Witnesses to change: Two UMass professors attend historic presidential inauguration in Colombia

  • UMass professors Amilcar Shabazz, left, and Agustin Lao-Montes attended the Aug. 7 inauguration of the new president and vice president of Colombia. They have long ties to the vice president, Francia Márquez. Image courtesy UMass News Office

  • UMass professors Amilcar Shabazz, left, and Agustin Lao-Montes, right, at the university several years ago when Colombia’s future vice president, Francia Márquez, center, visited the school. Image courtesy UMass News Office

  • Francia Márquez, the new vice president of Colombia, is an enviromental and community activist and lawyer who also has connections to UMass Amherst. berriatb/Wikipedia/public domain

  • Petro Gustavo, the new president of Colombia, is the country’s first leftist leader. Samantha Power USAID/Wikipedia/public domain

Staff Writer
Published: 8/15/2022 5:07:17 PM
Modified: 8/15/2022 5:03:49 PM

AMHERST — Colombia marked an historic day on Aug. 7 when the country’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, was sworn into office.

And in attendance at the president’s inauguration were two University of Massachusetts Amherst professors who over more than a decade have developed close ties with Colombia’s new vice president, Francia Márquez, also sworn into office that day.

Amilcar Shabazz, a professor and graduate program director of Afro-American studies, and Agustin Lao-Montes, a professor of sociology and Afro-American studies, have also recruited several Afro-Colombian students to UMass over the years, and they say they’re thrilled now to witness the new regime take the helm in Colombia.

“It was a huge honor to be part of this,” Shabazz said in a recent phone call shortly after flying back to Massachusetts. “This is really big — it’s the first time a left of center candidate has won a presidential election in Colombia.”

Shabazz said this was the first time he’d ever met Petro, a former Colombian senator and at one time the mayor of Bogotá, the country’s capital (as a young man, he was also a member of a guerilla group, the 19th of April Movement, that later became a political party, the M-19 Democratic Alliance).

But Shabazz and Lao-Montes have known Márquez, a leader of the country’s Afro-Colombian community and an internationally recognized environmental activist, for years now, and Shabazz says her ascension to the vice president’s office “is a real victory for Colombia’s everyday people.”

Márquez, a lawyer, has made a number of trips to UMass over the years to talk about some of her work, including opposition she has led to illegal mining in her community of La Toma. In 2018, she received a Goldman Environmental Prize, an annual award given to grassroots environmental activists, one from each of the world’s six geographic regions.

Not that change is likely to come overnight to Colombia, Shabazz added, noting that the country has a considerable history of political violence, much of it directed by right-wing paramilitary groups against leftist organizations. Petro and Márquez received death threats during their campaign earlier this year, according to multiple media reports, and Shabazz said there was a heavy military presence on the streets of Bogotá when he and Lao-Montes were there for the inauguration.

“Politics in Colombia,” he said, “is not for the faint of heart.”

Nevertheless, he says the Petro/Márquez administration is committed to de-escalating tensions in the country and “moving forward with a peace process and addressing the kind of economic inequality that has been a huge problem for years.”

A UMass connection

The UMass connection to Márquez stretches back to 2007, when Lao-Montes met the young activist (then just 25) in Colombia. According to a UMass press release, Lao-Montes, as part of a Fulbright Scholarship, was teaching a course that year at a Colombian university on the history of the Black Atlantic — the same history he’d been teaching at UMass in the Afro-American Studies Department.

A number of Black and Indigenous activists took his course in Colombia, Lao-Montes noted. Meantime, at UMass, Shabazz, who came to the university that same year, became interested in the school’s graduate certificate program in African Diasporic studies, which examines the broad range of history, culture, and politics of the African Diaspora.

With a shared interest in these topics, Lao-Montes and Shabazz traveled together to Colombia in 2011 and visited a number of universities to describe the UMass programs in Afro-American Studies and “develop ties with students and faculty, to talk about opportunities for research and fellowships and student exchanges,” Shabazz said.

Since then, he says, about a dozen Afro-Colombian students have come to UMass to do graduate and doctoral-level work, including Aurora Vergara-Figueroa, who has directed the Afrodiasporic Studies Center (Centro de Estudios Afrodiaspóricos) at Icesi University in Cali, Colombia — and is taking on a new role in the Petro/Márquez administration as vice minister for higher education.

A number of these students have, like Vergara-Figueroa, moved on to leadership roles in Colombia, notably in higher education, Shabazz says.

UMass, Lao-Montes said in a statement, is now “a pillar in training for a new generation of Black intellectuals in Colombia to lead the country.”

Shabazz and Lao-Montes have forged another connection to Colombia. The day before Petro and Márquez took office, the two UMass professors met in Bogotá with a number of international scholars, activists and political figures as part of an international reparations conference, which is examining ways of creating a program and funding for reparations in Colombia.

Shabazz says these talks are in the early days but are broadly focused on ways to aid members of the country’s Afro-Colombian community in particular, who have long faced discrimination, violence, and misuse of their land — and displacement from it — often by corporations exploiting natural resources.

“I’m very excited to see the process begin, of trying to establish how you redress actual crimes against humanity that have taken place over centuries and also in more recent decades,” he said.

Shabazz, who’s also president of the National Council for Black Studies, says he and Lao-Montes were invited to be part of the reparations conference so that they could discuss how similar movements are playing out in the U.S. for the Black community following centuries of slavery and discriminatory laws, and how reparations were made to Japanese-American families sent to internment camps during World War II.

Petro and Márquez have much to do initially in their administration, Shabazz said, but they have indicated they want to continue to examine the issue of reparations, in part by establishing a Ministry of Equality. “I hope our deliberations on this will be helpful,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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