Barco was born on September 17, 1921 in Cúcuta, the capital of the Departmento of Norte de Santander. While his grandfather, General Virgilio Barco, and his father, Jorge Enrique Barco, were Conservatives, his mother, Julieta Vargas, came from a Liberal family. From an early age, Barco identified with Liberal principles.


When he was 17 he went to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA.Massachussetts. Thus he lived his formative years in the US of Frank Delano Roosevelt´s democratic government and the Allied forces’ struggle against fascism.


Upon returning to Colombia in 1943, he became involved in the politics of Norte de Santander where he held the post of Secretary of Finance, among others. For a short period, in 1945, he was Secretary General of the Ministry of Communicatons in Bogotá.

After the Liberal Party lost power in 1946, he became part of the opposition in the midst of a climate of sectarian violence in Norte de Santander. Barco led the Directorate of the Liberal Party and was elected to Congress in 1949. In 1950 he married Carolina Isakson. Threatened, he left Colombia for a second time to undertake post-graduate studies in economy at MIT.


After retuning to Colombia, in 1956 he became part of the opposition to General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla and participated in the presidential campaign of Alberto Lleras, the first president of the Frente Nacional, a political pact between Liberals and Conservatives to alternate power. Subsequently he was Minister of Public Works, Minister of Agriculture and Ambassador to United Kingdom. He was mayor of Bogotá from 1966 to 1969, period in which he was able to modernize the city physically and institutionally.


The greatest proof of his leadership was the Presidency. Barco realized that the drug cartels, particularly the Medellín cartel, were a threat to the the country´s institutions. These illegal groups had been strengthened due to social indifference and, during Barco´s administration, attempted to intimidate the State. Barco fought with great determination against these forces and was able to establish the principle of co-responsability with drug consumer countries.


He also confronted guerrillas groups which had gained strength and paramilitaries who tried to exterminate the Union Patriótica Party, the civilian arm of the FARC. His efforts to reduce poverty, to make the government present in the most remote areas of the country, and to reform the Constitution, had to take a back seat due to the need to struggle to defend institutional order and legitimacy. History will demonstrate that his strong opposition to the forces of violence and corruption, were critical to the history of the country.

Virgilio Barco died on May 20th, 1997, in Bogotá.

Text: Professor Malcolm Deas