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Former president of Colombia Alvaro Uribe speaks in Huntsman Credit: Muyi Li

Flanked by a seven-foot-tall bodyguard and a dozen suit-clad officials, former president of the Republic of Colombia Álvaro Uribe headed to Huntsman Hall, where hundreds of students and academics gathered to hear him speak Friday evening. However, not all were pleased by his visit.

Uribe delivered the opening address for the 2011 Wharton Latin America Conference held March 25-26. The conference, entitled “Latin America: the New Land of Opportunity,” aimed to create awareness of the economic potential of Latin America. Uribe’s speech, held in partnership with the Wharton Leadership Lecture Series, focused on the importance of private enterprise to the region’s political and economic development.

Uribe’s appointment as keynote speaker proved controversial, as his term as president is currently the subject of numerous criminal investigations.

A group of 74 students, professors, scholars and staff signed a letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann and Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson in protest of the decision to invite Uribe to serve as keynote speaker. The letter outlined the various criminal investigations pending against Uribe and members of his administration.

Pedro Saboulard, a graduate student in the Romance Languages Department who signed the letter and attended the lecture, wrote in an email that “the real problem is that Wharton failed to present Uribe as the controversial figure he is.” In presenting him “as an exemplary leader,” Saboulard wrote, the University may appear as having endorsed “a man who is likely to be condemned by international courts as a war criminal in the next few years.”

The organizers of the conference declined to comment.

Despite controversy over the choice of Uribe as keynote speaker, the former president concluded his address to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

Speaking about what he has done since leaving the presidency in 2010, Uribe called himself “a jobless fighter for the private sector, for the rule of law, for freedom.”

Uribe emphasized the necessity of investment to a country’s prosperity. “We need to make investment public policy,” he said, affirming his belief in governments’ responsibility to defend freedom of enterprise and private initiative. He reasoned that investors need to be assured that their investments will still be viable years down the road. In that interest, a political agenda promoting transparency and the rule of law can also serve to spur economic development.

When asked about the pervasiveness of corruption in Latin American politics, Uribe cited 1959 Wharton graduate Jon Huntsman Sr.’s book Winners Never Cheat as influential in his resolve to impose sanctions. “When we did [impose sanctions], we succeeded. When we did not do it, we failed,” he said.

“He spoke very frankly about regimes and presidents,” Agustin Letelier, a Masters of Business Administration student, said. “He was clear in giving opinions. I understood perfectly his vision.”

Some were glad that the Wharton Latin America Conference was being held again after a long hiatus. “I can’t believe we haven’t had the event in six years. It’s really nice to see everyone gather like this,” said Stephanie Nieto, an MBA student.

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