Colombian Ambassador Francisco Santos Calderón has one of the more interesting backstories in Washington, D.C., having been a former prominent journalist who was kidnapped on the orders of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar for his work.
His wife, Maria Victoria García, has an equally fascinating backstory, although hers has played out more so behind the scenes. That includes enduring her husband’s eight-month captivity; working alongside him to protest kidnapping and promote human rights in their homeland; raising their four children; starting a career in painting; and learning how to be the wife of a first-time ambassador.
That latter role was supposed to be coming to a close this month, but coronavirus has changed the ambassador’s plan.
Santos had resigned and he and his wife were looking at options for the next stage of their lives, but because of the pandemic, he’s been asked to stay on in Washington for now.
It’s the latest twist in a tumultuous ride for Santos.
In November, a recording was leaked of a private conversation in which Santos criticized the State Department as weak in the face of an unpredictable White House, calling it “non-existent.” Santos apologized and was temporarily recalled before coming back to Washington, D.C., where he resumed his diplomatic duties, traveling for instance recently to Atlanta to drum up tech investment and to Philadelphia to speak about the Venezuela crisis that has sparked unprecedented migration to Colombia.
Throughout his career, however, Santos has made fighting the rebel groups and drug traffickers that wreaked havoc on his country a priority, along with touting the tremendous strides Colombia has made in recent years. Even as ambassador, he was unapologetic about his blunt style. “I don’t stand quiet against injustice. I don’t stand quiet against violence. That’s been part of my life,” he told us.
Santos has not said whether the recording played any role in his resignation, although he released a statement thanking President Iván Duque “for the offers you made to continue in your government. I think that the time has come for me to recover the possibility of giving my opinion freely on the interesting and challenging situation our country is going through and which calls for full frankness. I wish to continue serving the Colombian people through my unwavering struggle for democratic ideas and for truth.”
For now, however, that means guiding U.S.-Colombia relations in the wake of an unprecedented global pandemic that has upended everyone’s lives.
As an example of how fast the situation has changed, we interviewed García as she started packing to head home (only to have to unpack now).
Despite the ups and downs, García was jovial and, like her husband, easygoing and fun.
When we asked what name she would like us to call her, she animatedly joked, “I tell people to think of me as either the Virgin Mary or Queen Victoria!”
But Maria Victoria García is anything but glib. She is one serious lady who has been through a lot.
“My husband, who was a journalist at the time, was kidnapped in 1990 at the hands of the drug traffickers [working for] Pablo Escobar,” she said. Santos was captured at the end of the day as he rode home from the office.
“They killed his driver. It was very hard. I had two babies, one and one half [years old] and six months,” she remembered. “Somebody called me, a friend, to tell me. In those days, even the wives and children of journalists could be in danger.
“For eight months, he was in captivity, and I didn’t know what would happen. He could have been killed … other journalists were.”
After her husband was released, together they started the world’s first NGO dedicated to fighting kidnapping. Their Fundación País Libre promoted Colombia’s Anti-Kidnapping Statue and provided humanitarian assistance and support to the victims of kidnappings and their families.
“From the foundation, I was able to generate high-impact actions such as the great national march which was held in our five major cities,” García said. “Thirteen million people went to the streets to demand peace … which led to a recognized civil movement, ‘No More’ and ‘For the country that we want, no more kidnapping.’”
Less than a decade later, between 2000 and 2002, Santos was forced to leave the country while working as assistant director of the newspaper El País due to threats from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group.
When he returned in 2002, he became vice president of Colombia under the Uribe administration, where he created policies against corruption, extortion and kidnapping. He also led Colombia’s international promotion of trade, investment and tourism.
García had her own office in the vice president’s office. “I acted behind the scenes … without seeking any prominence for the human rights [work on behalf] of the most vulnerable and marginal populations of the country — people with disabilities and victims of antipersonnel mines,” she said. “I also worked within the government and with the art and business communities to … help those Colombians, especially the children, in rural areas whose life and dignity were threatened every day.”
García said her early experiences growing up helped her develop a sense of empathy for the less fortunate. “When I was a little girl, we lived in the suburbs of Bogotá near an orphanage which my father helped a lot. I became friends with many of the children,” she said. “One of the most important lessons that I received from my family … is the concept of passion and compassion.”
That compassion grew as García witnessed the devastation that narco-trafficking wrought on her country.
“A majority of Colombians have suffered because of illegal activity and want it to be over, of course. However, it is not that simple,” she said. “We fight every day against drug trafficking, but it is a huge challenge, especially because of our geography. The same geography that makes Colombia such a beautiful country makes guerrilla members and drug dealers more difficult to catch. The complexity of the illegal drug business is hard to understand, even for Colombians.”
Despite the challenges, the government has made significant strides to stamp out drug violence and transform the economy. In fact, Colombia’s per-capita GDP has doubled since 2000, and poverty has declined from one in five to one in 25.
This transformation has resulted in a major tourist boom, as travelers visit picturesque colonial cities such as Cartagena and the country’s rich natural landscape, which is home to the Andes mountain range, a Pacific coastal region and the Amazon rainforest, along with a plethora of wildlife (bird-watching is a huge draw).
“You can always find the weather you want in Colombia,” García said. “If it is gray and cold in Bogotá, in a few hours you can get to Girardot and enjoy a sunny day. Weather depends on the altitude and not so much on the time of year. We don’t have seasons the way you know them in the United States…. You can enjoy the beach all year round.
“Colombia is a very rich country with a huge biodiversity and a lot of culture,” she added. “It is a lab of differences that come together in one place. We have different races, music, weather. Because of our geography, we have so many things…. We have problems, but Colombia is a country that is always making progress. It is full of good people.”
While García has worked to support her husband in promoting Colombia in the United States, she, too, has had to adjust to the transition to diplomatic life.
“It is very different being the wife of a journalist and the wife of a diplomat,” she told us. “As the wife of Ambassador Francisco Santos, I support his job and have my own responsibilities inside the residence. I have been in charge of every event that happens in the residence, which is an important part of the [diplomatic] mission. I also attend a lot of events — both with my husband and on my own — where I represent Colombia and want to build relationships,” she said.
“The wife of a journalist enjoys more freedom. She doesn’t have a professional role in her husband’s career. She can have her own opinion … and disagree.”
Either way, “my husband and I have always been a team. We have been together and worked together … to achieve our goals and dreams,” she said of Santos, whose nickname is Pacho. “A mutual friend introduced us and we went to a party. The second time we saw each other, Pacho told me we were going to end up getting married! Here we are, 34 years later.”
Along the way, their four children, now between the ages of 24 and 31, grew into adults. “We are all very different. We have an artist, an economist, a doctor and a politician — a very eclectic family. All of us have very different ways of thinking and we share those thoughts and confront each other. We are probably too confrontational, but at the same time, we all support each other … in personal and professional growth,” she said, adding that all of their children have been brought up to have a passion for contributing to the greater good. “We are all on a mission.”
To that end, she encouraged their children to mature into better people “capable of taking on challenges that will lead them to build the future Colombia.”
But their four children were also reared to have fun. “We are a very adventurous family. We like to grab our backpacks and travel around the world. We are huge Africa fans, for example,” she said.
Even though she’s been the wife of a former vice president and now a former ambassador, García herself is not all work and no play either. Over the years, she has focused her time on painting, especially what she calls “plastic” art.
“You can use any and all media in one piece of art,” she said, noting that she now calls painting her profession, although it “is also the way I relax.”
García has sold her paintings in Colombia and Miami, another place she feels at home.
Along with painting, she takes pride in her gardening. For her daughter’s wedding next year, García and her 25-year-old daughter Carmen, a medical school student, are creating a garden wonderland to hold an elaborate outdoor ceremony. “I’ve been making special gardens for years. I also love to play volleyball. In Colombia, I invite my friends to play volleyball.”
The couple will go back home eventually, although exactly when remains up in the air. Nevertheless, García said she has enjoyed her time in Washington, D.C.
“When you arrive in a city like Washington, diplomatic status opens doors immediately,” she reflected. “You get to be a local while also having the opportunity to interact … with people from [all over the world] and from different universes — cultural, economical, political, etc. This positive thing happens to diplomats around the world.”
“You get to meet people from all walks of life,” she added. At the same time, “everything moves so fast … that it’s often very difficult to build lasting relationships. You might feel you have everything, and then at the end, your world has changed and you are starting all over again.”
On that note, García said she and her husband will be taking wonderful memories with them.
“We have received and given a lot during our time at the embassy. We have met people that we appreciate…. We have established relationships with institutions like the Kennedy Center,” she said. “We are very grateful for those opportunities. We have the best memories from these experiences.
“It’s a lot of friends that we made and that will always be in this family’s heart. I hope they will also remember us, and I hope we were able to leave a warm memory as human beings and as ambassadors of this country that we love, Colombia.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.