Uribe’s Democratic Deficit: He comes and goes from Washington, winning few converts or new acolytes

“We chose one word to lead our administration. This word is ‘confidence,’” said Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the hard-line president of Colombia who visited Washington D.C this week. Uribe brusquely targeted the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and smaller illicit armed groups that he sees threatening the stability of his administration and the security of Colombian citizens. As an enthusiastic advocate of neo-liberal trade policies, he has forged international free trade agreements, most recently with Washington under the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

President George W. Bush awarded Colombia’s leader the Presidential Medal of Freedom to commend him for his advocacy of democracy in the region, his firm stance against terrorism and his indisputable hard-line credentials. Uribe has had overwhelming local and U.S.support for many of his seven years in office and currently enjoys a 71 percent approval rating according to Invarner Gallup polls. Despite President Uribe’s popularity, his domestic policies raise questions concerning his democratic bona fides, and he may not be the ideal representative for the Obama administration to use as Washington’s vehicle to generate a new democratic initiative in Latin America. Uribe is a Teflon president who has personally identified himself with some of the most sordid individuals, institutions and dark forces in his country.

An Uncertain Future
President Uribe’s legacy has been enveloped in scandal and illustrates a neglect of humanitarian issues that beg for further scrutiny. Nevertheless, the Colombian House and Senate have each drafted a bill that would reform the constitution by allowing the president to run for an unprecedented third term in office. Uribe has yet to declare whether or not he will actually run in May 2010. Sources reveal that Uribe potentially may have to face embarrassing financial information regarding pay-offs to legislators who voted in favor of staging the referendum. Furthermore, Uribe’s evasive approach when questioned about such activities has only spurred more discussion of his possible culpability for having compromised individuals within the government in order to quietly pursue another term. Uribe stated that “Perpetuating oneself in the presidency troubles me, but I cannot be politically irresponsible.” This crucial juncture in his career undeniably has drawn comparisons between Uribe and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, as well as his Venezuelan neighbor Hugo Chávez, who has successfully amended the constitution so that he may run for another term in office.

Internal Violence and Scandal
Uribe has presented himself as a constitutionalist devoted to the promotion of democracy, but pursuing a third term could be flirting with authoritarianism. When first running for president in 2002, Uribe’s slogan was “mano firme, corazon grande,” – “firm hand, big heart.” Since then, he has exhibited a predilection for sanctioning violence and for leaping into an anti-humanitarian mode, transforming himself into a veritable Dr. Jekyll. Until a recent plea made by the head of the influential Bishop’s Conference, Uribe had refused negotiations and diplomatic efforts regarding the FARC. In order to advance negotiations, many have suggested that Uribe’s recent concessions are intended to silence those who charge him with “stigmatizing” groups, who even entertain a political solution to the conflict. Uribe’s track record exhibits sometimes questionable military tactics to suppress internal opposition. Consequently, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights reported in 2008 “widespread and systematic” civilian killings by the army; since 2002, the Attorney General’s office has investigated 1,296 allegations of such violence.

In addition to his longstanding stringent treatment of domestic adversaries, many accuse Uribe of corruption and deception in his political dealings. The notorious investigative agency, Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) is accused of illegally wire-tapping Supreme Court justices and investigating anti-Uribe officials. While such investigations may have been conducted unbeknownst to the Teflon-prone president, it is difficult for him to avoid association with these scandals when alleged victims of DAS’ surveillance tend to be those strongly opposed to the Uribe administration. Controversy has loomed during both of Uribe’s terms in office, and Uribe’s ties to the drug trafficking industry should also raise some questions. He is accused of having links to imprisoned drug trafficker Diego Fernando Murillo (Don Berna), who reputably helped finance Uribe’s 2002 presidential candidacy.

Humanitarian Crisis: Internal Refugees
Colombia also faces a serious refugee problem that Uribe has largely neglected while pursuing his “Democratic Security” policies. Colombia has the second largest population of internally displaced refugees in the world, estimated at three million. Thousands of refugees crowd the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan borders under impoverished conditions, attempting to avoid being caught in the violence existing between government forces and the FARC. Most of these internally displaced refugees are campesinos and approximately 40 percent of them are children. Within the last decade, it is reported that about 200,000 displaced persons have crossed the Venezuelan border to seek political asylum. Uribe’s concern for security issues has amassed several humanitarian wrongdoings.

Uribe’s accomplishments are a reflection of his narrow goals and shortsightedness. However, when viewed from a broader scope, his time as president has exposed significant lapses in the democratic practices of his administration. Uribe’s pension for violence and power-hungry tendencies should raise warning signals for the international community. Many believe that if Uribe returns for a third term in office, his credibility as a democratic leader will be further undermined. If he remains in office, he would be able to fill the governmental infrastructure with his appointees and his sectarian agenda would continue to go unchecked. The Obama Administration needs allies in South America who support democratic ideals and would be an advocate for human rights. Unfortunately, Uribe and his team needs to be observed more closely before Washington can be certain of its democratic legitimacy or its trustworthiness.