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Harvard’s Curious Fascination with Colombia’s Homophobic Leaders

By Laura Correa Ochoa and Julian Ripoli Urrutia, Contributing Writers

While the rest of the Harvard community is busy speaking out against gender-based violence and working to create a more inclusive campus, this past Saturday, Harvard Business School proudly hosted the man who has become the most visible leader of a powerful, procrustean movement against women and the BGLTQ community in Colombia: former president Alvaro Uribe, who gave a keynote speech at the 19th Annual Latin America Conference. This is his second invited speech at Harvard this year, and his fourth in five years. Less than two years ago, the Law School’s Program on Negotiation extended an invitation to another architect of this movement’s agenda to disenfranchise women and the BGLTQ population, former Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez. It seems as though some of Harvard’s institutions have a curious fascination with hearing from misogynistic and homophobic Colombian leaders. Unfortunately, this predilection may be getting in the way of its educational mission.

Since the end of his presidency in 2010, Uribe has been the undisputed leader of the opposition to the government, and a vocal critic of the peace process ever since it was first announced in 2012. Ordoñez—an unapologetic burner of "immoral magazines and books" and ardent opponent of sexual and reproductive rights who served as Inspector General from 2009 to 2016 (when he was deposed on charges of corruption and other irregularities)—is one Uribe’s closest political allies. Uribe and Ordoñez have rallied a militant, sexist, and homophobic constituency that has become a decisive political force in Colombia. Their movement proudly claims to have contributed over two million votes against the peace agreement between the government and the FARC guerrillas in the recent plebiscite. This constituency—which succeeded in bringing down the peace accords by a margin of less than 54,000 votes—galvanized around Uribe’s and Ordoñez’s propaganda that the agreement promoted gay marriage, “homosexual dictatorships,” and “gender ideologies.” However, “gender ideology” does not feature anywhere in the text of the agreement. Rather, Uribe and Ordoñez distorted its progressive gender focus, which seeks to address the specific forms of violence faced by women—the demographic most affected by the conflict—and BGLTQ victims during the country’s 50-year civil war.

The defeat of the accords is largely the culmination of a programmatic agenda to roll back hard-won minority rights. Earlier this year, in reaction to a decision by Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalizing same-sex marriage and making it easier for same-sex couples to adopt children, Uribe and his supporters organized massive protests across the country denouncing gender-inclusive education programs and other “sexual garbage” in public schools, and demanding a return to “traditional” family values. As Inspector General Ordoñez defied the Constitutional Court’s rulings by obstructing women’s rights to an abortion in cases involving rape, danger to the mother’s health, or fatal fetal abnormalities, and initiating judicial actions against judges and public notaries performing same sex marriages. Both men used the fear generated by the peace process to advance discrimination and promote their political agendas for the 2018 presidential election. These actions are in opposition to Harvard’s mission—as stated by the Office of BGLTQ Student Life—to create a more inclusive campus by engaging and educating the University community “about the multiplicity of sexual and gender identities.”

Most troubling about Harvard's evident fascination with hearing from Uribe and Ordoñez is the apparent lack of interest in examining their controversial views and their illiberal agenda. Advertisements of their visits celebrate Uribe’s apparent successes in promoting economic growth and Ordoñez’s ostensible achievements at combating corruption. No mention is made about the fact that their political capital is largely built on misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, and human rights abuses, despite the fact that Colombian students and allies have consistently highlighted these silences.

On Saturday, these matters were only addressed as a result of the peaceful student rally outside HBS conveying messages of urgency and peace to Uribe, which spurred an impromptu Q&A. When asked to define “gender ideology” and indicate its places in the agreements, Uribe blamed the negotiators for not being clear in their speeches about the difference between “ideology” and “focus,” failing to identify where the articles reference such ideology. He deflected further questions by asking that they be directed to Ordoñez.

Perhaps those who keep inviting Uribe are stubbornly unaware of political dynamics in Colombia; a more generous interpretation is that they are simply more interested in the economy and other such matters. Whatever the reason, in failing to recognize and engage with Uribe and Ordoñez’s illiberal agenda, Harvard is failing to fulfill its core educational mission. Not only does this lack of engagement raise questions about the University as a place for critical thinking, it also suggests that the University endorses a certain order of priorities with respect to what is worth discussing amongst policymakers and business-minded people. Apparently, there is no time to waste on sexual and gender-based violence or minority rights—let alone deliberating about the ethics of leadership—when economic growth is on the agenda. Is this how Harvard puts into practice its mission of educating the citizen leaders of tomorrow’s world? We have to ask ourselves what message this sends to students who are female or who identify as BGLTQ. Silencing Uribe and Ordoñez’s disenfranchising agenda ultimately limits the possibilities of building an inclusive and non-discriminatory community at Harvard and beyond.


Laura Correa Ochoa is a Ph.D. candidate in History. Julian Urrutia Ripoll is a Ph.D. candidate in Health Policy.

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