Salt Lake City, Utah - A group of students and anti-war activists protested a visit by Alvaro Uribe - Colombia’s former president here May 26. Zions Bank invited Uribe to speak at a Trade and Business Conference. Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch welcomed Uribe as he promoted a free trade agreement with the U.S., claiming human rights in Colombia are improved. The U.S. Congress and President Obama are unable to pass the free trade agreement due to the terrible human rights record of the Colombian government.
Behind closed doors, Uribe spoke about how he brought prosperity and peace to the Colombian people by combating violent militias. The opposite is in fact true. Uribe supported right-wing militia groups connected to the Colombian military and which were also partially funded by U.S. corporations like Drummond Coal, Chiquita Banana and Coca-Cola. The so-called AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) terrorize the countryside, carrying out gruesome attacks against poor farmers and driving them off their land. Colombia now has the largest displaced population in the world, more than even Iraq, where the U.S. occupation is wreaking havoc. Over 4 million rural Colombians are crowding into towns and cities with no work and few prospects. Many Colombian farmers are fleeing over the borders into neighboring countries like Venezuela.
In addition, Uribe left office on the heels of the ‘false positives, scandal, where dozens of Colombian military officers were caught kidnapping low-income young men from the cities, executing them in the countryside and claiming they were members of the powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group killed in combat. The current President Santos was Uribe’s Minister of Defense overseeing the military officers who carried out the systematic murders of close to 3000 civilians.
Outside Zion Bank’s conference, student protester Emily Lacock explained, “Uribe deserves to know that people recognize his crimes and will not silence their outrage.” While passing out flyers detailing Uribe's criminal record, the protesters chanted, “Plan Colombia is a scam! Death squads sent by Uncle Sam!”
“I think it’s atrocious that the U.S. can masquerade Uribe as a 'hero',” said protester Kristen Lambert. Kristen continued, “During Uribe’s presidency, Colombia’s human rights record was the worst in our hemisphere and people suffered more overwhelming poverty while he supposedly improved the economy.”
The sharp divisions in the U.S. were felt on the street that day. As bankers rushed into the Marriott Hotel to hear Uribe's lies, many of the hotel's staff took an interest in the activities on the outside. There were local construction workers and carpenters’ union members who stopped to chat about the situation in Colombia. The union workers were upset to hear how their Colombian counterparts were being murdered at a rate of one a week.
The Revolutionary Students Union (RSU), affiliated with the Students for a Democratic Society, organized the protest as part of the movement against U.S. intervention and war in Colombia. A RSU leader said, “Even in Utah, Uribe will be held accountable for waging a dirty war against the poor farmers and working people of Colombia. We oppose the U.S.-led counter-insurgency war and say no to the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. By speaking out against America's lackeys like Uribe, we cut through the deafening silence that holds so many captive while expressing the solidarity with those who are facing the brunt force of the U.S. empire.”