Colombia’s Democratic Hero Could End Up Compromising Its Basic Institutions

Colombia, Washington’s most faithful ally in South America, is rapidly experiencing a series of developments that invoke questions on the proper role of U.S. foreign policy towards the region.

President Alvaro Uribe, who is finishing his sixth year in office, has maintained extremely high approval ratings among Colombians, mainly due to his recent U.S.-backed military successes against the FARC, Latin America’s oldest and largest guerrilla group. After a dramatic military operation in which fifteen hostages were rescued by Colombian security forces, Uribe’s approval rating soared to a historic 91 percent. Now one of the groups backing him, the “U” Party, is leading a movement that would revise Colombia’s constitution to allow Uribe to run for a third term in 2010. A recent poll indicated that 70 percent of Colombians believe that Uribe should be able to run for re-election again, and a remarkable 79 percent said that they would vote for him once more, if the opportunity was available. So, he must be doing something right. Right?

It depends on how one looks at the country’s present political environment. The FARC has been categorized as a terrorist group by Colombia, the United States, and the European Union. As such, Uribe has pursued a hard-line against them, often engaging in an “ends justify the means” approach which palpably has succeeded in reducing violence and improving overall security in the country, but perhaps at an unacceptable heavy cost.

A closer look at the puportedly rosy hue of Colombia under Uribe in the context of democratic development reveals a much grayer situation that is, in fact, alarmingly worsening. As Uribe’s popularity reaches extraordinary levels, the standing of his country’s basic institutions have reached disturbing lows. Colombia, a country which has had a relatively strong democratic tradition, is ominously beginning to exhibit patterns indicative of an authoritarian tilt. While its leader is boisterously toasted by the populace many of the basic institutions existing around him may prove to be too weak to provide adequate checks on his personal exercise of power. An evaluation of this unhappy scenario –which could deteriorate even further if he runs and wins a third consecutive term—suggests that in spite of Washington’s self-serving boosterism for its southern ally, Colombian democracy could be at grave risk under Uribe.

The aforementioned July 2008 poll shows that 48 percent of Colombians would not vote in the 2010 presidential elections if Uribe is constitutionally barred from running. Another poll by Vanderbilt University and Universidad de los Andes reveals worrisome figures that indicate that Uribe’s high popularity coincides with the public’s skeptical appreciation of the country’s vital institutions. The once highly esteemed Colombian Congress is going through one of its worst periods in terms of stature in the nation’s history, with 44 percent of Colombians saying that they have zero trust in political parties and 19 percent also insisting that the nation’s judges deserve to be ignored. Astonishingly, one out of three Colombians believe that those who do not agree with the majority are a threat to the country’s progress, while an alarming 37 percent are convinced that the president should be allowed to limit the political opposition. Even more notably, a third of Colombians would be willing to abandon the system of separation of powers, at the expense of Congress, the Constitutional Court, or both. Even the office of the presidency seems to perform relatively poorly: according to the Colombian National Statistics Department, 57 percent of the public does not fully trust it. Meanwhile, the figure of towering Uribe, the hero, rises above them all.

Despite these distressing statistics, there is more than sufficient space for the international community to play a constructive role. One of the most encouraging findings by the Vanderbilt study is that Colombians with higher levels of education have strikingly fewer propensities to manifest the anti-democratic attitudes outlined above. This finding, which should not prove that surprising, calls into question the role of the United States not only in Colombia, but elsewhere in the region. Perhaps replacing gun-toting U.S. military training teams with well-drafted education programs could do more to develop democratic values throughout the region. Most importantly, it would mark the abandonment of an unsuccessful foreign policy approach that mainly has been limited to engaging countries’ leaders, instead of strengthening their authentically democratic institutions.