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New Colombian Heads Met at Extension School

Two right-wing politicians were elected president and vice president of Colombia late last month—ten years after they first met each other as students at Harvard.

The May 26 vote elected Álvaro Uribe Vélez president and Francisco Santos Calderón vice president by an unprecedented majority.

A decade ago, Uribe and Santos took classes at the Harvard Extension School and attended a dinner for Colombian students on campus, where they met each other for the first time.

At the time Uribe was a career politician, working his way from the regional level to national politics. Santos wrote for his family-owned newspaper El Tiempo and came to Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, through a program that brings mid-career journalists to the University.

The two studied business administration at the Extension School, and Santos took political science and negotiation classes.

Santos told The Crimson earlier last month that this experience at Harvard “was fundamental to my intellectual development.”

Campaigning on a message of “a firm hand and a big heart,” Uribe and Santos say they will implement hard-line policies that fit well with U.S.’ anti-terrorism policies.

Uribe has developed a reputation as an independent technocrat who does not engage in patronage and cronyism, said John H. Coatsworth, director of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

“He’s known as somebody who is decisive, has good judgment, tended to employ people with good technical training as opposed to old style patronage politicians,” Coatsworth said. “So the other advantage people saw from him was his relative independence from the politics as usual.”

The election of Uribe and Santos is evidence of a recent hard-right turn in Colombian politics, perhaps most significantly regarding the government’s strategy in its ongoing conflict with leftist rebels.

Their campaign promise to nearly double the size of the military and to enlist the role of paramilitary groups has worried human rights organizations, because the paramilitary groups have long been said to violate human rights.

Their election comes during a conservative swing in Colombia. Although outgoing President Andres Pastrana attempted to negotiate with the rebels, ceding a large portion of the country to the rebels, by the end of his term negotiations had broken down. He decided earlier this year to send government troops back into the previously ceded region.

Coatsworth said the “linchpin” of support for Uribe’s hard-line policies will come from the United States.

Although Uribe has not yet come to Washington, Coatsworth said it is “clear” that the Department of Defense, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, will support expanding military aid to Colombia with Uribe at the helm.

But he said it remains unclear how Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in the past has often distanced himself from Cheney’s foreign policy stances, would stand on expanding military aid to fight Colombia’s civil war.

The U.S. could expand military aid beyond drug trafficking to the wider civil war, Coatsworth speculated.

He said the U.S. war on terrorism could also spur increased military aid to fight Colombian leftist groups, whose strategies of kidnapping and guerrilla tactics are often characterized as terrorism.

The Bush administration has already promoted the connection between drug trafficking and terrorist organizations in its national anti-drug campaign.

“It’s so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror, sustaining terrorists, that terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder,” Bush said earlier this year. “If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.”

And in a panel discussion on Colombia last month at the Kennedy School of Government, Dean Joseph S. Nye said the Colombian guerrillas had committed “terrorist actions in our hemisphere.”

—Staff writer Stephanie M. Skier can be reached at skier@fas.harvard.edu.

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