Colombia President Comes to Washington– Uribe’s Problematic Reelection Bid

The author of this COHA analysis is COHA Research Associate Juliana Sojo. Additional research and findings below are by COHA Research Associates Gretchen Knoth and Charlotte Griggs.

Uribe’s Visit to Washington Blotted out by Honduran Crisis

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe visited Washington on June 29-30 to promote, among other things, the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA). While here, he met with President Obama, Trade Representative Ron Kirk, President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and representatives of Washington-based think tanks. Uribe hoped to “strengthen bilateral relations between Bogotá and Washington” as a result of his discussions with government officials.

During President Uribe’s speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Tuesday June 30, he acknowledged that while humanitarian and security issues persist in Colombia, the progress made under his administration should not be overlooked or undervalued. He claimed that none of the 2,000 trade unionists provided with government protection have been assassinated. President Uribe reiterated that his administration has aggressively combated the leftist FARC and the rightist AUC through drug eradication programs and an increased military presence. Due to the advancement of his country’s security programs, as well as his backing of such health initiatives as the national health care system, Uribe maintains that Colombia deserves passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

President Uribe expressed the hope that the CFTA would soon be enacted by Congress, stating that he found President Obama to be “very interested in moving ahead with the agreement.” However, despite supporting the agreement, President Obama made reference to the unresolved human rights violations that impede approval of the agreement. In a White House briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stated, “I think part of that cooperation, part of that friendship, and part of that relationship is bringing up when you disagree, particularly on human rights. And I know that will be a topic of today’s meeting.” During his talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Uribe repeatedly spoke of the advantages of the free trade agreement and emphasized that one of its main purposes was to give a “sign to investors to increase [their] confidence in Colombia” in order to bolster foreign direct investment in the nation. Uribe stated that revenue from such investments as a result of the CFTA would lead into prosperity, security and a reduction in poverty.

Little Advance on CFTA
Presidents Uribe and Obama engaged in a positive discussion of the CFTA, but made little progress from previous rounds of negotiations between the two nations. For his part, President Obama reiterated his administration’s hesitation toward the agreement, maintaining that human rights violations must be further resolved before the U.S. will proceed toward ratification. President Obama indicated that the CFTA is a priority of his bilateral trade agenda, and that his administration has now renewed discussion of the agreement with the hope of its eventual passage. The Colombian Ambassador, Carolina Barco, also suggested that negotiations are gradually moving ahead, adding that “the technical teams from [the U.S. and Colombia] are working on it.” Most observers would agree that President Uribe’s visit did not significantly accelerate progress of the CFTA as his stay in Washington generated disappointedly scant coverage of the negotiations due to constant media coverage the coup in Honduras. Despite Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) efforts, the CFTA remains stalled in Congress and will likely remain unresolved until further into the Congressional term.

During their discussion, Obama discouraged the pending referendum that would extend Uribe’s presidency and suggested that he not run for a third consecutive term. He referred to former U.S. President George Washington’s experience, “[A]t a time when he could have stayed president for life, he made a decision that after service he was able to step aside and return to civilian life. And that set a precedent then for the future.”

Issues at Play with Colombia’s President Uribe’s Probable Reelection Bid
Following the Colombian Senate’s recent approval of a bill calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow President Álvaro Uribe Vélez to seek an unprecedented third consecutive term in office, some critics would argue that the state of Colombian democracy is faltering and its already severely weakened foundations are further giving way. A third presidential term for Uribe would pose an enormous weight on the country’s rule of law and the stability of its democratic infrastructure.

During his past two presidential terms (2002-2006 and 2006-present), Colombia’s Nariño Palace has had President Álvaro Uribe as its permanent guest. His unprecedented popularity among Colombians has given his administration the opportunity to alter legislation in order to allow incumbent presidents to run not only for a consecutive second term in office, but entertaining the possibility of a third term as well.

Midway through his second term, the Partido de la U, one of the political parties backing Uribe, organized a petition drive to be delivered to Congress, requesting that it consider holding a referendum on a Constitutional amendment which would permit Uribe to run for office for a third consecutive time. According to Colombia’s Registry, the petition attracted an astonishing 4 million signatures (in a country of approximately 46 million), which gave the Colombian Congress’ pro-Uribe majority all of the support that it needed to ratify the reelection measure. At this stage, the bill has passed in both houses with only minor variations in their texts. Just a few key steps will still be needed before the final bill is enacted. Once the text is reconciled by both houses, it will be reviewed by the Constitutional Court and then put to a vote by the Colombian electorate. Few among the opposition parties doubt that the Uribe administration will lack the muscle to push the enabling legislation through. Recent polls staged by Colombia’s prominent news source, Semana magazine report that, as of now, three out of every five Colombians would vote for Mr. Uribe’s second reelection, a fact that further underwrites his indisputable popularity.

After seven years in office, Uribe enjoys a national approval rating of 71 percent according to Invamer-Gallup Polls, making Uribe one of the most popular presidents in Colombian or even Latin American history. When Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia was ravaged by one of the most violent periods of its undeclared internal war. During his incumbency, the government has reestablished control over most of the country’s territory and thousands of members of left and right-wing armed groups have been demobilized in one form or another. Furthermore, financial confidence in the country and its international credit rating have significantly increased, yielding dividends in foreign direct investment (FDI), which is an important contributor to the revival of the country’s economy.

In the course of the President’s landmark achievements and well publicized military triumphs over FARC, Uribe’s term in office has been hardly free of abuses and scandals. Billions of dollars have been spent on anti-drug trafficking efforts, yet Colombia remains a major source of cocaine. Furthermore, his administration has been marred by serious human rights violations. These include the practice of murdering innocent civilians and later depicting them as guerrillas killed in combat for which more than two dozen army soldiers have now been arrested. Meanwhile, the investigation of the Colombian intelligence service, Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) for spying on opposition politicians, journalists and Supreme Court judges is limping along with the vast number of labor union members threatened and later murdered, while corrupt practices are being carried out by many government agencies.

Still undecided?

In spite of the efforts by the legislature, Uribe has not yet confirmed nor denied his intention of running in the 2010 election. The President has said that his primary concern is the continuation of his “democratic security” program during the next presidential term, insisting that the prolongation of the policies enacted are essential for Colombia’s peace and prosperity. In a forum held by The Economist, Uribe implied that he alone could ensure the continuation of his policies, stating, “Personally, I would feel very bitter if new generations saw me as being attached to power. I have been a fighter for democracy. But I am very concerned with what might happen with these policies. I have a responsibility with the Colombian people.”

Moreover, Uribe’s vacillation over his potential candidacy has been strongly criticized by his political opponents who are troubled by the electoral prospects of their own parties during the upcoming elections. In addition, many of the so called “Uribistas,” though recognizing some of his political achievements, believe that a third presidential mandate would be intrinsically undemocratic and harmful to the country’s fragile institutions. On one of its covers last month, Semana openly declared “No to Reelection.” It argued that the checks and balances spelled out in the Colombian Constitution are designed for one four-year presidential term; a third term could further undermine the democratic principle of the separation of powers.
Although the vast majority of Colombians support President Uribe, voices of alarm over the prospect of a third term have not only come from anti-Uribe parties but also from the Catholic Church, respected media, intellectuals, non-profit organizations and other heads of state. This, compounded with the Obama administration’s expressed concerns and his own family’s opposition, places Mr. Uribe in a very delicate position.

However, despite domestic and international opposition to a third mandate, there are some who believe that it should be Colombian society that decides, and thus should be done via a referendum if another reelection possibility is offered to Uribe. They argue that the will of the people should be the fundamental pillar of a democratic state, and as such, it should be the electorate that decides what changes, if any, are made within their system of government.

It should be noted that there are other viable would-be candidates of Uribe’s persuasion who could also replace Uribe in the presidency. Juan Manuel Santos, ex-Defense minister and Andres Felipe Arias, ex-Agricultural Minister, have resigned from their posts in order to run in case the reelection provision is not enacted. Other contenders include ex-Senator Germán Vargas Lleras of the political party Cambio Radical, Carlos Gaviria from the leading opposition party Polo Democrático Alternativo and Sergio Fajardo, an independent who was a reform mayor of Medellín.

Democracy, Limited.

In 2005, Colombia amended its Constitution so that Uribe could stand for reelection for a second term in 2006. Regardless of the arguments for or against his first reelection, a second reelection bid would have far more serious consequences than the first. Various political and institutional reasons led to the first measure’s passage, such as the strides Uribe had made in the war against the FARC and the political consensus which then existed that a single period of four years was too short a period for any administration to transact its agenda. This formula, with its virtues and faults, was generally accepted by public opinion as a consequence of the country’s political evolution during Uribe’s first term. However, this too was not free of scandal. Allegedly, some of Uribe’s closest associates bribed more than 30 Congressmen with nominations to various notary public and diplomatic posts in return for their promise to vote for the first reelection measures.

The system of checks and balances and the constitutional basis for a four year presidential term was established by the 1991 Constitution in order to prevent an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the country’s leaders. However, Uribe’s “democratic security” administration already has significantly altered the balance of power intended by Colombia’s Constitution. During his second term, Uribe gained far-flung influence over the composition of Colombia’s Central Bank and Constitutional Court. After the Colombian Supreme Court began to investigate dozens of Uribe’s Congressional allies for suspected ties to right-wing paramilitaries, he accused the court of being politically motivated and proposed reforms that would remove the investigation of Congress members from the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.

A third term in office would allow President Uribe even greater freedom to exert plenary control over the other branches of government. Uribe will have the opportunity to propose a new Prosecutor General as well as fill the Constitutional Court with his own nominees. Senior judicial appointments must be ratified by the Colombian Congress, but the President enjoys a comfortable legislative majority that will allow for the confirmation of most, if not all of his nominees. Without constitutional amendments limiting executive power over the other government branches, Colombia risks a more centralized and authoritarian concentration of power in Uribe’s hands. This set of circumstances, along with an extended and dangerous concentration of power in one person, and Uribe’s ability to change the Constitution in order to remain in office, could make the “longest standing democracy in Latin America” appear feeble and weak.
A third term under Uribe will only exacerbate the erosion of the principle of the separation of power and thus weaken one of the fundamental pillars of Colombia’s constitutional democracy. A democratic society’s success is at extreme peril when it comes to rely on only one individual.

A Regional Trend

The risks associated with perpetuating a single leader in power and the rise of menacing illiberal democracy appears to be a growing phenomenon throughout Latin America. Other state leaders, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, have used their overwhelming popularity to modify their Constitutions in order to become eligible for extended terms in office, risking the stability of the checks and balances normally associated with successful liberal democracies. But this trend should not be considered an example for other countries to follow, since it appears to be detrimental to democratic stability. Furthermore, despite President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s popularity in Brazil, he has shown no interest in changing the rules of the game to extend his term in office. It should be clear that a president’s popularity is not reason enough to reform a nation’s Constitution and risk new forms of populist autocracy that can later undermine constitutional government.

Unquestionably, the region needs democracy and strong democratic institutions, which is the essential reason why many call for Uribe’s retirement even if they may support him. With its independent press and active civil society, Colombia may still have the chance to stand as an alternative to autocracy in Latin American politics in spite of Uribe’s best efforts. In a region weighed down by chronic misrule, Uribe has the chance to show the importance of placing institutions and the rule of law above a desire to hold on to the presidency at all costs. Instead, his indecision regarding his personal future currently risks accelerating a disturbing regional trend.

Consequences for U.S. – Colombia Relations

Another important outcome of Uribe’s second reelection may be its negative effects on the status of U.S.-Colombia relations. On May 20th, US Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about her position regarding aid to Colombia and the CFTA if Uribe’s presidential mandate were to be prolonged to 2014. Clinton proclaimed that the U.S. government does not intervene in another state’s internal affairs, but that any changes in the Colombian government should comply with the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter and its stance on a democracy’s separation of powers.

Furthermore, there seems to be a consensus in the U.S. legislative and executive branches that a third term for Uribe could not only tarnish an already thoroughly besmirched public figure, but also further defame Colombia’s image with Democrats in the U.S. Congress, continuing to delay the approval of the CFTA. According to Colombia’s leading newspaper El Tiempo, the reelection issue could become an uncomfortable wedge that could complicate bilateral relations and stall CFTA and Plan Colombia discussions. During Uribe’s visit to the White House, President Obama discussed Uribe’s potential reelection plans and stated that George Washington enhanced his reputation by leaving after two terms. “After eight years, usually the American people want a change,” Obama wryly commented.

Colombia has always been proud of its strong democratic tradition, being one of the only countries in Latin America not to have traveled down the path of dictatorships during much of the past century. However, Uribe’s efforts to remain in power could undermine the strength of Colombia’s longstanding democratic tradition.

Uribe’s successful military accomplishments, which have made him one of the most popular presidents in Colombian history, should in no way be considered justifications to lengthen his term or serve as an excuse to perpetuate himself in power. While Uribe has made important progress in the war against brutal left-wing guerrillas and other militant groups, more must be done to curb Colombia’s unrelenting violence and the proven history of brutality of its military establishment. Moreover, the President has shown little respect for the institutions of Colombian democracy. If he obdurately insists on remaining in office, Uribe would run the risk of undermining some of his political successes and the otherwise cordial relations he has enjoyed with past U.S. governments. It is clear that the benefits of a democratic alternation of power outweigh those of continuity and conformity, which is why less than a year to go before the May 2010 election, President Uribe should give some thought to stepping down and thereby uphold the democratic principles he insists on telling us he has fought so hard to protect.

One thought on “Colombia President Comes to Washington– Uribe’s Problematic Reelection Bid

  • July 12, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Free traders are selling the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement as a vehicle for producing American jobs by eliminating Colombian tariffs on American exports. But Colombian President Álvaro Uribe keeps talking about American “investment” in his country. This agreement is about foreign direct investment in Colombia and as such is not a trade deal but an outsourcing deal. Outsourcing deals require investment. Trade deals do not require investment. Trade deals require only the removal of barriers to trade.

    When US trade negotiators sat down to negotiate the existing trade deal with Colombia their contempt for the well being of the American people led them to accept a deal where a tariff is applied to US exports to Colombia while imports coming in from Colombia are duty free. That contempt for the Americans continues in the proposed new trade agreement. The spin is that it is about American jobs and indeed a bone is thrown to American workers in the form of no more tariffs on our exports. That bone is near worthless since they have little money to buy from us and what little they do buy from us they have little choice about. They will buy it with or without the tariff. There are fewer jobs for Americans in this agreement not more.


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