The Vermont Cynic

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Local taxi business owner reveals past

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For more than a decade, Seven Days’ Hackie column has told the stories of passengers in one cabbie’s car, but the most interesting profile this week may be a real-life driver’s. 

Burlington-based American Taxi Corporation (A Taxi Corp) is owned and operated by Juan Carlos Vallejo, a man who said he may run for president in Colombia in 2014.

 Over a decade ago, when Vallejo was a law professor at the National University of Colombia system in Medell?_n, Colombia, he said he “lived and breathed” human rights issues. 

Reporting about Colombia’s internal issues in front of several international assemblies, the professor-turned-driver said he also defended the rights of laborers, racial minorities, members of the LGBTQ community and union leaders. 

There, this was considered to be punishable by death or exile, Vallejo said.

“I was doing three ‘jobs’,” he said.  “Teaching, defending and reporting.”

But that all changed in 2002, Vallejo escaped to the U.S. with help from the New York City-based Scholar Rescue Fund when he began to fear for his life due to political pressure, he said. He held a temporary residence at the University of New Mexico, where he studied English and continued conducting research on human rights affairs, a 2002 New York Times article stated. 

More than a decade later, Vallejo said he is now preparing to use his academic career, where he has tried to bring a voice to the voiceless, to enter into Colombian politics. 

But being considered a candidate for the Colombian president, who functions as the chief of state, is especially challenging in the current system. 

In 2010, when presidential and parliamentary elections were last held, only 44 percent of citizens who were eligible to vote actually did, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.  

The president is elected by absolute majority vote by a two round system to serve a four year term, Vallejo said. 

Further complicating his plans is aftermath of the recent agrarian strike led by farmers, truckers and coffee growers who staged a strike in August to protest the government’s handling of free trade agreements and no regulation which has resulted in economic stagnation. 

With clear divides between the people and the views of President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, Vallejo said he believes that his home country has only gotten worse since he left and is afraid there may be little hope.

“I need security measures and democratic guarantees to return [to Colombia],” Vallejo said.  “More than that, [I need] the appropriate ‘climate’ to face an electoral campaign.”

Another event that could postpone the 2014 Colombian presidential elections is the Colombia peace talks.  For the past 50 to 60 years, a guerilla terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of America or FARC, have terrorized the people of Colombia.  

Since last October, the Colombian Government and FARC have been trying to negotiate a peace settlement. 

 If the negotiations are not settled by November, it is unlikely that the elections will continue on as planned. The election date is May 25, 2014.

While the U.S. has brought him refuge, there were some challenges involved with being away from his country and loved ones, he said. He added that he missed cultural aspects of his home country including the food and the climate. 

 “You don’t know how I suffered here during the winter,” Vallejo said. 

As for the Colombian candidacy of 2014, nothing is final yet. “It is a great people and very rich country,” Vallejo said.  “I am very sad.  But I think the people will change the situation soon.”

If the candidacy does not work out, he said he will return to his humanitarian groups, his university, his radio and TV program “Magazine of the World,” and, of course, his taxi business.

First-year Courtney Gray said she is not surprised someone with such an interesting history as Vallejo’s still goes unknown.

“It just goes to show how oblivious Americans are to other countries’ problems,” said first-year Courtney Gray.  “I didn’t know about any of that.”

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Local taxi business owner reveals past