Obituary: Virgilio Barco

Virgilio Barco Vargas was President of Colombia during a particularly violent period of its turbulent history. The Medelln-based drug-trafficking organisation led by Pablo Escobar launched an all-out war against the state, assassinating leading politicians, planting car bombs in city centres and systematically murdering policemen. Barco rose to the challenge, hitting back hard against the gunmen of the "Medelln cartel" and demonstrating that the country's democratic institutions were too strong to be destroyed by organised crime.

But it was a close-run thing, and Columbia paid a high price for the president's brave stand. The low point came in August 1989, when the ruling Liberal Party's candidate for elections in the following year was gunned down at a campaign meeting near Bogot. In all, three presidential candidates were to die during that election campaign.

The traffickers' onslaught was provoked by Barco's decision to allow prisoners wanted on drug-related charges to be extradited to the United States. They could expect much harsher treatment from the courts there than in Colombia, as they were held responsible for supplying most of the cocaine that reached the streets of American cities. Until Barco acted the power of the cocaine cartels had been growing unchecked in Colombia, and the psychopathic Escobar had come to believe that he could do much as he liked.

Barco's firm response was characteristic of a man who believed in the rule of law, in a country where it has needed courage to defend such principles. Colombia is one of the very few Latin American countries where military interventions have been the exception rather than the rule throughout its history, and where two-party elections have usually taken place on schedule. But the forces of anarchy are always threatening to break loose, as Barco learnt as a young man: when he entered politics in the mid-1940s the country was plunging into a decade of undeclared civil war, known simply as "La Violencia", in which the rival Liberal and Conservative parties took up arms against each other and hundreds of thousands of people died.

Barco was born in 1921 into a wealthy Conservative family in the department of Norte de Santander, on the Venezuelan frontier. His family had made their money in oil, and, like many young men of his class, he was sent abroad to study, returning at the age of 22 with a degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was expected to take his place in the social and political life of his home town, Ccuta, but to his family's horror he announced that during his absence he had become a Liberal. This was at a time when party loyalties were set in stone in the Colombian provinces, and good Conservatives believed Liberals were in league with the Devil. His grandfather, General Virgilio Barco, never recovered from the shock.

Despite his natural shyness and dislike of confrontation, young Virgilio stuck to his new-found political beliefs. Within two years he had entered active politics as a Liberal councillor in the nearby town of Durania. By 1945 he was acting minister of posts and telegraphs, and three years later he was elected to the lower house of congress in Bogot. Thereafter he held a succession of senior ministerial and diplomatic appointments (he was Ambassador in London in 1961-62 and 1990-92) in the course of a long career in public life, culminating in his election as President of the Republic in 1986, with a record five million votes.

His landslide victory owed nothing to the rousing oratory or skills in backroom deal- making that are the normal qualifications for political success in Colombia. Austere and aloof, he hated making speeches and taking part in public debates, and was equally uncomfortable with the bureaucratic spoils system that had helped to keep the lid on political rivalries since La Violencia came to an end 30 years earlier. He preferred to surround himself with young technocrats, promoting several of them to ministerial posts when they were still in their twenties.

They served him well as he struggled to wean the Liberal Party away from its traditionally interventionist, protectionist ways and open up the Colombian economy to the free- market influences that were sweeping the continent in the late 1980s. Barco is credited with beginning the process of privatising state-owned companies, which has continued under his much younger successors, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Samper. He also saw Colombia safely through the debt crisis that afflicted the rest of the continent, ensuring that it never defaulted on its payments or had to seek rescheduling of its obligations.

Barco was frequently distracted from these tasks by the need to deal with the endemic guerrilla warfare that dated back to the period of La Violencia. Four left-wing insurgencies roamed the countryside, spawning in turn countless right-wing paramilitary gangs bent on outdoing them in acts of terror and extortion. The president succeeded in negotiating a peace treaty with one of the left-wing guerrilla armies, M-19, which subsequently became a legal political party. But he proved as incapable as both his predecessors and his successors of bringing peace to Colombia - not least because former guerrillas tended to become targets of right- wing gunmen out to settle scores.

It will be for his resolute stand against "narcoterrorism" that Barco will be best remembered. Within weeks of his taking office in August 1986, gunmen hired by the Medelln cartel murdered the repected editor of Bogot's great Liberal daily newspaper, El Espectador, and things got much worse over the next four years. It was left to Barco's successor, Cesar Gaviria, to bring about a peace of sorts by allowing drug barons such as Pablo Escobar to negotiate surrender terms, including guarantees that they would not be extradicted.

Unusually for a Colombian ex-president, Barco took no further part in public life after returning from the London embassy in 1992. Partly because of advancing ill-health, he retired to his native region and refrained from making public pronouncements. President Samper ordered three days of national mourning after his death.

Colin Harding

Virgilio Barco Vargas, politician: born Ccuta, Colombia 17 September 1921; Representative to Congress of Colombia 1949, Senator 1958; Minister of Public Works 1958; Ambassador in London 1961-62; Minister of Agriculture 1963 and 1990-92; Mayor of Bogot 1966-69; Ambassador to the United States 1977; President of Colombia 1986-90; married 1950 Caroline Isakson (one son, three daughters); died Bogot 20 May 1997.

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