy with all freedoms. Nothing justifies these kinds of criminal activities against a true democratic system.

There have been cases of false positives—mainly because of the penetration of narcotrafficking in some sectors of our institutions. Those practices were fought with determination by my administration, which corrected the vast majority of these cases.

But there have been also false accusations. You find many individuals against me or my administration, and the excuse they have to strike my achievements, is not by opposing my policy, [but rather] by accusing me of human rights violations. They hide behind the curtain of human rights because they do not feel capable of fighting my policy with the sincerity of their beliefs. They need to cloud their beliefs behind human rights.

In the case of false positives, my administration made strong decisions.  We fired many, many high-ranking officials. There are more than 153 members of the armed forces who are in jail because of judiciary investigations. I can give you a list of all the decisions made by my administration or my country to advance in human rights.

In the case where the armed forces kill in combat a member of the terrorist groups, this body cannot be touched or examined by any member of the armed forces. They have to wait until a member of the Justice Administration undertakes the forensic examination. And the Justice Administration is totally independent from the armed forces and from the executive branch.

Every battalion in Colombia today has at least one high-ranking official specialized in human rights. Colombia is the country with [the] most training hours and teachers of human rights within the armed forces. We have also put forward many initiatives to strengthen and support the military and ordinary justice. Therefore, I am here and can go to any part of the world because my policies are totally defensible.

Colombia is not a paradise, but Colombia is doing better. Colombia has made a significant improvement.

Are you concerned about the high population of internally displaced people in Colombia—that number has been estimated at 4.9 million, which is second to Sudan?

That number is not accurate.

In any case, if you dispute the number that’s fine, but the number of those people—is that simply a byproduct of the ongoing civil war or is it something that can be prevented in the future?

As I said before, Colombia does not have a conflict or civil war. We have criminal attempts from terrorist groups against our democracy. Of course, we are totally aware of the internally displaced people. When my administration began the official budget to attend [to the] displaced population, [it] was around $40 million. In our last budget, we appropriated $800 million. While the number of displaced people declines year by year, the budget has increased to address their needs.

We introduced excellent laws to [respond] to the displaced population. I want to refer to one specific law enacted by my administration—one specific topic. My administration enacted a law that we called the law for Peace and Reparations. In accordance with this law, 53,000 members of terrorist groups demobilized—53,000 out of more than 60,000. And they have been treated with all generosity to reinsert to society, but for them to have the benefits of a shorter sentence, they need to confess their crimes in the name of truth.

An other important element of that law is the requirement for demobilized criminals to transfer their wealth for the government to repair the victims. For this, we call this law the Law of Justice, Peace and Reparations. In the case of atrocities, in crimes against humanity, this law, in accordance with our constitution, does not give amnesty or pardon to those involved in crimes against humanity—only, shorter sentences if they comply with all the [truth and reparation] requirements.

Another important law that my administration passed allows the Justice Administration and the judicial police to forfeit illegal wealth with speedy judicial procedures. Today my country has a sound legal framework to confiscate illegal wealth and to repair the victims.

During my administration, we spent no less than $600 million repairing victims. And that is a great achievement. We also, for the first time in 40 years, stopped narcotraffickers from buying rural property.

In my country, for the last three to four years, all the people in the regions [that I visited] told me, Mr. President, ‘Good news. Drug lords no longer buy land around here because they are afraid of our policies’. This has been a great achievement of my administration.

Colombia is not in a paradise. Maybe my administration made mistakes, but I am, I am…full of achievements to come in defense, to stand in defense of what we did in government.

Moving towards the future, there was an election this year in Colombia. Recent relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been strained, to say the least. How do you think your successor Juan Manuel Santos can help repair important diplomatic and economic ties with Venezuela?

When President Santos was Minister of Defense, he played a key role in denouncing the presence of Colombian terrorists in other countries. Therefore, I am confident that President Santos will continue fighting to eliminate the presence of Colombian terrorists in other countries.

But I left the presidency only five weeks ago. Therefore I have to be very prudent. My attitude has to be constructive regarding President Santos. The best way for being constructive is to be prudent. Therefore, I have to look with prudence [at] the steps Santos has moved on in [our] international relationships.

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You have too naif to believe these lies. This is how dictators speak


Interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that he just states there was no “pact of honor.” This is a man who does what he wants and denies it later. Check out to find out more about our new “distinguished scholar.”

Felix Hurtado

I would join in the Uribe bashing, because the guy certainly doesn’t deserve a pass, if most of the people involved in these protests weren’t quick to kiss the boots of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, to say nothing else.

As it is, I find that neither the beatification nor the demonization of any of these leaders is fair or accurate.

But apparently the left thinks everyone on their side of the political spectrum is an angel and everyone on the right is a demon, which makes me laugh and cry not just at what Uribe says but at these protests that have more emotion than intelligence and more anger than attention to detail.

Perhaps one day some of you will learn that one-sided radicalism and absolutist rhetoric is not the answer but I doubt it. Those of you who do that are not better than Uribe in this respect.


“You have too naif to believe”? Do you even speak English?

Whether people like this guy and what he’s done or not, he has had experiences worth learning from. In many ways, we often learn more from the people with whom we disagree. Free speech applies either to everyone or to no one – which means that he deserves the chance to talk at least as much as Mark Lance, who as far as I can tell does nothing but complain about anything and everything.


Felix, I am opposed to this appointment because of Uribe’s human rights record, not because of his politics. I do not “kiss the boots of Hugo Chavez,” as you say. Chavez has repressed certain unions, among others, and I am not invested in defending him for that. While Chavez is a lamb next to Uribe in terms of human rights, I would not celebrate the academic appointment of Chavez. There are other leaders who are better at both human rights and democracy that could be given this honor. But that gets to my point: of all of the models Georgetown could have chosen for its students, Uribe is very unimpressive choice. Uribe did not find innovative ways to spare civilians while defeating an internal rebellion. He did it just how all the other unsophisticated, brutal leaders did: with ruthless disregard for his own people. He went further to take advantage of the conflict for his own political ends. That’s not a model Georgetown students need to be taught.

mark lance

So I’m completely wrong that he shows contempt for human rights. Well, here’s a few direct quotes. Y’all decide for yourselves.

Human rights defenders are “rent-a-mobs at terrorism’s service who cowardly wave the human rights flag,” “human rights traffickers,” “charlatans of human rights,” “bandits’ [ie. guerrillas] colleagues,” “intellectual front of the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]” “Every time terrorists and their supporters feel they will be defeated, they resort to denouncing human rights violations.”

“Amnesty International do not condemn international humanitarian law violations by the guerrillas and they give legitimacy to terrorism […] they go around European bureaus like library rats, gossiping in low voices, undermining Colombian institutions.” “Before Vivanco, [director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco] a FARC defender [and] accomplice, came here to criticize our policy of democratic security, we were making serious efforts to put our country on its feet — I don’t have anything to learn from Mr. Vivanco when it comes to human rights” (“Defensores de derechos humanos: bajo el estigma del presidente Uribe,” Agencia de prensa (IPC), 23 October 2009).

Sound contemptuous?

Here’s what some highly respected human rights organizations say:
Human Rights First, “President Uribe and other administration officials have branded [human rights defenders] as terrorist sympathizers and have insinuated that illicit connections exist between human rights NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and illegal armed groups. Irresponsible comments by government officials in Colombia put the lives of human rights defenders at even greater risk and threaten to undermine the value and credibility of their work” (“Human Rights Defencers in Colombia”).

In September 2009 Colombia was visited by Margaret Sekaggya, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders from the UN Human Rights Commission. Sekaggya found that constant problems faced by human rights defenders in Colombia include “Stigmatization [of human rights defenders] by public officials and non-State actors; their illegal surveillance by State intelligence services; their arbitrary arrest and detention, and their judicial harassment; and raids of nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) premises and theft of information” (“Report of the Special Rapporteur …,” 4 March 2010, pp. 13-18 [PDF]).

I’ll not hold my breath for a serious response from Mr Uribe.

mark lance

How do you know that most folks in the protest believe this? Have you surveyed them, or is this just a lazy excuse to avoid what they are saying.

Eileen: I do nothing but complain about anything and everything? Really? Do you have some list of what I complain about? If you are interested, I’ll be glad to give you an account of the basis on which I choose to complain about something. And of course if you can find cases which don’t fit my principle, you can accuse me of being wrong. But without that, I think this is just a cheap way to avoid paying attention to the arguments I’m making.


“I love democracy. Transparency gets me up in the morning. Dead bodies? Mass graves? No. Those were planted as part of a narco-terrorist inspired plot. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, other human rights organizations – they know NOTHING about human rights. I DO. I am an authoritarian on human rights.

I have facts on human rights in Colombia too. One, Colombia is not Sudan. Sudan is in Africa. Second, there are not 5 million displaced in Colombia. I didn´t look into it, but there aren´t FIVE million. Two, a lot of human rights defenders are actually terrorists. Seventh, the future is bright for Colombia, and it’s all because of me.

We respect our opponents. Especially those that agree with us. Colombia has no civil war. It is peaceful in certain parts of certain cities. The indigenous are liars. The afrocolombian groups are liars. I mean, why the divisions? We are all just Colombians and we love freedom and transparency. That is why my government spied on judges, opponents, human rights terrorists and journalists. So that we could be transparent about their private conversations.

Those that speak out against me, well they do not understand my truths.

Protesters? Ha. That is nothing. I’ve made backroom deals with narcos and paramilitaries for over 30 years. I mean, I made transparent deals with them in public. Yes in public I say same as private.”