As Colombia’s Internal Political Crisis Worsens, Senator McCain Leaves for the Andean Nation

• The Presumptive Republican Nominee is sure to ignore President Uribe’s political wizardry, which may set the stage for his increasingly authoritarian rule and the undermining of democratic institutions.

John McCain is set to visit Latin America this week, an occasion which will hopefully shed some light on his overall policy towards the region. Up to now, McCain has uttered only brief platitudes which have hewed exactly to the Bush White House line. He will almost certainly preach in favor of what he calls “comprehensive immigration reform” and the expansion of free trade agreements with several of the U.S.’ southern neighbors. McCain will visit both México and Colombia, but his trip to Bogotá is of particular interest as it underscores McCain’s hypocritical and self-serving stance towards a simplistic version of U.S.- Latin American relations.

Colombia, touted by many, including the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, as a bastion of conservative democratic ideals in a region quickly succumbing to the democratic left, is currently experiencing a major crisis which exposes the flimsy nature of the country’s institutions. With fully one-fifth of the country’s legislators accused of connections to illegal armed groups and the legitimacy of Uribe’s current presidential term being called into question by a recent Supreme Court decision, McCain’s unquestioning support of the current administration is just one more example of his ill-advised and ill-informed makeshift regional policy. Moreover, the Arizona senator’s offerings on Latin America, merely a repetition of the Bush administration’s policies that vacillate between neglect of the region and unwarranted villainization of leftist governments, is scheduled to offer nothing new to the US regional foreign policy dialogue.

The Colombian Supreme Court’s De-Legitimization of the 2006 Elections Backfires
On Thursday, the Colombian Supreme Court may have inadvertently strengthened Álvaro Uribe’s prospects of entrenching himself as the country’s populist dictator into the next decade. The Court’s decision to sentence ex-congress woman Yidis Medina to 47 months in prison for accepting bribes ultimately may have profound consequences. According to the Supreme Court, Medina’s conviction of accepting a pay off in return for voting in favor of the constitutional amendment allowing Uribe to run for reelection in 2006, indicates the “clear and manifest deviation of power” and may end up de-legitimizing Uribe’s election altogether. Because of its profound implications, the court forwarded copies of the sentence to both the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General for review. In response, Uribe accused the court of applying selective justice and using its power to put undue pressure on the executive branch of government.

Uribe and the Supreme Court
Thursday’s events are not the first example of tension between President Uribe and the country’s high court. Several instances have pitted the two branches of government against each other. In 2007, the Court’s ruling that ex-paramilitary leaders could not be found guilty of sedition (thus denying them status as political prisoners), caused what the Colombian media termed a “choque de trenes” between the head of state and the high court.

Later that year, a letter written by demobilized combatant José Orlando Moncada Zapata brought to light accusations regarding Uribe’s involvement in an assassination plot that targeted paramilitary leader Alcides de Jesús Durango. Supreme Court Chief Justice Valencia Copete declared that Uribe’s attempts to contact the author of that letter and his public comments on the situation were tantamount to an errant obstruction of justice. Tersely, Uribe responded that Valencia’s comments were biased, untruthful, and based on grave presumptions. Moncada eventually confessed that he had fabricated the accusations; however, the relationship between Uribe and the court had been damaged by his protests. In addition, the President’s critics feel that he has been involved in too many compromising situations which have effectively sullied his reputation and called his total innocence into question. Uribe may be a Hessian to Bush’s cause in choosing Washington over the rest of Latin America when it comes to ideas of autonomy, trade, and anti-drug initiatives, but he is also undeniably clever in advancing his own self interests.

Finally, the parapolitico scandal, which implicates as many as sixty members of Congress (20% of that body) –the majority of whom are from Uribe’s own party – in cooperating with the country’s illegally armed paramilitary groups, certainly has accounted for even more tension between the executive and legislative branches. Regardless of the myriad of causes for friction, it is clear that the president and the high court do not see eye to eye, and Uribe’s immediate calls for a re-run election send an undeniably hostile message to its members.

Referendum on Reelection: A pathway to a semi-dictatorship?
Immediately following the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision, Uribe issued a request for Congress to draft plans for a referendum on re-running the 2006 elections. There are still many unanswered questions about the shape that such an election would take, including whom Uribe’s opponents would be. However, it seems certain that should the election take place in the near future, Uribe will be victorious. Due to the president’s current unprecedented popularity rating of 80% and the extreme unlikelihood of the country electing two different presidents in the space of two years, the Supreme Court has unintentionally handed Uribe the opportunity to establish himself as a de-facto dictator, a position for which his hawkish personality and confrontational political persona is uniquely suited.

It is still unclear if his near-inevitable victory in a second election would simply reaffirm his current term’s legitimacy, or actually would extend his mandate into the next decade. In either case, Uribe’s request is indicative of his scornful attitude towards at least some of the country’s democratic institutions. The Colombian president seems intent on utilizing any device, no matter how dangerous, to the country’s political status, to circumvent legislative processes to maintain his grip on power. Rumors have been circulating for some time that Uribe may even seek to change the Constitution to allow his run for a third term. This would be the ultimate manifestation of Uribe’s willingness to undermine democratic processes if it advanced his own prospects; a risky move in a country suffering the continent’s longest running civil conflict.

Compounding the problem is the veritable standstill that the Colombian Congress has come to. As one news source points out, while a fifth of the country’s legislators are embroiled in the parapolitico scandal, how can Congress adequately stand up to Uribe’s demands? Ex-president Ernesto Samper wisely urged the current administration to, “put things in order and recover institutional governability.” Uribe’s self-serving demand for a re-run election should be viewed very skeptically and Colombia’s congress should take care to protect and maintain what remains of the integrity of the country’s besieged democratic institutions.