Uribe’s Race Against Himself

  • Uribe will undoubtedly win reelection on May 28, but there are too many unanswered questions about his leadership
  • The election will, in an important way, serve as a referendum on the depth of popular support for Uribe and Colombia’s tolerance for the government’s programs which didn’t show well under the glare of publicity
  • Renewed violence on the part of FARC leftist guerrillas and increasing scandals involving Uribe’s old links to the notorious AUC paramilitaries, have cast doubt on his successes, and somewhat tarnished his image

Speculation over whether incumbent Alvaro Uribe will continue as Colombia’s president has long disappeared. After winning an extremely controversial high court decision allowing him to stand for reelection – a move which appeared to many as an act of overweening ambition – Uribe has found few obstacles in his path. Recent polls show he will likely best his closest opponent by a margin of over 30%, potentially sealing his victory in the first round. This is not to suggest he is coasting to victory, however, as his support has steadily flagged since last summer. At one point, Uribe’s approval rating had been as high as 80%, but reports of fraudulent balloting in the last election and controversial free trade talks with the U.S. have tarnished his stature. Pressing questions about the ability of Uribe’s Washington-backed Democratic Security policy to end the country’s brutal civil violence have significantly weakened his mandate. As such, the election is not about if he will retain office, but whether Colombians will register much enthusiasm over four more years of the same. The vote is, in effect, a referendum on Uribe’s mounting failings, with abstention and protest votes nibbling away at his prospective mandate for a second term.

Running Alone

Uribe’s buoyancy going into this weekend’s election is owing to the paucity of worthy adversaries willing to challenge his standing. Of the five contenders hoping to dethrone him, none appear to have a realistic chance at this point. Horacio Serpa, runner-up in the 2002 elections, barely managed to win his party’s primary (pulling in less than 50% of the vote), and thus seems unlikely represent a serious threat against Uribe. Carlos Gaviria, after a surprising upset win in his party’s primary, is the only other candidate that could hope to mount a credible run at Uribe. Other candidates appear as simply names on a ballot, and pose no real threat to the incumbent.

Uribe’s Legacy

Uribe’s ascendance to power in the 2002 elections saw him rise from being a minor candidate – at less than 2% of the vote in one poll – to a clear victory, following an increase in the country’s tempo of violence that left cease-fire agreements between rebels and the government in shambles. The turmoil surrounding the peace process led to a collapse of then-incumbent Horacio Serpa’s campaign (peace negotiations were at the center of his candidacy). Uribe won wide support by promising to come down hard on the leftist rebel group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and to create a more stable and secure nation. He also cultivated national sympathy by playing on personal experience: his father had been killed by the FARC in 1983.

Following his election, Uribe responded by immediately cracking down on FARC activities, and used the threat of extradition to the United States to cajole members of the rightwing Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group into laying down their weapons. According to COHA Senior Research Fellow and Colombian specialist John Green, it has been Uribe’s success in securing the country’s roadways from armed rebels that has earned him continuing support – largely from middle and upper-class urban Colombians thankful for the opportunity to travel safely for the first time in decades. Statistically, the security emphasis has been significant: since 2002 homicides are down 37% and kidnappings have decreased by 73%.

Promises Not Delivered: Part 1

Recent events in Colombia may be undermining that image of peace and stability, however. A recent upswing in guerrilla violence, which is now extending into urban areas, presents a troubling development, and casts doubt on Uribe’s claims of progress. His aggressive policies towards rebel groups – particularly the intransigent FARC, which adamantly refused to negotiate – seemed to achieve modest success in their initial phases, albeit at a certain social cost. The centerpiece of this anti-FARC campaign was a military offensive known as Plan Patriota which, while loosely connected to the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia anti-drug campaign, operated under the primary objective of defeating the leftist guerrillas militarily.

Yet, despite lavish funding, Plan Patriota may have only provoked the FARC into staging highly visible attacks ahead of the elections. A series of April bombings in and around Bogotá killed several people, and shook a city that had grown increasingly accustomed to relative tranquility. Other attacks, such as a bold daylight assault in February on a city council meeting in Huila that killed 11, suggest that the FARC is far from ready to capitulate in the face of the government’s crackdown, a conclusion supported by the guerrillas’ successful April 20 attack on a government anti-drug team which killed 10 officers.

Perhaps recognizing the limits of military solutions to the conflict, Uribe recently expressed a willingness to negotiate with the FARC, as he is already doing with the country’s other leftist movement the, Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN). Nevertheless, finding a resolution to the FARC insurgency has to be one of the most pressing issues on Uribe’s agenda after election day. The April 27 kidnap and murder of Liliana Gaviria, an action which was officially attributed to the FARC, suggests that lawlessness may be on the rise in general, and could provide even more formidable problems for Uribe. His image of being invincible is at serious risk.

Promises Not Delivered: Part 2

Further weakening the heft of Uribe’s purported accomplishments have been the innumerable questions about the legitimacy of his paramilitary strategy. Uribe’s AUC demobilization plan – under the auspices of the Justice and Peace Law – has been rife with problems, and has resoundingly failed to achieve its stated goal of stabilizing the nation.

Uribe has invested a great deal of political capital into his ability to staunch the country’s internecine violence. Yet the effectiveness of his flagship program to remove one group of combatants from the field – the paramilitary demobilization project – has proved unconvincing. The AUC, famous for both its ruthless brutality and fraternal ties with cocaine traffickers, has received alarmingly lenient treatment under the terms of Uribe’s over-heralded Justice and Peace Law. Members of the paramilitary group who offer empty confessions, pay token reparations, and make a show of disarming and standing down, are subject to only symbolic jail terms. Equally concerning is the fact that large numbers of AUC members never leave the drug trade, and many others are still involved with fighting the FARC and terrorizing innocent civilians in the process.

While over 30,000 AUC members demobilized under the government’s framework, their conversion to peaceful civilian life has been fitful and incomplete. Reports abound of paramilitary weapons caches, and since the demobilization did not effectively dissolve the institutional structures of the AUC, many suspect that the Justice and Peace Law merely provides a cloak of impunity under which the group’s illicit activities – primarily narcotics-related – will continue unimpeded. This is to say nothing of the moral ambiguity inherent in Uribe’s willingness to forgo prosecution on some of the worst human rights offenders in the Western Hemisphere.

Marked by Scandal

Misgivings over the demobilization framework have been compounded by a series of scandals that have clouded Uribe’s integrity. The highest reaching and broadest scandal involves the head of the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad), a presidentially-controlled organization which has been accused of collaboration with the AUC, under the direction of a close Uribe associate, Jorge Noguera. The alleged ties between the groups have included intelligence sharing, and may have even involved warning the paramilitaries of pending government raids. Still more damaging have been the accusations that the DAS, in league with the paramilitaries, conspired to commit electoral fraud in the 2002 election, obtaining a substantial number of votes in favor of Uribe.

These scandals, while themselves somewhat problematic, have been compounded by the president’s prickly response to the media’s coverage of them. Uribe’s strident criticism of the news outlets left many Colombians uncomfortable. According to a Reuters report, when the highly regarded Bogotá news magazine Semana published reports on the scandals, “Uribe dismissed Semana as ‘frivolous’ and portrayed its editor as a high society fop,” This haughty response has included suggestions that coverage of the scandal was resulting in “harm…to the legitimacy of Colombian democracy, to a country that for the first time is beginning to see a bonanza of investment.” With this attitude, Uribe has perhaps shown a troubling autocratic bent and certainly a formidable capacity to wiggle out of an uncomfortable situation. This troubling emphasis on self-interest and disregard for public criticism reflects little concern for the health of Colombian democratic institutions.

In Bed with Bush

Uribe’s record has been equally tarnished by his close ties to the Bush Administration, a relationship solidified by Bogotá’s compliance to Washington’s model for the war on drugs, and its willingness to sign onto Washington’s grossly unpopular free trade model. The United States more than doubled aid going to Colombia in 2002, the year in which Uribe was elected. It is estimated that roughly three quarter of a billion dollars makes it to Colombia every year, yet little of this aid ultimately benefits the Colombian people. According to the Center for International Policy, in 2005, $602.6 million of U.S. aid went towards strengthening the Colombian police and military forces. The remaining $138.5 million was channeled to the vague classification of “International Narcotics Control,” an allocation which does nothing to help the country’s poor, hungry, and under-educated.

Colombians have perhaps begun to notice that being cozy with the Bush administration has done little for the general populace. Opponents criticize Uribe “for failing to address the health and education needs of poor Colombians displaced by the conflict.” In fact, it would be within Uribe’s authority to request U.S. aid for “Emergency Drawdowns” to help people displaced by his battle against the FARC, but he has failed to do so at any point in his presidency.

Additionally, the Bush-administration’s intervention in the country has been focused on the war against drugs and the anti-FARC campaign, rather than the huge underlying problems of a skewed distribution of wealth and a lack of social justice. The White House’s efforts have included labeling the FARC a terrorist organization, and claiming that up to 60% of the world’s cocaine is from areas in Colombia controlled by the group. Nevertheless, such outlandish rhetoric rarely rises above the level of propaganda, and has not significantly advanced Washington’s goal of defeating the insurgency or combating the drug trade. The ongoing anti-narcotics effort has likewise been ineffective, despite the channeling of millions of dollars into the Colombian military and police force to fight both the FARC and narcotraffickers. In both instances, social costs have been high, as coca eradication efforts via crop spraying have had profound environmental and physiological repercussions, and human rights abuses have spread.

Uribe’s willingness to pursue a free trade agreement with the U.S. has also proved controversial. Although it is predicted that free trade will boost tariff revenues for both countries, it also seems likely that Colombian poultry and agricultural businesses will be devastated as they are forced to compete with imports that are subsidized by Washington. In one poll, only 42% of those Colombians surveyed approved of the FTA talks. There is ardent disagreement about the wording and exact interpretation of the proposed pact, and as a result its ratification has been pushed back until August 2006, in order to minimize its impact on the election. Demonstrations in Colombia against the agreement have been widespread. The local media reported that these protests were FARC-inspired, and as a result the security forces violently quelled them. In actuality, no hard evidence exists to support this claim, and the repressive police response has been a contributing factor in the slow downward slide of Uribe’s popularity.

A Clearly Defined Agenda

Uribe’s political dominance over Colombia may be petering out. Unless he achieves solid results in the decades-old war against the FARC and spends more of his budget on long neglected social justice and welfare programs, Uribe may continue to see his approval rating slip. The uncertainties concerning the effects of the pending Free Trade Agreement also weigh heavily on Uribe’s future. Although little question exists over whether he will win the upcoming election, the manner in which he does so is likely to reflect a growing tide of uncertainty surrounding his leadership. Whether Uribe will recognize and accept his ebbing status, and seek to address the numerous reservations about his administration’s approach, is uncertain. But doing so could help stabilize a country badly in need of inspired governance, as well as perhaps preserve Uribe’s flagging reputation.