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Colombian leader to speak at graduation

By Annabelle Boyd

Colombian President Virgilio Barco '43 will be the speaker at MIT's 124th commencement on Monday, June 4.

Barco, who was elected to the Colombian presidency as the candidate of the Liberal Party in May 1986, has recently gained international attention for his declared war against drug traffickers in Colombia, and his staunch refusal to negotiate with drug kingpins.

"We are delighted and proud to have President Barco as our commencement speaker," MIT President Paul E. Gray '54 said. "His dedication and strength as a national leader bring honor both to his native land and to MIT. He has committed himself to the betterment of his country through more than three decades of outstanding public service in which he has combined political activity with a humanistic outlook."

Barco received an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from MIT in 1943, and pursued graduate studies in economics here in the early 1950's.

A member of the MIT Corporation from 1970 to 1980, Barco has also served on several Institute visiting committees in the Departments of Economics, Political Science, and Civil Engineering and in the Center for International Studies.

Cited for leadership

In October, the MIT Corporation adopted a resolution saluting Barco "for his courageous leadership of Colombia during a time of formidable challenge." This unprecedented resolution was intended to demonstrate the Institute's support of Barco's efforts to shut down Colombia's drug traffickers after the assassination of Liberal Party presidential candidate Carlos Gallan in August.

Implementing a cold-blooded policy of assassination, civilian bombings, threats and bribes of government officials, the Medell'in and Cali drug cartels have exerted tremendous pressure on the Barco government, in an attempt to gain recognition as legitimate players in the Colombian power structure. The Medell'in cartel has been most successful; Medell'in's criminal court system has been brought to a virtual standstill and curfews have been imposed throughout the city.

While many Colombian politicians -- including the mayor of Medell'in and the Speaker of the House of Representatives -- have urged the government to open talks with the drug kingpins, Barco has repeatedly refused to do so. Instead, he has declared measures that allow drug traffickers to be summarily extradited to the United States for trial. At the end of August, he ordered the military to confiscate the assets of prominent drug traffickers in a public display of government ability to combat the drug barons.

Also, Barco has maintained that the drug problem is not merely a supply-side phenomenon. Citing drug users in the United States as partially responsible for the violence spawned by the drug trade in Colombia, Barco has met with President George Bush and the presidents of Peru and Bolivia in an effort to coordinate anti-drug policies.

Barco has held a number of prominent posts throughout his career in Colombian politics. He served as ambassador to the United States from 1977 to 1980, and ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1961 to 1962. He was mayor of Bogota, Colombia's capital and largest city, from 1966 to 1969. He has served in the Colombian Senate and House of Representatives, and was both Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Public Works. From 1969 to 1974 he was executive director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) for Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic.

In 1952, while studying economics at MIT, Barco was awarded a master's degree in social sciences from Boston University. He is a member of the Colombian Society of Civil Engineers and a former president of the Colombian Society of Economists.