The President and the Schoolteacher

In an unprecedented public debate in Bogotá’s central Plaza de Bolívar, Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe was challenged by a schoolteacher who had walked more than 1,200 kilometers across the country to draw attention to the fate of his soldier son, kidnapped by guerillas for almost ten years.

Professor Gustavo Moncayo, whose son, Pablo Emilio, has been held as a ‘prisoner’ by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) since December 1997, pleaded with the president to agree to a humanitarian exchange of guerrilla prisoners in jail with those held by the Farc.

President Uribe, flanked by military officers and his foreign minister, Fernando Araújo — a former Farc hostage who escaped from the guerrillas earlier this year — rejected any exchange during a frank and often intemperate debate on the steps of Colombia’s Congress.

Over the jeers and whistles of thousands of Colombians who had come to greet Professor Moncayo at the end of his 46 day trek across the country’s mountains and steep valleys to this capital high in the Andes, President Uribe refused to ‘give even one millimeter’ in the form of negotiations or concessions to what he called ‘criminals.’

The President demanded that the Farc free, without preconditions, all of the estimated 2,000 hostages it is thought to be holding, and then, and only then, he said, would the government listen to the Farc’s demands for social justice. Political analysts in Colombia consider this to be an ‘unrealistic’ proposal, particularly as the guerrillas believe that negotiations over the hostages are their only chance to have their demands considered.

President Uribe has been noted for his hardline policies towards Colombia’s rebel forces since he was first elected in 2002. After his re-election last year, he vowed to continue with a strategy of military confrontation, as well as relying on a policy of ‘military rescue’ of hostages in guerrilla hands — a policy criticized by the families of those hostages, many of whom accompanied Moncayo at different moments on his journey to Bogotá.

‘The families of the kidnapped victims are in the middle of a political game between the Farc and the government,’ Moncayo said in response to the president’s rejection of a humanitarian exchange, and he implored Uribe not to make unrealistic proposals ‘just to have something to say. Don’t let our loved ones die in the jungles — they deserve to live!’

‘Don’t compare the government of a democracy to these terrorists,’ President Uribe retorted, and referring to a Farc member recently freed from jail, contemptuously suggested that Professor Moncayo, ‘go to Cuba and talk with the guerrilla Rodrigo Granda to find a solution.’

The debate between the president and the schoolteacher, broadcast live to the entire nation for two hours, ended with Professor Moncayo, disconsolate at the president’s intransigence, and still wearing metal chains to symbolize his son’s continuing captivity — walking down the Capitol’s steps in tears.

Meanwhile, President Uribe, in an extraordinary display of intemperance — ‘beneath the dignity of the presidency,’ according to one commentator — angrily responded to shouts from the crowd to deny that he was connected to far right paramilitaries and narco-traffickers, saying, ‘I am not a front man for anyone… I don’t have one dollar in a foreign bank.’

The paramilitaries, who had claimed to be patriots fighting the guerrillas, are now known to have killed as many as 14,000 Colombians over the last 20 years, including trade union organizers, indigenous activists and campesinos — often in order to steal valuable land to grow cash crops for export and coca for the drug trade.

Uribe’s government has been accused by human rights organizations of awarding the paramilitaries, in return for giving up their arms, virtual impunity for the massacres, assassinations and forced displacements they have committed. Almost 50 members of Congress, all but one supporters of the president, have either been jailed or are under investigation for their connections to the paramilitaries, and evidence about Uribe’s personal involvement is circling closer with each new revelation.

Between the stubborn intransigence of President Uribe, and the undoubted criminal and inhumane actions of the Farc in continuing to take and hold people hostage, Professor Moncayo has now become the centre of a storm of debate in Colombia about how to achieve peace in this war torn country.

The schoolteacher’s tireless efforts over the last ten years to try to free his son have included meeting with guerrilla leaders in the mountains and with three Colombian presidents — all to no avail. Following his public debate with Uribe, the professor is now appealing directly to the Colombian people, and with the consent of Bogotá’s leftist mayor, Luis Garzón, Moncayo has vowed to camp in the capital’s central plaza until his son is free.

Paul Haste is a union organizer from London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his Spanish. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.