The Insider: Carolina Barco Isakson

By: Garrett M. Graff

Colombia’s Carolina Barco Isakson remembers Dupont Circle in the 1960s. Photograph by Chris Leaman

Colombian ambassador Carolina Barco Isakson comes from a long line of national leaders. Her father, Virgilio Barco Vargas, was president of Colombia, and he and her father-in-law both served as ambassador to the United States.

The onetime urban planner and foreign minister now finds herself with a political hot potato—dealing with Washington on a US-Colombia free-trade agreement.

In her own words:

I have a cyclical relationship with Boston because I was born there—my father was getting a doctorate at MIT. I was there my first three years of life while he was taking his exams. Then I was very lucky to be able to get an American education at Wellesley and Harvard. Later I returned—married and with children—to MIT for a fellowship program.

From the perspective of someone who lives in Washington, I find it a very beautiful city, a very green city. It’s evolved in a very positive way. I’ve gotten to see it at different points—when I was in college, my father was here at the World Bank. I knew the Dupont Circle area in the late 1960s and early ’70s—and now this area has been totally transformed. The Metro really changed things, made much more of the city accessible.

Foreign minister and ambassador are very different roles. As foreign minister, I had to be looking at foreign policy in general, how our bilateral strategies fit together. Now I’m in charge of just one of those pieces—the bilateral relationship between the United States and Colombia—so I have to dive into this much more deeply. This relationship is very, very important to my country.

We think the discussion around trade last year was beneficial. It got a lot of people thinking about it, which was a good thing. What was more complicated was that Colombia was the example.

With the free-trade agreement, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster. I’ll be optimistic, and then I’ll hear something and wonder, “Can it be done?” In the end, I think it’s too important for our two countries not to do it. Geopolitically, it’s key to strengthening Latin American ties.

The diplomatic community here is fascinating. The ambassadors who come here—and I don’t mean to sound presumptuous—normally have vast experience and great knowledge, because each country sends important emissaries here.

I’ve found a very interesting group of women ambassadors here. The first calls I got when I arrived were from women ambassadors, like Chan Heng Chee from Singapore, who has been here a number of years and knows her way around, and Claudia Fritsche from Liechtenstein, who has also been here many years. They independently invited me to lunch and started showing me how to move in Washington.

As ambassador, you’re also dealing with the Colombians who live in this country. For instance, we have a lot of doctors from Colombia who live in Houston and Corpus Christi, so I’m working with them, listening to them.

My favorite event of the year is every Christmas when I have a party for families here who have adopted their children from Colombia. I talk to them about their home country, and we have traditional music and food. It’s just wonderful.

It’s really exciting to be here with Barack Obama, someone who is such a good example of and believes strongly in the importance of dialogue.

Colombia is also at a point of optimism. We’re moving ahead, taking control of our territory. We’re clearly addressing the issue of drugs and the violence it embodies. We’ve made strides.

Congressman Sam Farr, one of our great friends, who used to serve in the Peace Corps in Colombia, says he’s very optimistic. Last year, I reached out to the Peace Corps and organized a trip down to Colombia for people who once worked there. We had 198 who went down, reconnected, and started new projects. President Uribe has invited the Peace Corps back to the country, which it left in 1981. By the time I leave as ambassador, I’d love to see the Peace Corps back.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.  

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